Zlatko Dalic’s Saudi Arabian coaching stint serving Croatia well in Russia

Zlatko Dalic’s Saudi Arabian coaching stint serving Croatia well in Russia
Croatia coach Zlatko Dalic also coached in Saudi Arabia with Al-Hilal. (AFP)
Updated 30 June 2018

Zlatko Dalic’s Saudi Arabian coaching stint serving Croatia well in Russia

Zlatko Dalic’s Saudi Arabian coaching stint serving Croatia well in Russia
  • Croatian coach has impressed with his man-management at this year's World Cup
  • Dalić’s performances attracted attention from league champions Al-Hilal, who recruited him in 2012

LONDON: On the eastern shore of the Adriatic Sea, the Croatian city of Split is swimming in a little extra pride at this summer’s World Cup. So too is the Saudi Arabian metropolis of Riyadh. The common bond? A 51-year-old who likes nothing more than to ride his bike and gorge on octopus salad.
Zlatko Dalić is arguably as understated as he is underrated. A former defensive midfielder with local side Hadjuk Split, he was never capped by his country and remained relatively unknown by his compatriots until last year. In October, however, that all changed. With Croatia precariously close to failing to qualify for the World Cup, coach Ante Čačić was ousted and Dalić — a close associate of Croatian football’s “Mr Big,” Zdravko Mamić — was installed as head coach.
Dalić had worked with some of the players during a stint as assistant coach of Croatia’s U21s. He masterminded a 2-0 win over Ukraine to secure a play-off spot, before beating Greece 4-1. Luka Modrić, the Real Madrid midfielder, called his new national coach “phenomenal.”
Much of Dalić’s earlier anonymity is down to him having not worked at home for close to a decade. Now, having navigated his country to the round of 16 with minimal fuss and maximum points — topping a group that included Argentina, Nigeria and Iceland — Croatia are just 90 minutes away from a place in the quarter-finals. Against Denmark tonight, they are undoubtedly favorites.
Unsurprisingly, Croatians are now more familiar with Dalić and his work.
“For me, Zlatko is one of the best coaches we’ve ever had,” said Ivan Vojković, a local fan out shopping in Split’s central market. “He’s a good person, a clever guy and leads Croatia like we have never been led before. All I really know is that he was in the Middle East for many years, but I think with him we can win the World Cup now.”
Many years is correct. In 2010, after cutting his teeth with sides in Croatia and Albania, Dalić accepted a coaching offer from newly promoted Al-Faisaly in Riyadh. After leading them to a seventh-place finish in his first year in charge, Al-Riyadhi newspaper elected him Manager of the Season with 58 percent of readers’ votes, 43 percent more than second-placed Gabriel Calderon.
Dalić’s performances attracted attention from league champions Al-Hilal, who recruited him in 2012. While he would only stay for two years before switching to Al-Ain, he remains popular in the Saudi Arabian capital having led Al-Zaeem to the Crown Prince Cup. When Croatia confirmed their place in the last 16 with a resounding 3-0 defeat of Argentina last week, Riyadh’s Kingdom Tower was lit up in Croatia’s famous red and white. An image of the building, tweeted by Dalić, was shared 7,400 times.
“Zlatko remains very popular there,” said Khalid Ghadin, who works for the Saudi Professional League.
“When he left Hilal he had many lucrative offers from clubs smaller than Hilal, but he rejected them all. It was the same when he left Al-Ain. He always said he would not be guided by money, and now he is coach of his national team.”
Despite Dalić having led Al-Ain to the UAE league title in 2015 and the Asian Champions League final the following season, there was speculation he was merely another yes-man for Mamić, the most powerful man in Croatian football. Yet, the talented tactician has shown in Russia that he calls the shots. When AC Milan’s Nikola Kalinić refused to enter the field in their opening game against Nigeria, citing lower-back pains, his furious coach sent him home.
“He has a good sense of things and is great with the players, which is important nowadays,” Liverpool defender Dejan Lovren told FIFA.com. “He concentrates on our psyche; that’s his big strength. We respect and admire him and without this togetherness and mutual respect, there would be no success.”
That quest for glory reconvenes tonight in Nizhny Novgorod. Croatia finished third at the 1998 World Cup, but Lovren believes they can eclipse that this month. With Dalić at the helm, the cities of Split and Riyadh also expect. The top response to Dalić’s Kingdom Tower tweet came from Saudi Arabia and includes a photo of the manager wearing an Al-Hilal scarf.
“The best coach in the world,” it reads. “Good luck and win the World Cup.”