World Cup 2022: Al Ain an important milestone in managerial journeys of Tite and Dalic

Brazil and Croatia managers cross paths in World Cup quarter-final having spent time, with varying degrees of success, at Garden City club

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If circumstances allowed for it, away from the maelstrom of a World Cup quarter-final and the promise of what might be, the managers of Brazil and Croatia could have taken time on Friday to share a tale or two of their experiences in Al Ain.

One was short, the other lengthier, and significantly more successful. But both consider their stays in the UAE’s Garden City as important to their present career bloom.

Prior to 2007, Tite had never coached outside of Brazil, his home country. But then he received a call from the Emirates and, excited by the thrill of adventure that he says sustains through to today, he took the job at Al Ain.

Tite would remain at the club only five months, a record of 13 wins from 25 matches deemed not competent enough for a club who two years before were contesting the final of the Asian Champions League.

Al Ain were then, as they continue to be, the only UAE side to have won the continent’s most coveted club competition. But little more than four years removed from their standout night, Tite was removed from his position.

Still, the old Selecao sage, who has guided this youthful Brazil squad dancing and - for some - delighting into the World Cup quarter-finals, recognises his spell at Al Ain as crucial to where he finds himself now.

For a manager whose CV includes a Copa America title with Brazil, and a Copa Libertadores and Fifa Club World Cup success with Corinthians, it represents quite the claim.

“I am very grateful to [Mohammed] Khalfan [Al-Rumaithi], who was the director at Al Ain,” Tite said during the 2018 World Cup, where his team eventually exited from the last eight. “He allowed me to develop my work and to put into practice some ideas that were very important to me as a form of growth.

“I developed a lot of my theory with Al Ain, exercising two lines of four with two attackers, trying different positions and functions that would maybe play out, fluctuations that happen during games, compacting the play.”

Tite, it must be said, would return to the UAE with Al Wahda, in 2010. However, he was gone even sooner than at Al Ain, lasting less than two months. This time, though, it was for an appreciably more welcome cause: Corinthians had come calling again.

“I also got to know a different culture and understand better the level of difficulty involved in working with an interpreter,” Tite said of his UAE experience. “This all helped me a lot and strengthened me as a coach. It was a big challenge, man, and I’m very grateful for it.”

Al Ain players lift their manager Zlatko Dalic after winning the 2014 President's Cup. Pawan Singh / The National

Zlatko Dalic is grateful, too, for Al Ain. Unlike Tite, the Croatia manager arrived in the UAE top flight with no great track record in his home country.

A defensive midfielder for lead clubs in the former Yugoslavia, Dalic never represented his country, but a thirst for coaching paved the way to Croatia’s Under 21s side in 2006, where he served as assistant.

He arrived some years later at Al Ain, in 2014, via stints in Saudi Arabia with Al Faisaly and Al Hilal. But not as manager, rather, and with no great explanation at the time, “technical supervisor”.

Within a few days, Dalic had replaced Quique Sanchez Flores in the dugout – champions for the past two years, Al Ain were languishing in eighth – and from there major managerial success followed.

He won the 2014 President’s Cup; the next season, the league title. In 2016, Dalic guided Al Ain to within what many considered a penalty kick from capturing a second Champions League trophy. They were beaten by a single goal on aggregate, losing 3-2 to South Korea’s Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors.

Dalic, still reeling from the loss, was gone not long after, results turning, the mood soured by the most painful of defeats.

"With Al Ain, we were so close to winning it, the title all the people there want the most,” Dalic told The National in 2018. "I still remember losing the Champions League final to Jeonbuk. It stays in my mind, always."

Yet it shaped him, as well. Within 10 months of leaving Al Ain, Dalic was appointed Croatia manager; 18 months after calling time on the UAE – “I have done my best; I need rest” – he was leading his national team out at their first World Cup final. He would finish runner-up again, his side beaten 4-2 by France in the showpiece.

And, like Tite but to an obviously greater extent, Dalic considers his time in the UAE as integral to his growth as a manager, to where he is now, to another World Cup quarter-final. To Brazil at Education City Stadium.

“I’m proud of my time there and that the people of the Emirates and Saudi Arabia give huge support to me,” Dalic said. “I really, really appreciate it a lot.

“I learnt at Al Ain where every week I was under pressure, from the fans, from the club, from everyone. Al Ain helped me get to this point.

“They gave me an important job, the experience, the support – money also, of course – but with them I built my reputation. I keep them forever in my heart. And I can feel them at my back.”

Updated: December 09, 2022, 9:34 AM