CROATIA'S MIRACLE WORKER
10
How did Zlatko Dalić succeed in doing what no other Croatian coach
had ever done before? Pavel Tikhonov decided to take a closer look…
/ 27
How did Zlatko Dalić succeed in doing what no other Croatian coach had ever done before? Pavel Tikhonov decided to take a closer look…
ZLATKO DALIĆ
came from nowhere
to lead Croatia to the
World Cup Final
a child and knew the team inside out. When the coach reached its destination, each player agreed to have his photograph taken with Damir. Then he met the gaze of Zlatko Dalić, the team's head coach. Dalić gave Damir a nod of acknowledgement as if they had been acquainted for many years, even though they had never even seen each other before.

"What did you make of our defeat yesterday to Brazil?" Dalić asked.

"Coach, I don't really have an opinion on the matter," replied the police officer, somewhat taken aback: "It's our team, our players regardless of results, but I do have a present for you."

When Croatia finished third at the 1998 World Cup, Damir was only 17 years old. As well as Davor Šuker's brilliant individual performances and the team's commanding displays on their maiden appearance at the tournament, one thing in particular stuck in his memory: a photograph of then coach Miroslav Blažević wearing a French gendarme's hat. It was a present that Blažević kept as a lucky charm.

Damir recounted this tale and handed Dalić his own peaked cap. "Here you go, I hope you keep it until we reach the final," said Damir as he shook Dalić's hand.

He would probably have said a lot more had there not been dozens of people with dictaphones all shouting in Dalić's direction. As the coach turned his attention to being interviewed, Damir moved to the side. He had got what he wanted: 24 pictures on his smartphone that every Croatian fan would die for. Not only that. He had shaken the coach's hand and even exchanged a few words with him. It was the best day of his life.

Fast-forward to Croatia's semi-final win against England and Damir couldn't believe his ears as he was listening to an interview with Dalić.

"When we were in Opatija, one of the local police officers gave me a peaked cap as a gift. He told me that Ćiro [Miroslav Blažević's nickname] had had a gendarme's hat during the 1998 World Cup, so I needed to have one too. I didn't even know this man's name, but I still have his peaked cap."

Suddenly everyone in Croatia started searching for Damir and within a few hours journalists finally got hold of him. Dalić, it turned out, had invited the policeman to Moscow for the World Cup final itself.

"When I heard that Dalić had invited me to the final and remembered my present, the tears welled up," said Damir. "Even now thinking about it, I get emotional."
n the morning of 4 June 2018, a Croatian police officer by the name of Damir Ribarich was escorting the bus transporting the Croatia national team from the airport to the hotel Milenij in Opatija. It was the perfect assignment for him. Ribarich had been following football since he was
Footballers' trust
After that meeting with Damir in Opatija, Dalić took the peaked cap and went up to his room. Despite having finished with the journalists, he was unable to shake off thoughts of two losses in three friendly matches. "Why should these stars listen to me? Who am I to be giving advice to Perišić? How can I explain to the team leaders that some of them will be benched?" Later, Dalić admitted he approached the World Cup without a clear strategy or a detailed training plan; he simply trusted his gut instincts and his ability to interact with people.

The coach could also be forthright and was not afraid to speak his mind when he felt it was needed. During a pre-World Cup tour of the USA, he told his players: "We've always had amazing footballers. But for a long time now we haven't achieved significant results and the issue isn't only with the coaches. A coach can't take the blame for everything, players also need to change in some ways. You need to understand what you contribute to the team and perform to the best of your ability."

Turning to veteran defender Vedran Ćorluka, he added: "You'll begin the tournament as a substitute, but you must continue to be a major motivator and leader as you can still really help the team." Ćorluka knew that it was his last chance to play at a World Cup but did not question the decision, simply promising to do his best.

In the build-up to the tournament, however, Dalić understood that he did not need to instruct any of his squad on how to play the game. His players were already top stars. What they needed was someone who instilled trust in them and who treated them in the way they deserved to be treated. Before the big kick-off, Dalić kept repeating, "I believe in you, in your success." But he clearly understood that not everyone may have had similar faith in him. Those doubts probably continued right up until the final whistle of Croatia's opening win over Nigeria. After that, Dalić was convinced that his team were one of the strongest in the tournament, while his players, in turn, realised they had the perfect coach. The resounding victory over Argentina that followed only reaffirmed this mutual belief. That was when Dalić finally shook off those troubling thoughts that had nagged at him in that hotel room in Opatija. Now he had everyone's trust.

