- Croatia to start favorites in 2022 World Cup qualifiers
- Interview with coach Zlatko Dalic
- “We have the talent to beat anyone”
The 2018 FIFA World Cup ™ marks a turning point in Croatian football history. Surprise guests of the final, Zlatko Dalic’s men bowed to the gates of the feat, after a spectacular match against France (4-2). In the aftermath of the world event, however, Croatia had to face a cascade of starts. A few regulars of the selection, such as striker Mario Mandzukic or goalkeeper Danijel Subasic, have decided to end their international careers.
Dalic, in office since 2017, however agreed to continue his mission, convinced that his adventure with Croatia was still far from over. The 54-year-old technician took advantage of these special circumstances to rejuvenate his squad, which he quietly led to qualification for UEFA EURO 2020, which will take place next summer. He is now preparing to take on a new challenge, with qualifying for Qatar 2022 starting in March.
FIFA.com met him to discuss the next deadlines.
Mr. Dalic, Russia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Cyprus and Malta await you on the road to Qatar. How do you judge the level of the group?
There is no easy group, but we accept the label of favorite that has earned us the status of seed and finalist in Russia 2018. We respect all of our pool opponents. Slovakia knows us well having crossed paths with us in qualifying. She demonstrated her efficiency by securing her place for UEFA EURO in the play-offs. The Russians gave us a hard time in the World Cup. They beat Spain, that’s saying it. Slovenia is progressing under the leadership of Matjaž Kek, a coach who has worked in Croatia and knows us very well too. Finally, Cyprus and Malta are among the best teams in their hat. We have therefore inherited a strong group, but we approach qualifying with full confidence.
What difficulties do you expect to encounter in these qualifications?
The schedule will be very tight in March and September. With three matches per week, which leaves almost no time for training, and travel, it will be very difficult for the players to cope with three meetings of such importance, especially as the planning of their club will be just as trying. We will have to plan everything perfectly and manage our resources as well as possible, in order to protect the players while obtaining the best possible results. However, we are all at the same point and we will not be looking for an excuse. In addition, EURO will be held in the middle of qualifying, which is unusual and will cause problems for all participants. It could be, for example, that we start the world preliminaries with a team, but that some players decide to stand aside from the selection after the European championship. This would impose major changes on us during the campaign.
Are you subject to an obligation of result as a finalist of Russia 2018?
We had a great time in 2018, which is impossible to repeat every two or four years. We were under more pressure in Russia, because we knew this was probably the last-ditch tournament for some of our executives. Today, our imperative is to qualify. We are convinced that we have the qualities, the talent and the confidence to beat any opponent. We are also aware that we are not among the main favorites. This label goes to great teams, such as France, Spain, Germany, Brazil, Argentina, England, Italy, Belgium or Portugal. Of course, Croatia showed in 1998 and 2018 that it is capable of historic feats, but we are not putting pressure on ourselves on this.
Several executives retired after the 2018 World Cup. What impact has this had on the current squad?
The workforce has changed a lot from Russia. Rakitić, Mandžukić, Subašić and Ćorluka hung up their boots and talented youngsters carved out an important place in the national team. We took advantage of the 2018 and 2020 UEFA Nations Leagues to give new players a chance, and we had a good qualifying campaign for EURO 2020. Luka Modrić, our leader, Brozović and Kovačić form the team. one of the best midfielders in the world. The executives, including Perišić, Vida and Lovren, bring their experience to the group. We also have promising youngsters, such as Brekalo and Vlašić, who have shown their potential. Our future looks pretty good.
Next year will be busy, as UEFA EURO 2020 will be played during the global qualifiers. What do you hope to accomplish in this competition?
We have lived a dream in Russia. It was an unforgettable adventure. Our determination is reinforced by the joy and pride we have brought to an entire nation. Faced with the pandemic, our country will count on us to give it back happiness. We owe it to him to do everything to try to reproduce the magical moments known in Russia. Some teams are, objectively, better placed than us. But we believe in our qualities and our opponents will have to prove their superiority to us on the pitch. They won’t get there easily, because we are not only talented, we play with the same passion and desire to wear Croatia’s colors.
What do you know about Qatar?
I have worked in Saudi Arabia and UAE. So I know the culture of the region. I have fond memories of my stays in the Middle East, where I still have many friends. I’m sure we’ll have a great World Cup, because the Qataris have a wonderful sense of hospitality.
Are you expecting a special World Cup?
Absolutely. I hope the pandemic is over and fans from all over the world come to watch the competition. It will be the first World Cup organized in the Middle East, and also the first where the public will be able to see two matches on the same day. All the stadiums are close to each other, which will create a very special atmosphere, a bit like that of the Olympic Games. The matches will take place in magnificent venues and I am sure Qatar will do everything in terms of organization, security or otherwise, to provide visitors with a memorable tournament.
What will you take away from 2020?
I can’t wait for this terrible year to end. The pandemic has claimed so many lives across the world, not to mention the catastrophic backlash from lockdowns and other restrictive measures on the population and businesses. As for football, playing without the supporters is not the same thing. The camera deprives us of the emotions provided by a packed stadium. And today, we think more about pre-match testing, than tactics, physical condition or anything related to the game. I hope 2021 has much better surprises in store for us.