The morning after his side ended Japan’s dream of reaching the quarter-finals, Croatia head coach Zlatko Dalic held a news conference at the Al Ersal Complex training ground in the heart of Doha. His players had a day off after their excruciating penalty shootout win over a spirited Japanese side less than 12 hours ago.
In Qatar, Dalic is looking to go one better than in Russia four years ago when the Croats reached the final. But just to get into the semi-finals here, Dalic will be going up against a side which in his own words he would’ve liked to meet in the title clash.
“It doesn’t get better than playing Brazil but it would’ve been good if we were playing the final instead of the quarter-final,” Dalic told reporters on Tuesday.
When Croatia overcame Japan thanks to the goalkeeping, penalty-stopping brilliance of Dominik Livakovic, they hadn’t known who their last-eight opponents would be. It was back at their hotel on the West Bay, on the edge of the Arabian Gulf did they discover it will be Brazil, who made a statement of their intent later on Monday night when they thrashed South Korea 4-1 with all their goals coming in the first half.
“They have so many great players,” said Dalic. “It’s scary so it will be a big test for us. But we will not surrender before the game. We want to counter Brazil’s quality with our own.”
A lot of members of the Croatian squad from four years ago have now long gone. But the talismanic Luka Modric still remains the beating heart of this side at the ripe age of 37. Modric was unable to last the full duration of the game against Japan. Croatia did however continue their remarkable run of winning all their knockout matches since the World Cup in Russia when they went beyond 90 minutes.
“It seems that we can’t do it without the drama,” said Modric, for whom every next game is a bonus. “We are more than happy to reach the quarter-finals.”
Croatia’s battling spirit, forged by the Balkan War, is ingrained in each of their players and Modric was once a war refugee. “Never underestimate a Croatian. Whenever this happens, the person regrets it. We will fight until the end,” he told reporters when asked about the potential clash with Brazil.
MESSAGES FOR PELE
At the end of their game against the Koreans, Neymar, who returned from an ankle injury to put in a man-of-the-match performance, went to the dugout and then gathered his team-mates and unfurled a banner carrying the message “Pele!” with a picture of the first global superstar of the sport.
Pele, who won three World Cups during his storied career, is hospitalised in Sao Paulo while undergoing treatment for cancer. There were reports that Pele had been moved to end-of-life care but it later emerged that he was in hospital because of a respiratory infection aggravated by Covid-19.
The health of Pele has added more impetus to Brazil’s push to win a record-extending sixth World Cup in Qatar.
“I’ll be doing everything I can to win the World Cup with Brazil,” Neymar, who like Modric is his side’s heartbeat, said at a news conference after the match against Korea. “That’s our mission, our dream. We’re getting ever closer, we have more steps to take now.”
Neymar starred the last time the two sides met at the World Cup, eight years ago in the opening game of the tournament in Brazil. They also met in the group stage eight years prior to that in Germany, which Brazil also won.
The quarter-final clash will see Real Madrid team-mates Modric and Vinicius Jr come face to face for a spot in the last four. And Vinicius expects a battle. “As games pass, it gets more and more difficult,” he told reporters. “Against Croatia, it will be a battle. But we want to dance all the way to the final.”