Throughout the World Cup, Dalić enjoyed a good relationship with all his players – with the exception of on-loan AC Milan striker Nikola Kalinić. During the opening group game against Nigeria, with his side comfortably leading 2-0, the coach called for Kalinić to come off the bench for the remaining five minutes. Kalinić refused, citing a sore back. It was the same excuse he had used when refusing to train the previous day, and Dalic had enough, sending the player home the following day. The coach regrets how the whole thing unfolded and has repeated a number of times since: "I'm not proud of the decision. I wouldn't want to go through this again."

Teams' accomplishments are often linked to well-structured talent-development programmes. Iceland is one of the most recent examples, while arguably the most successful is Germany, though perhaps not in recent months. Croatia is a different case altogether. The country has never had a national system to produce a successful generation of top players. They have relied on clubs like GNK Dinamo Zagreb, HNK Hajduk Split and dozens of others with a strong training philosophy and hundreds of regular pitches producing footballers of the calibre of Davor Šuker, Luka Modrić and Ivan Rakitić. Hence, Dalić's comments that he had taken over without a detailed strategy, relying solely on his gut instincts, are not surprising.
Millions of fans instead of millions of dollars
It is important to remember that Dalić only started working intensively with the squad two days before the final qualifying match for the World Cup against Ukraine, and also that Croatia almost failed to make it to the finals. Having been drawn with Iceland, Ukraine, Turkey, Finland and Kosovo in qualifying, Croatia were favourites to win their group. But a 1-0 loss to Turkey and a 1-1 draw against Finland in their eighth and ninth games respectively meant Croatia slipped from first to third, leaving their highly talented team on the brink of elimination. Their then coach, Ante Čačić, was blamed for the slump in fortunes and dismissed. The Croatian Football Federation urgently sought someone who could, in a matter of days, lift the team for the must-win game against Ukraine and the subsequent play-off matches.

At the time, in the autumn of 2017, Dalić was enjoying a very successful spell in the Arabian Gulf. When he first arrived there without his family back in 2010, he was a relative unknown. Seven years on, he was a household name, having won five titles in Saudi Arabia and the UAE, albeit with teams of less pedigree than the top European clubs. In 2016 he led Al-Ain to the final of the Asian Football Confederation's Champions League, and it was then that Dalić learned to truly value himself.

"I am the only coach in Asia who has been in the Champions League four years in a row," he said. "Twice we got to the quarter-finals, once to the semis, and once to the final."

It's no exaggeration to say that after Čačić's dismissal, many in Croatia were resigned to the fact that they would be watching the World Cup on TV. When he got the call, Dalić was sitting in the air-conditioned office of Al-Shabab football club in the sweltering city of Al-Riyadh. He had an offer on the table that would make him one of the highest earning Croatians in the world of sport. But being asked to save his country's footballing reputation was something he couldn't refuse, even though there were no financial guarantees. Dalić realised that if he lost to Ukraine, he would have missed out on the millions he could have earned in Saudi Arabia. On the other hand, here was a chance to become a national hero.

Dalić phoned home and told his family about his situation. On the one hand, unbelievable wealth; on the other hand, an uncertain dream. Over the phone, his wife told him: "Come home."

Dalić had met his wife, Davorka, at high school, when he was a teenager. They got married in 1992 and have two sons. His family means everything to him. "I don't need anything," he said when weighing up what to do. "Nothing at all. I've earned all I need in Asia. I've provided for my family. I'm Croatian and I want to work with my team out of love and patriotism."
Dalić
IMPOSED HIS
AUTHORITY

by sending
Nikola Kalinić
home
A whole new type of coaching
Dalić could hardly be described as modest, but when he talks about how nervous he was when he started working with Croatia's stars, he fails to mention one important detail: he began life as a coach just as the so-called golden generation of Croatian footballers were embarking on their playing careers. From 2006 to 2011, besides coaching various clubs, Dalić also worked as assistant coach of the national U-21 team. So, by the time the World Cup came around, he had known most of the golden generation for more than ten years. Therefore, it was perhaps an exaggeration to say that he only managed to win the team's trust in the two weeks before his first game in charge.

"Yes, it's true, I have a special relationship with Dalić," said Rakitić at the time. "Eight years ago he worked as an assistant coach in the youth team where I played. We have a lot of mutual friends from our time in Split. Dalić is definitely a special person. He's an excellent worker, excellent tactician, and he always comes up with comprehensible and good ideas. I like working with him and am very glad he's joined the team. I'm sure that, as our coach, he'll get the best out of us and we'll become even stronger than before."

