“I will stay Ainawi for ever,” said Zlatko Dalic, a reference to fans of Al Ain Football Club, and it did not feel fake, or even forced.
The Croat had given three years to the UAE club, three years in which he helped lift them back to the summit of Emirati football, to within a penalty kick of winning the Asian Champions League. A single goal across two legs in the 2016 final deprived the country’s most decorated club of the continent’s premier club trophy, of the one title they covet above all else.
Players’ minds scrambled by the 3-2 aggregate defeat to South Korea’s Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors, results stagnated. Al Ain deteriorated and Dalic was off: one Arabian Gulf League title, one President’s Cup crown, and an enduring connection to the UAE later.
“I have done my best,” he said. “I don’t want to take anything from anybody. I need rest.”
Ten months of recuperation passed, Dalic was appointed Croatia manager. Eighteen months after leaving Al Ain, he is managing in a World Cup final, 90 minutes or maybe more away from snaring football’s ultimate prize.
It has been an unusual route to the top. Even with Croatia capturing hearts and imagination this past month, the question in Russia has remained: just who is Zlatko Dalic?
In truth, Al Ain supporters were asking the same in January 2014. Dalic arrived at the club, via stints in Saudi Arabia with Al Faisaly and Al Hilal – arguably the Middle East’s premier club – but his track record was modest.
A former defensive midfielder who played for prominent clubs in the former Yugoslavia, Bosnian-born Dalic had never represented his country. Yet coaching had always appealed: from age 25, he would detail training sessions in a notebook never far from his reach. From 2006, he served as assistant coach to Croatia's Under 21s.
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Eventually, Dalic moved to the Gulf, because European teams “look for brand names”, opting instead for “big names, big money, big mistakes”.
“In my life I have always taken the harder path, had to fight for everything myself,” Dalic said this week. “I started at the bottom of the ladder. Nothing was given to me on a plate."
Initially, he was presented at Al Ain as “technical supervisor”. His appointment, seemingly out of the blue, was not met with great fanfare, rather confusion. Spaniard Quique Sanchez Flores was the club’s manager, but Dalic appeared at a low-key press conference, sat alongside a prominent board member, and fielded questions rather cryptically.
Al Ain were struggling at the time and so Sanchez Flores was feeling the strain, but Dalic maintained: “I can’t speak now of what happens in the future. I didn’t come here to put pressure on anybody. I came here to do my job and help Al Ain club."
Within a few days, Sanchez Flores was gone, with Dalic confirmed his successor. Success on the pitch followed. First, the 2014 President’s Cup; the next season, Al Ain won the Arabian Gulf League.
Then came the Champions League assault and the subsequent anguish, and soon thereafter, Dalic's departure. Just before he left, one disgruntled Al Ain supporter printed a mock airline ticket, one way, emblazoned with "Zlatko Out".
However, Dalic is generally fondly remembered in the Garden City, by the majority of his players, the staff, the club's fans and the media. From the very onset in Al Ain, his press conferences would be punctuated with the odd Arabic word, such as "Inshallah" or "Mabrook". It helped ingratiate himself with those around him.
Even in the capricious environs of Emirati football, Dalic did not delight in drama, rarely seeking conflict or controversy. And the approach worked. On the rare occasion he did speak out, such as on the eve of the 2016 President’s Cup final and with his contract soon to expire, it resonated more.
“Sorry if I speak too much,” he said then, launching an impassioned defence of his Al Ain record. “But it’s from my heart.”
Not long after, he signed a one-year extension.
A constant refrain, no matter the situation or the stakes, was that Dalic “believed in his team”. In 2016, one day before the Champions League final first leg and Al Ain's first Asian final in 11 years, he cut a noticeably relaxed figure in the pre-match media briefing, smiling happily for photos with his rival manager.
Typically, Dalic was a calming presence on the touchline, too, sometimes interpreted that he did not possess the tactical acumen, that he was simply a safe hand at the UAE’s most resourceful, and thus most demanding, club. When he did let his emotions get the better of him, on reflection he regretted it.
His cool exterior masked a savvy coach with an understanding of what was required to glean the best from his squad. Dalic identified Ismail Ahmed and Ibrahim Diaky, respected senior professionals, as close confidants, conduits to teammates. They maintained harmony, ensured everyone pulled in the same direction.
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Crucially, Dalic is an inclusive manager, leaning on support where necessary, involving staff and players in the decision-making process. There is no ego, no haughty declarations that his is the only path forward. Continually, he emphasises the collective. It is something that has carried him through to Croatia and to within one match of the World Cup.
He uses the hurt of the Champions League final defeat as motivation even now – “it is always on my mind” – and in hindsight would have left Al Ain directly after, instead of staying for another two months. He feels he hung on too long.
When he did go, Dalic spent his final few weeks in the UAE at various, low-key engagements: dinner in the desert with Emiratis who had supported him during his time at Al Ain; get-togethers with supporters whom he had grown close to. Simply, he wanted to show his gratitude.
It speaks a lot to Dalic the man. He is extremely personable. Two days before Croatia's quarter-final against Russia, he gave more than an hour of his time to The National, chatting football in a Sochi coffee shop and sharing experiences of travelling around Russia. He has a genuine interest in others.
Dalic retains a real affinity to the UAE, as well. He has visited Al Ain since leaving the club and plans to return for January’s Asian Cup, to sample a major tournament in his former home. During the journey across the World Cup and to Croatia’s first global final, his social media accounts have often paid tribute to the backing he receives from the Emirates, and Saudi Arabia.
“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.”
He cites Al Ain as the club that presented the opportunity to make his name, that provided the platform to take him to where he is now: on the cusp of securing football's greatest prize.
“I learned at Al Ain where every week I was under pressure, from the fans, from the club, from everyone," Dalic said in October. "I learned everything the last three years at Al Ain. Al Ain helped me get to this point."