DOHA, Qatar — Croatia coach Zlatko Dalic sent a message to Canada at the World Cup on Saturday. And he didn’t need the F-word to get it across.
Dalic made a stern statement when asked about John Herdman’s emotional words after Canada’s 1-0 defeat by Belgium on Wednesday.
When asked in a pitchside interview what he said to his team in a post-game conversation, the Canada coach replied: “I told them they belong here and we’re going and eff— Croatia. It’s not that easy.”
While Herdman delivered the last line with a smile, Dalic clearly didn’t see the humor.
When a Canadian reporter asked Dalic about his team’s reaction to Herdman’s upset at Saturday’s pre-game press conference, the Croatia coach was lecturing his opponent ahead of Sunday’s showdown at the Khlalifa International Stadium.
Dalic used the world “respect” 12 times in his reply.
“The Croatian team deserves respect from everyone. We respect everyone equally,” he said through an interpreter. “We expect our opposing teams to respect us. We deserve their respect. The Canadians must have respect for us too. This way of wording is not a sign of respect. We are the 2018 runners-up, not Brazil, Spain or other countries.”
“I will not focus on or comment on other people’s comments,” he added. “We’re going to be prepared (Sunday), we’re going to be fit and we’re going to show respect to Canada and everyone else. We expect respect, just as we exercise that view.”
Croatia striker Ivan Perisic then backed his coach, saying simply: “I support the head coach and I can’t wait for the game to start.”
Sunday may prove otherwise, but it appears Canada took a knife to a shootout for motivational reasons.
Both the Canadians in 41st place and number 12 Croatia have to take points from the game. Belgium top Group F with three points, while Croatia and Morocco have one point each after their goalless draw.
Canada need at least one point to have any chance of reaching the knockout rounds. A lost Sunday and the Canadians can finish with no more than three points while Croatia take their total to four. And no matter what happens in Sunday’s game between No. 2 Belgium and No. 22 Morocco, one of those teams will have at least four points.
With only two teams progressing from the group, it would render Canada’s final group game against Morocco next Thursday meaningless in terms of tournament progression.
“At the end of the day, both teams need to win this game,” Herdman said.
Croatian reporters didn’t bother to let Zlatko listen to Herdman’s inflammatory words. They had already done so since the tabloids were having a big day at home.
In contrast, three of the first four questions in Herdman’s availability concerned his hot post-game attitude. Another came later.
The Canada coach, who raised the issue on Thursday, tried to laugh at the reaction he had sparked in the Croatian camp.
He insisted he was into it and “loved the experience.” And he dismissed the claim that his words were just another motivational tool.
“We have waited 36 years to come here. I used all my motivational tactics in the 20 or so games it took me to get here,” he said self-deprecatingly.
But he maintained his words to his players in the post-match conversation after Belgium simply reminded them that they had another task ahead of them.
And he was quick to compliment Croatia, calling them a “top-top-top-top football team”.
“(A) one hell of a test. One hell of a test for this team,” he added. “But we’re excited.”
Herdman called Sunday’s game a “defining moment for Canada at this World Cup. It’s now one of those do-or-die games where we have to play to stay at a World Cup.”
Dalic, on the other hand, called Canada “a tough team full of confidence”.
The two sides have never met before.
Croatia squad includes players like Luka Modric (Real Madrid), Perisic (Tottenham), Marcelo Brozovic (Inter Milan), Mateo Kovacic (Chelsea) and Mario Pasalic (Atalanta). Only six of the 26 players play at home in Croatia, four of them at Dinamo Zagreb.
Despite that talent, Croatia had their hands full in the tournament’s opener with No. 22 Morocco, playing to a goalless draw in a game in which each team managed just two shots on goal.
Croatia go into Sunday’s game on a seven-game unbeaten run (5-0-2) following a 3-0 defeat by Austria in the UEFA Nations League in June. Croatia avenged that defeat with a 3-1 win over Austria in September.
Croatia have beaten the opposition 9-3 in that run, which includes a win and a draw against No. 4 France.
“With all due respect to Croatia, they have a very, very good team. It’s going to be tough for us,” said Canadian midfielder Stephen Eustaquio. “But it’s going to be tough for them too.”