There would have been nothing remarkable about these words had Rakitić uttered them after the semi-final in Moscow. But Croatia's brilliant midfielder had full confidence in Dalić's abilities long before the team had, with great difficulty, emerged from the qualifying group and beaten Greece in the play-offs.

When he started working with the team, Dalić discovered that the old training methods were long gone, and that today's players do not need to be overprotected to keep themselves in good shape. Nevertheless, they spent 50 days training in spartan conditions surrounded by forest at their Zelenogorsk base. For a month and a half, life consisted of just three things: training, eating and sleeping. Dalić held many debriefing sessions with the entire squad but consulted extensively with four players: Rakitić, Ćorluka, Mandžukić and Modrić. He sought their opinions, listened to them, thought things over and made final decisions about tactics and team formation. If necessary, he would speak to these leaders to find out what the squad were thinking.

There was almost always a good working relationship within the group, but before the round of 16 match against Denmark in the finals, Dalić was momentarily worried about the team's focus. He found the training session too noisy, with the players chatting, laughing and commenting on everything that was going on. So Dalić raised his voice for the first time. That was all it took to get the players to concentrate again. Once was enough. The next time Dalić raised his voice in the changing room it was to celebrate the team's victory over Russia.

He avoided giving his team unnecessary lectures and was very careful in how he spoke to them.
In the morning of 4 June 2018, a Croatian police officer by the name of Damir Ribarich was escorting the bus transporting the Croatia national team from the airport to the hotel Milenij in Opatija. It was the perfect assignment for him. Ribarich had been following football since he was a child and knew the team inside out. When the coach reached its destination, each player agreed to have his photograph taken with Damir. Then he met the gaze of Zlatko Dalić, the team's head coach. Dalić gave Damir a nod of acknowledgement as if they had been acquainted for many years, even though they had never even seen each other before.

"What did you make of our defeat yesterday to Brazil?" Dalić asked.

"Coach, I don't really have an opinion on the matter," replied the police officer, somewhat taken aback: "It's our team, our players regardless of results, but I do have a present for you."

When Croatia finished third at the 1998 World Cup, Damir was only 17 years old. As well as Davor Šuker's brilliant individual performances and the team's commanding displays on their maiden appearance at the tournament, one thing in particular stuck in his memory: a photograph of then coach Miroslav Blažević wearing a French gendarme's hat. It was a present that Blažević kept as a lucky charm.

Damir recounted this tale and handed Dalić his own peaked cap. "Here you go, I hope you keep it until we reach the final," said Damir as he shook Dalić's hand.

He would probably have said a lot more had there not been dozens of people with dictaphones all shouting in Dalić's direction. As the coach turned his attention to being interviewed, Damir moved to the side. He had got what he wanted: 24 pictures on his smartphone that every Croatian fan would die for. Not only that. He had shaken the coach's hand and even exchanged a few words with him. It was the best day of his life.

Fast-forward to Croatia's semi-final win against England and Damir couldn't believe his ears as he was listening to an interview with Dalić.

"When we were in Opatija, one of the local police officers gave me a peaked cap as a gift. He told me that Ćiro [Miroslav Blažević's nickname] had had a gendarme's hat during the 1998 World Cup, so I needed to have one too. I didn't even know this man's name, but I still have his peaked cap."

Suddenly everyone in Croatia started searching for Damir and within a few hours journalists finally got hold of him. Dalić, it turned out, had invited the policeman to Moscow for the World Cup final itself.

"When I heard that Dalić had invited me to the final and remembered my present, the tears welled up," said Damir. "Even now thinking about it, I get emotional."
After that meeting with Damir in Opatija, Dalić took the peaked cap and went up to his room. Despite having finished with the journalists, he was unable to shake off thoughts of two losses in three friendly matches. "Why should these stars listen to me? Who am I to be giving advice to Perišić? How can I explain to the team leaders that some of them will be benched?" Later, Dalić admitted he approached the World Cup without a clear strategy or a detailed training plan; he simply trusted his gut instincts and his ability to interact with people.

The coach could also be forthright and was not afraid to speak his mind when he felt it was needed. During a pre-World Cup tour of the USA, he told his players: "We've always had amazing footballers. But for a long time now we haven't achieved significant results and the issue isn't only with the coaches. A coach can't take the blame for everything, players also need to change in some ways. You need to understand what you contribute to the team and perform to the best of your ability."

