As Croatia brushed aside England to reach their first World Cup final, one man who played a key role in the development of the team was proudly watching on from Al Ain.
Zoran Mamic is coach of UAE professional club Al Ain. As former manager of Dinamo Zagreb he helped nurture the early careers of many Croatian players now preparing to take on France in Sunday’s showpiece.
Dinamo was represented by more players in the four semi-final teams than any other club, with 14 having an association with one of Croatia’s most powerful clubs.
Days before a pre-season tour to Slovenia, Mamic watched the semi-final with backroom staff in Al Ain, many of who are also Croatian.
“I am still close to the players in the team and the national federation of Croatia,” said Mamic, who was a member of the 1998 World Cup squad knocked out at the semi-final stage by eventual winners, France.
“Of course the country is proud, but the players will not yet fully understand what they have achieved. This is history.
“It is hard to find the words to describe this achievement.
“I’m very proud of these players, as I was directly involved with the development of 60-70 per cent of the players now in the national team.”
Star players Luka Modric and Dejan Lovren were two to come through at Dinamo Zagreb under the watchful eye of Mamic.
Several former Dinamo Zagreb executives, including Mamic, face charges over corruption and allegations of impropriety of transfer fees involving high profile players.
The last few years have been difficult for the national team, with in-fighting between the Croatian Football Federation and one of the country’s biggest clubs – Hadjuk Split, driving deep fissures into the heart of Croatian football.
Disciplinary action by Fifa and Uefa has seen the national side play home games in empty stadiums in recent years.
Mamic hopes a first World Cup win in Russia will lift the dark veil hanging over Croatian football and herald in a new era of success.
“It has not been easy to work in these circumstances, so this result is very positive and even more impressive,” he said.
“Nobody knows if Croatia will win the World Cup, but we know we can.
“It is an amazing time for the country, for the people’s happiness and the economy – I hope we can go all the way.
“On Sunday I will watch the final in the training camp with the staff and players.
“I was thinking of leaving the team for one day to go to Moscow to watch the game, but my job is with Al Ain so I have to respect them as they are paying my salary so I must stay with the team.
“It will not be the same feeling, but our hearts and minds will be with the players in Moscow.
“The country must celebrate this win and use it to help not only football but all sports in Croatia.”