So what the hell happened to Croatia during EURO 2020? And more importantly, what the hell happened to our beloved Vatreni over the past three years? And how does Marcelo Brozović’s “ice packed” wrist at training during EURO 2020 reveal the answer?
Since reaching the pinnacle of global football – playing in the World Cup Final – Croatia has become an absolute dumpster fire of results.
In the 34 matches since the World Cup, Croatia has been an average .500% team.
The Vatreni have won 14, lost 13, and drew 7; with only two standout victories for which Croatian fans can express pride: the win over a mediocre Scotland side at EURO 2020 and a Nations League victory over Spain.
During that time, the Vatreni were dealt their biggest loss in history; getting spanked 6-0 by Spain in Nations League. They also lost 4-1 to Portugal and 4-2 to France in that same competition. Not to mention an Azerbaijan draw in Euro qualifying.
So how did we fall from grace so quickly after the World Cup?
This is where Brozović helps us tell the story.
The simplest way to say it is that the players don’t respect manager Zlatko Dalić.
And the players let Dalić know they don’t respect him.
Brozović’s wrapped wrist was a direct product of his disrespect towards Dalić.
And EURO 2020 was not the first time things got heated. There is a clear pattern forming around this Croatia team over the past three years.
The drama started before the 2018 World Cup kicked off when Dalić began his tenure as Croatian manager with friction and doubt.
Dalić did not have the respect of the team from the beginning, but World Cup results quickly overshadowed what was happening internally.
While Dalić’s loss of confidence was hidden from the public, it was common knowledge to the people closest to the team and closest to the Hrvatski Nogometni Savez (HNS).
The friction has been allowed to fester for too long, and CroatianSports feels obligated to call out the pink elephant in the room.
The silence that has allowed the friction to fester is softly killing this team. That silence allows players to act with little consequence. That silence has allowed Dalić to fly under the radar for his passive approach towards his players. And most importantly, that silence gives all the faithful Croatian supporters around the world the impression that everything is okay.
Well, everything is not okay.
The first incident occurred in 2018 when the Vatreni played two pre-World Cup friendlies in the United States.
Protesting Dalić’s decision to include Brozović on the USA roster, Modrić, Mandžukić, Subašić, and Perišić all left the team after the first friendly in Miami against Peru, and didn’t travel to Dallas for the Mexico match.
They were not happy about the fact that Dalić allowed Brozović to stay on the team for the trip after breaking multiple team rules, including showing up late to a team meeting while intoxicated in Zagreb.
So they boycotted the Mexico game.
Three months later, Nikola Kalinić confronted Dalić because of his lack of playing time at the World Cup. He was immediately excused from the team. One of the only disciplinary moves that Dalić pulled off successfully.
Leading up to EURO 2020, Ante Rebić was so fed up with Dalić’s tactics that Luka Modrić had to step in as peacekeeper to convince Dalić to keep Rebić on the team.
Then Andrej Kramarić attacked Dalić in the press prior to Croatia’s EURO opener vs. England regarding his position. “Even the grandmas in the village know what my position is on the football pitch,” Kramarić told Arena Sport, as his natural position for Hoffenheim is behind the true striker.
When Brozović attended practice with a wrapped hand the day after the Czech match, rumors quickly swirled about what happened. Nobody in the Croatian media was reporting it, but everyone knew that deep frustrations were physically expressed in the locker room.
According to team delegates who witnessed it, Brozović tried to attack Dalić in the locker room and had to be held back by multiple players and staff. Brozović was frustrated that he was dropped from the Starting XI vs. Czech and went after Dalić.
Like with Rebić, many players this time sided with Brozović, leaving Dalić without the confidence of the team. This forced Modrić to take the mantle as coach/decision maker for the Scotland match.
This is why Perišić was quoted in a cryptic message the day before the Scotland game: “You will watch the new Croatia tomorrow.”
Hotel Vatreni was under new management, and Brozović was re-inserted into the Starting XI. Croatia beat Scotland 3-1 and booked their spot in the Round of 16 with Spain.
After the loss to Spain, Rebić posted, “We’ve (Croatia) been crap for 2-3 years,” which was a nod towards Dalić and his poor coaching over that span.
Things have soured so much that sources closest to the team say Modrić will not stay on for World Cup qualifiers if Dalić is still the coach. Modrić will end his Real Madrid career in May 2022 and the World Cup will kick off six months later in Qatar, so it’s not out of the question that he could still be a force for Croatia.
This last Brozović incident, where his wrist was iced up, is the third blow up in three years. It seems like friction has become an established norm under this coach. It is understood that we Croatians are passionate, but this level of competition requires professionalism. This means the coach must have the respect of his team; on and off the field. This Croatia team has too much talent and too many promising prospects to let mismanagement derail them.
The bad news is that the team is in real trouble.
The good news is that it looks like adjustments are about to be made.
Davor Šuker is expected to step down as President of the HNS on July 31st with Marijan Kustić taking the helm, Total Croatia News has reported.
The same people who knew about all of the friction are the same people who know that Dalić is also on his way out. It is common knowledge inside the HNS that Dalić has been shopping for a club team, and is expected to land somewhere sooner than later, even though he is still under contract through 2022.
A new beginning will allow everyone to hit the reset button and for leadership to develop better interpersonal relationships.
Management must work to recreate the same energy the Vatreni showed during the 2018 World Cup, despite existing friction, because Croatian talent with the right leadership CAN bring the team back to a World Cup Final.
Croatian football is special. On two separate occasions, the Vatreni took the world by storm with their Cinderella story: 1998 and 2018. A Croatian has lifted the Champions League trophy in nine straight seasons. Croatia now has a Ballon d’Or winner in Luka Modrić.
There should be zero doubt in Croatian supporters’ minds that if players, coaches, and upper management can all just get along, Croatian football can make deep runs at tournaments every other summer instead of every 20 years.
Croatian football has transcended sport on more than one occasion and Croatians supporters around the world deserve the new HNS cabinet to be better than the previous one in creating a new, positive culture.
Achieving the status of playing in the World Cup Final has redefined all expectations around Croatian football. We now know what is possible, and Croatians will always have the highest of expectations moving forward.
The bare minimum expectation is that the individuals at every level of the HNS, from players to administrators, can conduct themselves with the highest level of professionalism, that we can beat anyone at any time, and that this generation can empower the next, and lead by example.
Because if a new culture cannot be established, we will squander some of the world’s best footballing talent. And that would be an absolute shame.