Turning to veteran defender Vedran Ćorluka, he added: "You'll begin the tournament as a substitute, but you must continue to be a major motivator and leader as you can still really help the team." Ćorluka knew that it was his last chance to play at a World Cup but did not question the decision, simply promising to do his best.

In the build-up to the tournament, however, Dalić understood that he did not need to instruct any of his squad on how to play the game. His players were already top stars. What they needed was someone who instilled trust in them and who treated them in the way they deserved to be treated. Before the big kick-off, Dalić kept repeating, "I believe in you, in your success." But he clearly understood that not everyone may have had similar faith in him. Those doubts probably continued right up until the final whistle of Croatia's opening win over Nigeria. After that, Dalić was convinced that his team were one of the strongest in the tournament, while his players, in turn, realised they had the perfect coach. The resounding victory over Argentina that followed only reaffirmed this mutual belief. That was when Dalić finally shook off those troubling thoughts that had nagged at him in that hotel room in Opatija. Now he had everyone's trust.

Throughout the World Cup, Dalić enjoyed a good relationship with all his players – with the exception of on-loan AC Milan striker Nikola Kalinić. During the opening group game against Nigeria, with his side comfortably leading 2-0, the coach called for Kalinić to come off the bench for the remaining five minutes. Kalinić refused, citing a sore back. It was the same excuse he had used when refusing to train the previous day, and Dalic had enough, sending the player home the following day. The coach regrets how the whole thing unfolded and has repeated a number of times since: "I'm not proud of the decision. I wouldn't want to go through this again."

Teams' accomplishments are often linked to well-structured talent-development programmes. Iceland is one of the most recent examples, while arguably the most successful is Germany, though perhaps not in recent months. Croatia is a different case altogether. The country has never had a national system to produce a successful generation of top players. They have relied on clubs like GNK Dinamo Zagreb, HNK Hajduk Split and dozens of others with a strong training philosophy and hundreds of regular pitches producing footballers of the calibre of Davor Šuker, Luka Modrić and Ivan Rakitić. Hence, Dalić's comments that he had taken over without a detailed strategy, relying solely on his gut instincts, are not surprising.
It is important to remember that Dalić only started working intensively with the squad two days before the final qualifying match for the World Cup against Ukraine, and also that Croatia almost failed to make it to the finals. Having been drawn with Iceland, Ukraine, Turkey, Finland and Kosovo in qualifying, Croatia were favourites to win their group. But a 1-0 loss to Turkey and a 1-1 draw against Finland in their eighth and ninth games respectively meant Croatia slipped from first to third, leaving their highly talented team on the brink of elimination. Their then coach, Ante Čačić, was blamed for the slump in fortunes and dismissed. The Croatian Football Federation urgently sought someone who could, in a matter of days, lift the team for the must-win game against Ukraine and the subsequent play-off matches.

At the time, in the autumn of 2017, Dalić was enjoying a very successful spell in the Arabian Gulf. When he first arrived there without his family back in 2010, he was a relative unknown. Seven years on, he was a household name, having won five titles in Saudi Arabia and the UAE, albeit with teams of less pedigree than the top European clubs. In 2016 he led Al-Ain to the final of the Asian Football Confederation's Champions League, and it was then that Dalić learned to truly value himself.

"I am the only coach in Asia who has been in the Champions League four years in a row," he said. "Twice we got to the quarter-finals, once to the semis, and once to the final."

It's no exaggeration to say that after Čačić's dismissal, many in Croatia were resigned to the fact that they would be watching the World Cup on TV. When he got the call, Dalić was sitting in the air-conditioned office of Al-Shabab football club in the sweltering city of Al-Riyadh. He had an offer on the table that would make him one of the highest earning Croatians in the world of sport. But being asked to save his country's footballing reputation was something he couldn't refuse, even though there were no financial guarantees. Dalić realised that if he lost to Ukraine, he would have missed out on the millions he could have earned in Saudi Arabia. On the other hand, here was a chance to become a national hero.

Dalić phoned home and told his family about his situation. On the one hand, unbelievable wealth; on the other hand, an uncertain dream. Over the phone, his wife told him: "Come home."

