In Croatia they call Miroslav Blazevic “the coach of all coaches” but on Sunday it is his former pupil, Zlatko Dalic, who will lead the small country into their first ever World Cup final.
‘Ciro’ Blazevic coached Croatia at the 1998 World Cup, their first as an independent nation, taking them to the semi-finals where they eventually lost to France. Dalic was Blazevic’s assistant at Varteks in the early days of his coaching career and the education he received back then has helped shape his journey to the top.
“I am not ashamed to say I learnt a lot from ‘Ciro’ Blazevic,” said Dalic this week. “I worked with him for two years as an assistant coach and sporting director at my club and it transpires that I have gone one step further. He was number three in the world and on Sunday I will be number two at least.”
Dalic was there in France 20 years ago, but not as a player. He never represented his country at international level during a modest career as a defensive midfielder. Instead he travelled to watch Blazevic’s team – led by the likes of Robert Prosinecki and Davor Suker – as a fan, but had gone by the time the Vatreni beat Germany 3-0 in the quarter-finals. He had to return home for pre-season training.
After moving into coaching, he did not hesitate when the chance came to move abroad. Dalic took over at Saudi club Al-Faisaly in 2010 and went on to enjoy considerable success at Al-Hilal and United Arab Emirates club Al-Ain.
It was with Al-Ain that he first appeared in a major international final, in the 2016 AFC Champions League, where they lost to Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors of South Korea.
“Throughout my career and my life I have always taken the harder path and had to fight for everything myself,” he said. “I did not want to stay in Croatia and be a middling coach and live off handouts. I went abroad as soon as I found a job.”
‘Give me Real Madrid or Barcelona’
There can be little arguing with Dalic’s pedigree – he was born in the town of Livno in what is now Bosnia and Herzegovina. Suker and Niko Kovac, as well as Niko’s brother Robert, another former Croatia star, have origins there too.
Dalic is revelling in the moment in Russia and was keen to point out that in the era of the super-coach, Croatia has some of the best managers in the business, citing Niko Kovac and Slaven Bilic. “This is what we are about. I used to say give me Real Madrid or Barcelona and I will win titles,” Dalic said of himself.
Yet he was only given the opportunity to manage the national team with the country’s federation in a panic last October. Ante Cacic had been sacked and Dalic took over in time for a critical World Cup qualifier against Ukraine. They won 2-0 to reach the play-offs, before beating Greece make it to Russia.
“There were no negotiations, I just accepted it because my life’s dream was always to coach my national team,” Dalic said of his appointment. “I had no doubts about taking the job. I did not put down any conditions. After the Ukraine game I worked for another six weeks without any contract.”
Croatia, with a population of just over four million people, is the smallest nation to reach the World Cup final since Uruguay in 1950, an achievement all the more remarkable as football in the country is plagued by off-field scandals.
Dalic has called it “a miracle” and he has already been made an honorary citizen of the county of Varazdin, where he lives. Watching from afar, Blazevic, now 83, is a proud man. “I’m very happy that my pupil has done better. He created a family atmosphere in the squad and not everyone can do that.”