By Slaven Bilic, former Croatian defender then coach; now watford the head coach.
It was a very proud moment to beat Brazil. After 1998, when we got to the semis and won the bronze medal, most people were like, ‘Never again, no chance.
Then Russia 2018 — unbelievable, they did better than our 1998 team to get to the final. Then these same people repeated: “That’s it.
And now for the third time? It’s incredible. I don’t know how many teams have gone to back-to-back World Cup semi-finals – and I’m talking about big countries, so how can a nation the size of ours (there are less than four million people in Croatia ) does she do?
Obviously, we have talent, that’s for sure, but it’s more than that. Physically we are good, mentally we are good and we are very good in team sports. In basketball, handball and water polo, we are also one of the best in the world.
In these kinds of sports – when it comes to your companion, to each other, when it comes to a group and not just individuals – we have this unity and unity.
Because we are a small country, our players have known each other since they were 10, 11 years old. Most of them come from Dinamo Zagreb and Hajduk Split, so they know each other. My generation in 1998 — Zvonimir Boban played for Dinamo Zagreb and I played for Hajduk Split, along with eight or nine other players. I have known Boban since we were 10 years old. We weren’t teammates, we were friends.
Sometimes in big countries with big leagues and big clubs you are not very friendly. I remember talking to England internationals who said that when they meet for a call-up, (at mealtimes) you would have a chelsea table, a Manchester United table, a liverpool table. In Croatia, it’s not like that. They call each other daily, not just when they play for the national team.
We also have good coaches and academies. When I was starting, you normally start at under 10 – now it’s under seven or under eight, but you also have private schools run by ex-players, where they start at age five year.
In Croatia you train all the time. In my time, in the early 1980s – it was still (United) Yugoslavia then – you had school in the afternoon and we trained in the morning. If school was in the afternoon, we trained in the morning.
You join Hajduk Split or Dinamo Zagreb, you play in the under-10 championship of your city, then at 14 or 15 you already play against under-14s from another city and you train every days. It’s pretty serious.
They used to not teach you a lot of tactics when you were 11, 12. It was a matter of skill and technique. We were in front of this wall every day for at least half an hour. Pass with the left foot on the wall, pass with the right foot, left, right, a touch, reception, all against the wall. Then you hook a ball to a rope, so a few centimeters from the ground, and you pass against the wall… and if it bounces, no good. So you practice, practice, practice.
A person has to struggle to find their way in the game. And they should learn how to answer the questions put to them in football. As a manager, if a player expects you to tell him how to do everything, then he will expect you to tell him how to shoot, how to pass, where to put the penalty, etc.
That’s one of the reasons Croatians are good, because you don’t really get those things there. At the end of the day, it’s up to you.
Another World Cup semi-final, but are shy Croatia really good?
Croatia is not exactly a country without any money or without nice pitches, so that as a child you have absolutely no chance. We have sufficient of that in terms of facilities. The players have shoes, they have decent pitches, they have some computers analyzing games. But they don’t have too much a lot this side. It means you have to learn. And that means you have to earn things for yourself. It’s a big part of the mentality that we have.
In Croatia we have a new wave of people trying to get into football, but I would like it to stay that way because you have to win things the hard way. Things are not given to you. Take Germany. It was no surprise to me that they came out early in this world Cupas they did in 2018.
They too… how would you say in Croatia? The seasoning is good but they use too much. Too much of everything. With shooting practice for a striker, you need to put your full-backs on the flanks to send crosses. Now they have invented equipment that automatically sends the crosses for them. It’s too much.
One of the reasons why their run to the semi-finals this time around is so incredible is that Croatia are playing without a striker who is at the level of their midfielders, that is, at the top level. We just don’t have any. We have four forwards – one plays for Dinamo Zagreb, one for Hajduk Split, one for Osasuna (10th in Spain The league last season) and the fourth is Andrej Kramaricwho looks more like a second striker.
Zlatko Dalic did an amazing job. People were saying that because he didn’t have a great managerial career in Europe – because he went to the Middle East and did a good job there, and then people said that the world 2018 was unique – that it wasn’t about him, it was about the generation of players, about Luc Modric. It’s always about the players at the end of the day, but they have to believe. For Dalic to start again now, I don’t have enough words to describe him.
It is he who brings this calm, this conviction. He is not noisy. It’s not, “My way or the highway” or anything. He is very intelligent, very good and very calm. It transmits this mixture between calm and energy.
Winning on penalties against Brazil showed us that, yes, it’s a matter of luck, but how calm were our players? It was as if they were shooting in a five-a-side game after practice. The last World Cup, in Russia, we went through against Denmark in the round of 16 on penalties, then (again) against Russia in the quarter-finals; now Japan in the round of 16 here and Brazil in the quarter-finals (two more wins on penalties). We can’t wait for the penalties!
I didn’t expect us beat brazil. If we play five or six games against Brazil, we will probably lose three or four, draw one or two and win one, and that was that game.
I love us beat argentina (in Tuesday’s semi-finals), however. We are a better crew. And nobody has a midfield like we have, in Modric, Marcelo Brozovic and Matthew Kovacic. They manage the game so well, dictate a slow pace, fast tempo, and they can keep the ball against any team.
They should be ready for extra time – and penalties…
‘Only Croatia can do it’ – breaking comeback that stunned Brazil
(Top photo design: Eamonn Dalton)