Dalić had met his wife, Davorka, at high school, when he was a teenager. They got married in 1992 and have two sons. His family means everything to him. "I don't need anything," he said when weighing up what to do. "Nothing at all. I've earned all I need in Asia. I've provided for my family. I'm Croatian and I want to work with my team out of love and patriotism."
Dalić could hardly be described as modest, but when he talks about how nervous he was when he started working with Croatia's stars, he fails to mention one important detail: he began life as a coach just as the so-called golden generation of Croatian footballers were embarking on their playing careers. From 2006 to 2011, besides coaching various clubs, Dalić also worked as assistant coach of the national U-21 team. So, by the time the World Cup came around, he had known most of the golden generation for more than ten years. Therefore, it was perhaps an exaggeration to say that he only managed to win the team's trust in the two weeks before his first game in charge.

"Yes, it's true, I have a special relationship with Dalić," said Rakitić at the time. "Eight years ago he worked as an assistant coach in the youth team where I played. We have a lot of mutual friends from our time in Split. Dalić is definitely a special person. He's an excellent worker, excellent tactician, and he always comes up with comprehensible and good ideas. I like working with him and am very glad he's joined the team. I'm sure that, as our coach, he'll get the best out of us and we'll become even stronger than before."

There would have been nothing remarkable about these words had Rakitić uttered them after the semi-final in Moscow. But Croatia's brilliant midfielder had full confidence in Dalić's abilities long before the team had, with great difficulty, emerged from the qualifying group and beaten Greece in the play-offs.

When he started working with the team, Dalić discovered that the old training methods were long gone, and that today's players do not need to be overprotected to keep themselves in good shape. Nevertheless, they spent 50 days training in spartan conditions surrounded by forest at their Zelenogorsk base. For a month and a half, life consisted of just three things: training, eating and sleeping. Dalić held many debriefing sessions with the entire squad but consulted extensively with four players: Rakitić, Ćorluka, Mandžukić and Modrić. He sought their opinions, listened to them, thought things over and made final decisions about tactics and team formation. If necessary, he would speak to these leaders to find out what the squad were thinking.

There was almost always a good working relationship within the group, but before the round of 16 match against Denmark in the finals, Dalić was momentarily worried about the team's focus. He found the training session too noisy, with the players chatting, laughing and commenting on everything that was going on. So Dalić raised his voice for the first time. That was all it took to get the players to concentrate again. Once was enough. The next time Dalić raised his voice in the changing room it was to celebrate the team's victory over Russia.

He avoided giving his team unnecessary lectures and was very careful in how he spoke to them.
ZLATKO DALIĆ came from nowhere to lead Croatia to the World Cup Final
Dalić IMPOSED HIS AUTHORITY by sending Nikola Kalinić home
n the morning of 4 June 2018, a Croatian police officer by the name of Damir Ribarich was escorting the bus transporting the Croatia national team from the airport to the hotel Milenij in Opatija. It was the perfect assignment for him. Ribarich had been following football since he was a child and knew the team inside out. When the coach reached its destination, each player agreed to have his photograph taken with Damir. Then he met the gaze of Zlatko Dalić, the team's head coach. Dalić gave Damir a nod of acknowledgement as if they had been acquainted for many years, even though they had never even seen each other before.

"What did you make of our defeat yesterday to Brazil?" Dalić asked.

"Coach, I don't really have an opinion on the matter," replied the police officer, somewhat taken aback: "It's our team, our players regardless of results, but I do have a present for you."

When Croatia finished third at the 1998 World Cup, Damir was only 17 years old. As well as Davor Šuker's brilliant individual performances and the team's commanding displays on their maiden appearance at the tournament, one thing in particular stuck in his memory: a photograph of then coach Miroslav Blažević wearing a French gendarme's hat. It was a present that Blažević kept as a lucky charm.

Damir recounted this tale and handed Dalić his own peaked cap. "Here you go, I hope you keep it until we reach the final," said Damir as he shook Dalić's hand.

He would probably have said a lot more had there not been dozens of people with dictaphones all shouting in Dalić's direction. As the coach turned his attention to being interviewed, Damir moved to the side. He had got what he wanted: 24 pictures on his smartphone that every Croatian fan would die for. Not only that. He had shaken the coach's hand and even exchanged a few words with him. It was the best day of his life.

Fast-forward to Croatia's semi-final win against England and Damir couldn't believe his ears as he was listening to an interview with Dalić.

"When we were in Opatija, one of the local police officers gave me a peaked cap as a gift. He told me that Ćiro [Miroslav Blažević's nickname] had had a gendarme's hat during the 1998 World Cup, so I needed to have one too. I didn't even know this man's name, but I still have his peaked cap."

