On the eve of the most important match in Croatia’s short history, Zlatko Dalic had one simple message for his players.
His side stand on the cusp of a first World Cup success for their country, whose population sits at 4.5 million, when they meet France in Sunday’s final in Moscow. Their players have played in Uefa Champions League finals and won numerous top-level titles, but at the Luzhniki Stadium they have the opportunity to scale football’s apex.
Croatia have been overcoming obstacles en route to the showpiece, though. They have come through a World Cup knockout match for the first time, in the last-16 penalty shoot-out win against Denmark, and defeated England in extra time in the semi-finals to surpass their celebrated class of 1998, who eventually took bronze.
Now Croatia's current crop can grab silver or even snatch gold. For Dalic, however, his team have already shown their undoubted talent, their strength of character. A World Cup final against former champions? Bring it on.
“Now there is no pressure,” the former Al Ain manager said at a packed press conference at the Luzhniki. “I’m not going to heap pressure on my players before such a game. It will be a full house, the whole world is watching, you go out and play your best football. Don’t be cramped, don’t be inhibited. Don’t let other things lead you astray. Simply, this is the greatest moment in the lives of all of us.
“Hats off to the Champions League and our players’ titles. But this is the greatest game for them and the Croatian people. We are ready to give everything we’ve got. We want to show our quality and we want to represent our country in the most dignified way possible.
"If we win the trophy nobody can be prouder than us coming from such a small country. If we fail to win, we will congratulate our opponent. That’s life, that’s football. I want to send this message: we’ve come here to enjoy the final.”
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Dalic said Croatia will not be hampered by fatigue after they were taken to extra time in their past three matches. Consequently, they have played 90 minutes more than France and had one day less to rest.
Dalic said he will have an open discussion with his players before the final, to see who is fully fit and that his squad has enough strength in depth to cope. It is an approach that thus far has served Croatia well.
“Our relationship is frank, sincere,” Dalic said. “There are no secrets, no dilemmas. I do not take a single decision without speaking to my players. And then on the basis of such information I take the solution.
“Such a relationship is very important in a national team, because we are together for a brief amount of time. There is no time for discussions, quarrels. We’ve come here to get a result. We have to respect one another. Without that nothing can happen.
“This is the solution for now. Whether this is a long-term solution I don’t know. But this has brought us togetherness, brought us unity. We’ve been here like a family the past six weeks and on the eve of going back home they are despondent because we’ve grown very close. This helps to get results.”
France enter the final as favourites, and boast a superior head-to-head record: in their past five matches against Croatia, they have won twice and drawn three times. In 1998, France defeated Croatia in the World Cup semi-final on home soil and went on to lift the trophy.
“I do not set much stall in statistics, tradition, head-to-heads,” Dalic said. “Tradition is there to be demolished. Tomorrow is the World Cup final; we do not mind who is on the other side of the pitch. We have come here to enjoy the moment, enjoy the final and give our best. Because this is a time that we fought for and we deserve to play it. We want to whole world to watch Croatia play and want most of the world to root for us.
“We will give our all, and whoever is the better team may they win. There can be no better thing for a player, for a coach, than tomorrow’s final. Whatever happens we are going to be happy and proud, because we deserve it. The players have faced many problems. Without their character, without their fortitude, they wouldn’t have reached this final. I am so proud of them.”
Sitting alongside Dalic, Croatia captain Luka Modric paid tribute to his manager, who took charge in October when the team’s World Cup was in jeopardy.
“We are in the World Cup final, that was the influence of the coach,” Modric said. “He came into the picture at a very difficult moment. In the first game, he talked us up to give us self-belief and confidence, and told us we were still great players despite this crisis.
“He brought us calmness, he picked us up and what we most like is his sincerity and his approach and attitude towards each and every player. We’re very happy he’s here. He’s showing his values, not just as a coach but more importantly as a human being.”