In the end, Zlatko Dalic collected his crestfallen Croatia players in a huddle, as France celebrated close by and the World Cup trophy felt further away than ever.
His team were beaten 4-2 in the final at a rain-soaked Luzhniki Stadium on Sunday, when an own goal and a controversial Video Assistant Referee (VAR) decision toughened their tilt at football's premier trophy.
With a population of around 4.5 million, Croatia were the smallest country to contest the game’s showpiece event since Uruguay, way back when, in 1950. On their way to facing France, they had endured extra-time in three consecutive rounds.
Yet, no matter what went before, they came up agonisingly short. However, after the final whistle sounded, Dalic gathered together his troops, not far from the still-loud Croatian fans sprawled behind the goal. Even at that moment, when it stung like the lowest blow of all, defeat did not mean failure.
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“Of course, we were all sad, downcast,” Dalic told the media afterwards. “But I told them to 'hold your heads up high, no reason to feel dissatisfied. You have given your all and you have to be proud of your displays at this tournament’. If somebody had offered us to be runners-up before the tournament started that would be fantastic.
“But there is a modicum of sadness. It shows the players have self-belief. I told them ‘you have nothing to be sad about, sometimes you lose’. But we were dignified in our victories so we must be dignified in defeat. That’s football; we have to respect the scoreline. That was my message to my players.”
Croatia’s players almost did enough to win. Superior to France for large periods, they went behind to Mario Mandzukic’s own goal and then, having equalised, conceded a penalty when Ivan Perisic – scorer of Croatia's goal – was adjudged to have handled in the area after the referee reviewed the incident on VAR. It was a desperately harsh call.
“I never comment on refereeing," Dalic said. "But let me say one sentence: in a World Cup final you do not give such a penalty. But it in no way diminishes France’s win. Maybe we were a bit unlucky. In the first six games we may have been favoured by luck. Today not.
“I have to congratulate my players for their game – maybe the best game we played in this championship. Against such a strong a side as France you must not make mistakes. We're a bit sad, but we have to be proud as well for what we’ve done.”
Pressed on VAR, which has been introduced at this World Cup, Dalic said: “Please don’t take this as me saying something bad about the referee. I just shared my way of thinking, nothing beyond that. I respect the referee, he did what he saw, fair and square. I never meant to be negative. That’s how it is. With respect to VAR, when it goes in your favour then it’s good, when it doesn’t it’s bad. VAR is a good thing for football.”
So to his future. Dalic was appointed Croatia manager last October, when the national team’s World Cup participation was in jeopardy and he had one qualifying match to save it. Now, with a second-placed finish, the question remains if he will extend his contract beyond the tournament.
“What I’m ready for now is a bit of rest," said the former Al Ain manager. “Over the past two months we have worked very hard, it’s been a very tough period. But it was beautiful to work with the lads. I am very happy for the time we were together and we finished runner-up.
“I will take a time out, take a breather. I never take decisions overnight. At this moment I’m not thinking of anything else but going back safely to Croatia and taking a rest.”
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