Suddenly everyone in Croatia started searching for Damir and within a few hours journalists finally got hold of him. Dalić, it turned out, had invited the policeman to Moscow for the World Cup final itself.

"When I heard that Dalić had invited me to the final and remembered my present, the tears welled up," said Damir. "Even now thinking about it, I get emotional."
"I never say anything to the team in the first five minutes of the half-time break," he explained later. "It does no good and can even make things worse. When they've rested and calmed down and their pulse is back to normal, that's when I appear, not before."

Dalić did not allow the players to spend any time with their families until they were in Sochi, before the quarter-final against Russia. The team were staying in a big hotel and invited their families round for coffee. It seemed to go well, so Dalić allowed them a similar meeting in Moscow, this time before the semi-final against England. And he even allowed their families to stay in the same hotel, so the players could spend more time with their wives, parents and children.

"By then, they didn't need to be isolated any more. At that stage we had achieved our goal for the World Cup, we needed rest."

The evening before the final was actually one of the calmest for Dalić, and he fell asleep straight away without being bothered by his thoughts.

The next day came – the climax to the biggest football tournament on earth. After their warm-up when the players had changed into their kit, Paul Pogba, Antoine Griezmann and Kylian Mbappé suddenly came into view. Dalić stepped into the centre of the dressing room and didn't mince his words.

"Listen now. We just need to take one more step. If we win the World Cup, we will go down in history, we will be immortal, people will forgive us for everything. But if we come second, I will still be proud of you."

Losing a match of that importance doesn't just affect you in the moment; the pain hurts and Dalić says he will always be sad about what happened. That said, Croatia exceeded all expectations and, after the match against France, the players and officials met their families for a champagne reception. Dalić, his assistants and the players looked back over the highlights of the tournament and laughed. All they had left to do was to return to Croatia and meet their public. To sit on an open-top bus for seven hours without food or water.

On 16 July, Dalić and his squad wearily stepped off their Moscow–Zagreb flight having slept for almost the whole journey. Dalić had also nodded off, but when he opened his eyes and looked through the cabin window, he saw two MiG 21 fighter jets from the Croatian Air Force accompanying the plane as it entered Croatian airspace and forming an escort of honour. The jets flew alongside the plane until it landed. Dalić looked at the Croatian landscape and the towns scattered around where his father, his friends, Damir the policeman and millions of ordinary Croatians would be waiting for him.

It was only then that he fully understood that he had achieved something truly special.
"I never say anything to the team in the first five minutes of the half-time break," he explained later. "It does no good and can even make things worse. When they've rested and calmed down and their pulse is back to normal, that's when I appear, not before."

Dalić did not allow the players to spend any time with their families until they were in Sochi, before the quarter-final against Russia. The team were staying in a big hotel and invited their families round for coffee. It seemed to go well, so Dalić allowed them a similar meeting in Moscow, this time before the semi-final against England. And he even allowed their families to stay in the same hotel, so the players could spend more time with their wives, parents and children.

"By then, they didn't need to be isolated any more. At that stage we had achieved our goal for the World Cup, we needed rest."

The evening before the final was actually one of the calmest for Dalić, and he fell asleep straight away without being bothered by his thoughts.

The next day came – the climax to the biggest football tournament on earth. After their warm-up when the players had changed into their kit, Paul Pogba, Antoine Griezmann and Kylian Mbappé suddenly came into view. Dalić stepped into the centre of the dressing room and didn't mince his words.

"Listen now. We just need to take one more step. If we win the World Cup, we will go down in history, we will be immortal, people will forgive us for everything. But if we come second, I will still be proud of you."

Losing a match of that importance doesn't just affect you in the moment; the pain hurts and Dalić says he will always be sad about what happened. That said, Croatia exceeded all expectations and, after the match against France, the players and officials met their families for a champagne reception. Dalić, his assistants and the players looked back over the highlights of the tournament and laughed. All they had left to do was to return to Croatia and meet their public. To sit on an open-top bus for seven hours without food or water.

On 16 July, Dalić and his squad wearily stepped off their Moscow–Zagreb flight having slept for almost the whole journey. Dalić had also nodded off, but when he opened his eyes and looked through the cabin window, he saw two MiG 21 fighter jets from the Croatian Air Force accompanying the plane as it entered Croatian airspace and forming an escort of honour. The jets flew alongside the plane until it landed. Dalić looked at the Croatian landscape and the towns scattered around where his father, his friends, Damir the policeman and millions of ordinary Croatians would be waiting for him.

It was only then that he fully understood that he had achieved something truly special.