Finland’s equalizing goal in the European Qualifiers of the World Cup nearly crushed Croatia’s dream of the advancing to the tournament the following year. What changed?
It was October 6, 2017, at Rujevica stadium in Rijeka. The game had been moved to the Rijeka stadium out of fear Maksimir stadium in Zagreb would be unfit to host the two nations in the rainy month of October – and after a disaster against Kosovo in Zagreb the month before, the Croatian Football Federation couldn’t take their chances. Still first in their European Qualifying group for the World Cup, all Croatia needed was a win to secure first place and automatically qualify for the tournament the following year. But it wasn’t as easy as it sounds.
Just 10 months ago, the morale surrounding the Croatia national team was low, which is hard to imagine considering the fan euphoria the team is experiencing today. After barely squeezing by Kosovo and losing to Turkey away just a few days later, September 2017 was not one of the happy Croatia national team memories. Not only was coach Ante Čačić to blame, but the players seemed to lack the desire to be a part of the team at all. Though luck and the results of the other teams in Group I managed to keep Croatia at the top, the final test and chance to secure their place in the 2018 World Cup was against Finland, which should have been a painless win.
I’ll never forget that day at Rujevica. It was my first time at the stadium, and I had traveled 7 hours from Split to get there by kickoff. Though nerves penetrated through my body (to be fair, they usually always do for national team games), I was still certain getting the job done against Finland wouldn’t prove to be difficult. Finland was ranked significantly lower than us by FIFA, they had drawn to Kosovo, lost to Iceland, Turkey, and Ukraine, and we had beat them in the first part of qualifications in 2016. Also nervous that the Armada fan group boycott would influence the atmosphere of the game, fans seemed to be in good spirits – the beer flowed freely and they never stopped singing.
The first half kicked off, which saw numerous missed attempts by Croatia. Kramarić missed, Brozović missed, Vida’s header was blocked. Moments later, a Rakitić set piece missed to the left, and the game ended 0:0 at the half. Coach Ante Čačić looked lifeless on the sidelines, which was not out of the ordinary for the coach, who failed to show any emotion at all. How would he ensure Croatia win this decisive game? Not that I ever had much hope in him, anyway, and instead had faith in the players, but whatever bit I had left was dwindling.
The second half began with more chances for Croatia, though Finland had managed to pick up their pace as well. And there it was, in the 57th minute – a goal by Super Mario Mandžukić. Croatia could relax now – but not as much as they ultimately did. Whatever rhythm Croatia had in the game, which wasn’t much, to begin with, fell apart. Disorganization and silly mistakes allowed chaos to ensue, so much that Croatia fans began whistling at the team’s poor play, and shouts for Čačić to be sacked were heard in the stands. It was only a matter of time before Croatia conceded a goal, and though they held on by the skin of their teeth, a 90th-minute stunner by Finland’s Pyry Soiri equalized. In the six minutes of extra time added, Croatia had to worry more about not conceding another goal than trying to win the game.
The atmosphere after the game was sour. Fans protested the Federation, cursed the players and the coach, and swore they’d never support the national team again. Ante Čačić was dull at the press conference and even confused the team he had just played with Iceland. It was almost as if he was instantly hit with vertigo, or lost all sense of what he was there to do in the first place – coach football. We all knew that if the Federation didn’t sack Čačič right then and there, hope for this Croatia team – a golden generation of players plagued by bad luck and poor coaching – would be lost forever.
And then it happened.
Twelve hours later, news broke that the Croatian Football Federation had sacked Čačić and elected a rather unknown figure to lead Croatia in their final European Qualification match. The man was Zlatko Dalić. Dalić, who had just come off a successful coaching stint in Saudi Arabia, was known in the world of Croatian football for coaching Varteks, Rijeka, and Slaven Belupo. A former footballer himself, Dalić had played for Hajduk Split and was often spotted at Poljud stadium – he even said his dream would be to coach Hajduk one day. This was a somewhat unlikely choice for the Federation who often leaned towards Dinamo folk, but for an avid Hajduk supporter like myself, I was starting to see the light.
Dalić was tasked with leading Croatia against Ukraine in Kiev just three days after the shocking Finland game in Rijeka. The coach needed a win to secure Croatia’s place in the World Cup qualifying playoffs, as Iceland’s 3:0 win over Turkey pushed them to first in the group. With the pressure on and in front of 60,000 Ukrainian fans, Dalić managed to lead Croatia to a 2:0 victory over Ukraine, with two stunning goals by Bundesliga superstar Andrej Kramarić.
Winning second place in the group and a place in the World Cup playoffs, Dalić was asked to continue leading the team against Greece. If he managed to bring Croatia to the World Cup, he would coach them through the tournament.
Dalić’s homecoming with the Croatia team was just one month later, on November 9, 2017, in Zagreb. A brilliant Croatian side saw a 4:1 win over Greece, which almost automatically gave them a place in Russia the following year. Away in Piraeus, Croatia managed to pull a 0:0 draw – and Dalić would be the man to lead Croatia, and Luka Modrić’ & Co.’s final chance, at the World Cup in 2018.
Dalić has thus far achieved what many of us believed impossible. He called the game against Nigeria ‘Croatia’s final’ and ‘most important game of the group stage’, which had many of us laughing. We did have Argentina as the favorite of our group, after all. Croatia went on to win over Nigeria 2:0 with an own goal and a penalty by Croatia captain Luka Modrić – and after Argentina and Iceland drew in their first game, at the beginning of the group stage, Croatia was first place in the group.
The real test, however, would be Argentina. International media hyped Messi more than ever, Di Maria was known to be dangerous, and young blood like Dybala had all fans of Croatia more than uncertain of a win. Dalić – calm, cool, and collected – didn’t fear like the rest of us, and Croatia went on to crush Argentina 3:0. The fan euphoria began.
With a 2:1 win over Iceland and winning first place in the group, Croatia went on to play Denmark in the round of 16. Perhaps the toughest game for Croatia of the tournament because of Denmark’s unconventional football style, the game went into extra time, and then penalties. Croatia prevailed.
Their next opponent in the quarterfinals was Russia, the host nation and a surprising standout team Croatia had to fear. Brilliant football and another 120 minutes, the game went into penalties where Croatia was victorious again.
England, Croatia’s semifinal rival, was arrogant, overly confident, and had a fan euphoria surrounding them that you couldn’t escape even if you tried. Croatia was tired going into this game, or so England assumed, and England was ultimately picked as the favorites to win. Though the game was off to a rocky start and England secured a goal less than 10 minutes in, Dalić’s tactics and Croatia’s experience dominated in the second half, which led Croatia to equalize and push the game to overtime. With every ounce of determination they had, Croatia managed to score for 2:1 with less than 10 minutes to go, and on Sunday Croatia will play in their first ever final of the World Cup.
Not only has Dalić accomplished the greatest result ever in Croatian football history, but he has managed to unite the country over a sport that is plagued with political corruption in Croatia – a sport that sees divisions in the north and south.
Croatia winning the World Cup could be the greatest thing for the current state of Croatian football. Perhaps there will be fair elections, perhaps politicians will no longer be allowed as part of the Federation, perhaps we will appoint a new HNS President, and even a new HNS Executive Director. Perhaps this will be a fresh start and a new era for Croatian football, without the messy politics, power, and ongoing trials.
If this alone isn’t good enough reason for Croatia to win on Sunday, I don’t know what is. Here’s to hoping.