Croatia coach Dalic traveled hard path to World Cup final

Croatia head coach Zlatko Dalic listens to a question during a news a press conference at the 2018 soccer World Cup in Moscow, Russia, Thursday, July 12, 2018. (AP Photo/Darko Bandic)

In a coaching journey across Croatia, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, Zlatko Dalic's belief in his own abilities never dimmed

MOSCOW — In a coaching journey across Croatia, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, Zlatko Dalic's belief in his own abilities never dimmed.

"I used to say, 'Give me a Barcelona or a Real Madrid and I will win titles,'" Dalic recalled Thursday.

Such jobs no longer seem so far out of reach, especially if Dalic collects the biggest prize in soccer on Sunday. Croatia will win the World Cup for the first time if Dalic's team can get the better of France and coach Didier Deschamps.

Receiving trophies is nothing new for Deschamps. As a player, the midfielder won titles at clubs in France, Italy and England, as well as the 1998 World Cup and 2000 European Championship with France. As a coach, he led France to the Euro 2016 final, losing to Portugal.

But the 51-year-old Dalic had a largely unremarkable playing career before switching to coaching in his native Croatia.

"In my life I have always taken the harder path, had to fight for everything myself," Dalic said through a translator at Luzhniki Stadium. "I started at the bottom of the ladder."

The climb required a leap into the unknown with a move to the Middle East in 2010.

"I did not want to stay in Croatia and be a middling coach and to live off handouts," Dalic said. "I went abroad whenever it was possible to find a job."

Dalic eventually landed at Al-Hilal, where he won the Saudi Crown Prince Cup, and then reached the Asian Champions League final with Al-Ain.

"We cannot sneeze at that. These are major competitions," Dalic said. "This brought me huge experience ... and I built a name for myself. This was a hard path but I believed in myself. When Croatia called, I never had any doubts."

The call that ended Dalic's nomadic seven-year journey came last year, when Croatia had a game remaining to salvage qualification.

"He is very dedicated to football," Croatian federation president Davor Suker said, "and we gave him the chance."

Dalic led Croatia into the World Cup playoffs, where it beat Ukraine over two matches. Now he has taken his country further than ever before in a major soccer competition, eclipsing Suker's semifinalists in 1998.

Brand Dalic is growing after Croatia came from behind to beat England 2-1 in the semifinal in Moscow on Wednesday.

"The coach has created a special atmosphere," said Croatia defender Dejan Lovren, who plays for Liverpool. "He knows exactly how to interact with players and does it in a unique way."

Dalic also relished interacting with the media on Thursday in the stadium where Croatia plays its biggest-ever game on Sunday. The highly ambitious coach used his moment in the spotlight to advertise his credentials.

"Nothing was given to me on a plate, unlike some managers in Europe who can be given jobs to manage a big club because of their names as players," Dalic said.

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More AP World Cup coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/WorldCup

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Rob Harris is at https://twitter.com/RobHarris and https://facebook.com/RobHarrisReports

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