Zlatko Dalic: From the AFC Champions League to the World Cup final

Gabriel Tan Gabriel Tan

FOX Sports Asia football editor Gabriel Tan looks back at Zlatko Dalic’s amazing journey from Asia to Sunday’s 2018 FIFA World Cup final.

On Sunday, Croatia will be looking to make history by winning the FIFA World Cup for the first time ever.

Throughout their terrific run to the final, there has been no shortage of heroes rising to the occasion.

Captain Luka Modric has ran the show in the middle of the park with the support of the equally-influential Ivan Rakitic, Domagoj Vida and Sime Vrsaljko have been excellent at the back, while the Mario Mandzukic, Ante Rebic and Ivan Perisic have combined for a lethal trio in the final third.

But the true mastermind behind Croatia’s displays so far has been Zlatko Dalic, who was initially appointed last October not to lead them to World Cup glory, but merely to just qualify for the tournament.

What makes Dalic’s success all the more remarkable is the fact that, unlike other coaches that have reached the World Cup final, he has not enjoyed a high-profile managerial career in charge of Europe’s biggest and richest clubs.

Instead, prior to being handed the reins of Croatia, he was arguably more famous in the Middle East, where he had stints in charge of Al Faisaly, Al Hilal (both Saudi Arabia) and Al Ain (United Arab Emirates).

Even then, the 51-year-old had varying degrees of success, initially doing well with Al Faisaly by guiding them to a 7th-place finish in the 2010/11 Saudi Professional League season, their first-ever campaign in the top flight.

He then earned a move to Saudi giants Al Hilal, initially as the coach of their reserve team but eventually took over following the sacking of Antoine Kombouare, leading them to the Saudi Crown Prince Cup and a runners-up finish in the league in 2012/13.

Dalic was no stranger to success at Al Ain.

Then, moving east from Riyadh, Dalic took charge of Al Ain in March 2014 and, remarkably, was still coaching in the United Arab Emirates as recently as last January.

With Al Ain winning the Arabian Gulf League, UAE President’s Cup and Arabian Gulf Super Cup during his reign, Dalic had no shortage of success but the big one came in 2016 when he guided them to the final of the AFC Champions League.

Despite being favoured by many to go all the way, they were defeated 3-2 on aggregate by Korea Republic’s Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors and continue to wait for their second ACL crown.

On Sunday, at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow, Dalic will once again lead a side in a final.

Only, this time, it’s on the biggest stage that all of world football has to offer.

Croatia may be a small nation yet all of their four million inhabitants will be supporting Modric and company in unison when the final gets underway.

And, thanks to their well-travelled manager, they could just be joined by a few more fans from Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, and Asia – as a whole – come Sunday.