Santa Fe New Mexican - - SPORTS - By Rob Har­ris

Croa­tia coach Dalic trav­eled hard path to World Cup fi­nal.

MOSCOW — In a coach­ing jour­ney across Croa­tia, Saudi Ara­bia and the United Arab Emi­rates, Zlatko Dalic’s be­lief in his own abil­i­ties never dimmed.

“I used to say, ‘Give me a Barcelona or a Real Madrid and I will win ti­tles,’ ” Dalic re­called Thurs­day.

Such jobs no longer seem so far out of reach, es­pe­cially if Dalic col­lects the big­gest prize in soc­cer Sun­day.

Croa­tia will win the World Cup for the first time if Dalic’s team can get the bet­ter of France and coach Di­dier Deschamps.

Re­ceiv­ing tro­phies is noth­ing new for Deschamps.

As a player, the mid­fielder won ti­tles at clubs in France, Italy and Eng­land, as well as the 1998 World Cup and 2000 Euro­pean Cham­pi­onship with France. As a coach, he led France to the Euro 2016 fi­nal, los­ing to Por­tu­gal.

But the 51-year-old Dalic had a largely un­re­mark­able play­ing ca­reer be­fore switch­ing to coach­ing in his na­tive Croa­tia.

“In my life I have al­ways taken the harder path, had to fight for every­thing my­self,” Dalic said through a trans­la­tor at Luzh­niki Sta­dium. “I started at the bot­tom of the lad­der.”

The climb re­quired a leap into the un­known with a move to the Mid­dle East in 2010.

“I did not want to stay in Croa­tia and be a mid­dling coach and to live off hand­outs,” Dalic said. “I went abroad when­ever it was pos­si­ble to find a job.”

Dalic even­tu­ally landed at AlHi­lal, where he won the Saudi Crown Prince Cup, and then reached the Asian Cham­pi­ons League fi­nal with Al-Ain.

“We can­not sneeze at that. These are ma­jor com­pe­ti­tions,” Dalic said. “This brought me huge ex­pe­ri­ence … and I built a name for my­self. This was a hard path but I be­lieved in my­self. When Croa­tia called, I never had any doubts.”

The call that ended Dalic’s no­madic seven-year jour­ney came last year, when Croa­tia had a game re­main­ing to sal­vage qual­i­fi­ca­tion.

“He is very ded­i­cated to foot­ball,” Croa­t­ian fed­er­a­tion pres­i­dent Da­vor Suker said, “and we gave him the chance.”

Dalic led Croa­tia into the World Cup play­offs, where it beat Ukraine over two matches.

Now he has taken his coun­try fur­ther than ever be­fore in a ma­jor soc­cer com­pe­ti­tion, eclips­ing Suker’s semi­fi­nal­ists in 1998.

Brand Dalic is grow­ing af­ter Croa­tia came from be­hind to beat Eng­land 2-1 in the semi­fi­nal in Moscow on Wednes­day.

“The coach has cre­ated a spe­cial at­mos­phere,” said Croa­tia de­fender De­jan Lovren, who plays for Liver­pool. “He knows ex­actly how to in­ter­act with play­ers and does it in a unique way.”

Dalic also rel­ished in­ter­act­ing with the me­dia Thurs­day in the sta­dium where Croa­tia plays its big­gest-ever game Sun­day.

The highly am­bi­tious coach used his mo­ment in the spot­light to ad­ver­tise his cre­den­tials.

“Noth­ing was given to me on a plate, un­like some man­agers in Europe who can be given jobs to man­age a big club be­cause of their names as play­ers,” Dalic said.


Croa­tia head coach Zlatko Dalic, cen­ter, cel­e­brates with Sime Vr­saljko, left, af­ter beat­ing Eng­land on Wednes­day in Moscow.

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