Dalic in dreamland again as Croatia welcome underdogs’ tag

Croatia coach proud of his nation’s second successive semi-final appearance as they prepare to face ‘the great Argentina, led by Lionel Messi’

Zlatko Dalic sat with a serene smile and talked about dreams.

“I said many times. Everyone in life has the right to make dreams. The Croatian national team four years ago made that dream a reality for all small countries. We gave other countries the right to have those dreams. Four years ago nobody expected the small Croatia to be in the final.

“In 2022 other countries are living their dreams. Morocco are no exception. Belgium, Spain, Portugal they defeated. These are great national teams. They have the right to dream, let us share the same dream.”

A second successive appearance in the World Cup semi-finals means Croatia are living the dream.


“However, we want more,” said Croatia’s coach.

Dalic portrayed Tuesday night’s semi-final as “the small Croatia” against “the great Argentina, led by Lionel Messi”. Argentina fans, both Argentine and international, will vastly outnumber the Croatian supporters at the Lusail Iconic Stadium. It will feel like a home game for Messi’s team, but Croatia will seek to turn the imbalance to their advantage. According to Dalic, all the pressure is on Argentina.

The Argentines tried to pretend otherwise, arguing that by reaching the semi-finals they had already achieved their goal for the tournament, but they weren’t fooling anyone. Defeat in the semi is unthinkable. Their third World Cup is now so close they can taste it.

But first they have to get past the most experienced and resilient opponent they have faced so far – a team that beat them 3-0 in the last World Cup. Dalic claimed the 2018 game was not relevant, because it was only a group match, lacking the do-or-die jeopardy of a semi-final.

Argentina’s coach, Lionel Scaloni, suggested that his team was well-prepared for the psychological pressure of a semi-final, because all four of their matches since the defeat to Saudi Arabia in the opening round of the group phase have effectively been do-or-die.

He also rejected criticism of Argentina’s behaviour during and after the quarter-final against the Netherlands, a match which saw a World Cup record 17 yellow cards.

The Argentines taunted the Dutch as they ran to celebrate Lautaro Martinez’s winning penalty. The goalkeeper Emi Martinez repeatedly shouted “I fucked you twice” at the Dutch and told Louis van Gaal he needed to “shut his mouth”.

Even Messi seemed to gloat over the Dutch bench after making it 2-0 from the penalty spot, and later broke off a TV interview to call Wout Weghorst a “bobo” (fool). As is tradition here in Qatar, many Argentines see such criticism as a conspiracy theory created by the jealous European media.

“I think we have to get rid of that taboo opinion that we are this or that,” Scaloni said. “We know how to lose and how to win. We lost the first match to Saudi Arabia, and we went to the hotel quietly to continue preparing.

“We won the Copa America in Brazil, and I think we had the most beautiful scene of sportsmanship ever in the football world with Neymar, Messi, Paredes, and other players sitting in the Maracana dressing room.

“I don’t accept people saying that we don’t know how to win. We have to get rid of that, because we are entitled to have some pride. And we have it. And the match was played the way it was supposed to be played. That’s it.

“And there’s a referee to decide what is fair. And it’s all over when the referee blows the final whistle, and that’s it. I think this matter that we don’t know how to win or lose will always crop up, but to be honest that has nothing to do with what we’re like as a team, as a group of people and how we represent this country.”

Scaloni revealed that Rodrigo de Paul and Angel di Maria are available after injury scares, but admitted that the new trend in this World Cup of actually adding on the minutes lost to time-wasting has been tough to get used to. Argentina conceded the Dutch equaliser in the 101st minute.

“I’m not saying it is fair or not, but I think this new trend of adding 8, 9, 10, 11, 12 minutes generates some uncertainty, especially for the team that is winning, and when you see that 10 minutes are being added when you thought the match was over, it creates uncertainty both for the winning and the losing team.”

Energy was a concern for the Croatian media after both their knockout matches, against Japan and Brazil, went the full 120 minutes (plus change). Dalic assured them that tiredness would not be a problem.

“We are in the semi-finals of the World Cup,” Dalic said. “We are not even discussing exhaustion. We have strength, willingness and energy. It is undoubted, it is without question. We will give our best.”

“I could not have imagined I would come so far, that I would be leading Croatia to another semi-final. I thought this was a place reserved for other actors. But thank God, I got the chance to do it. I am so grateful for that chance.

“Whatever happens tomorrow, I’m proud of what I have done for my national team, I’m proud of Croatia, I’m proud of my players. My pride has no limits. The sky is the limit. I’m a happy person, you know. Everyone has their dreams. I had my own dreams, to be the head coach of Croatia. But I never dreamed of this.”

Ken Early

Ken Early

Ken Early is a contributor to The Irish Times specialising in soccer