John Duerden reckons Asia football supporters should root for Croatia against France in the 2018 World Cup final.
France against Croatia is not the 2018 World Cup final that most would have predicted back on June 14 when the tournament kicked off. Yet here we are and on Sunday night, one team will win the trophy for the second time or one will do so for the first.
There is always something of a wistful feeling when a tournament ends. Yet having spent most of the tournament in Russia and the last few days back in Asia, it is easier to follow in the host nation for obvious reasons. Among the sadness there will be relief that sleeping patterns can change to something a little more normal and a little less exhausting.
France obviously have more and bigger star names in their line-up with the likes of Paul Pogba, Antoine Griezmann and Kylian Mbappe. They won it in 1998, reached the final eight years later only to lose on penalties and are back a decade later and the favourites to win.
Croatia have plenty of talent of their own of course though will be underdogs against Les Bleus. The team from the Balkans, who reached the last four in 1998, have a never-say-die spirit to go along with their ability. It should be a final to remember.
Those of us in Asia who stay up late may favour one or the other but if there are any still looking for a team to support then it has to be Croatia. This is because of the identity of the coach of Croatia. In 2017, he said goodbye to Asia after a period of six years.
There have been so many big name foreign coaches in Asia over the years. They have been coming for decades though the number has risen in recent times. Almost all the big names were big before making the journey east.
Mario Zagallo was an early pioneer. He led Brazil to the 1970 World Cup. That team is legendary for their exploits and the way they played at the tournament. The coach was heading to Kuwait in 1976. He later went on to take the reins of Riyadh giants Al Hilal and the Saudi Arabia national team and then United Arab Emirates.
Carlos Alberto Parreira was another World Cup winner with Brazil in 1994. He was fired by Saudi Arabia after two games of the 1998 World Cup. He had however ‘done a Dalic’ by heading to Asia before having international success. He was in charge of the UAE from 1985, heading to Saudi Arabia in 1988 and then back to the UAE for the 1990 World Cup.
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In recent times China have tempted the World Cup winners with Marcello Lippi and later Luiz Felipe Scolari leading Guangzhou Evergrande to domestic and international success.
But Dalic is doing something that only Parreira has done before, moving straight from Asia to a major national team but unlike the Brazilian, is almost immediately in with a chance of the ultimate prize.
Dalic didn’t have much coaching experience to speak of before he arrived in Saudi Arabia in 2010. His big move came in early 2014 when he took the reins of Al Ain in the United Arab Emirates.
He made his name around Asia in 2016 when he led the team to the final of the AFC Champions League. He had won the domestic title but the biggest prize in the world’s biggest continent was obviously in the Champions League.
Dalic was unfortunate to come up against a well-rounded outfit in Jeonbuk Motors. The South Koreans had played more games in the Champions League than any other club. Coach Choi Kang-hee had coached more games in Asia than any other coach. The team from Jeonju had no real weaknesses. Well-organised, strong, fit and with plenty of creativity and fire power, they proved just a little too strong for their opponents.
That could be the case on Sunday against France but there are depths to this Croatia team that perhaps Al Ain did not quite have. That remains to be seen on Sunday.
Whatever happens in Moscow in front of 80,000 fans at the Luzhniki Stadium with the statue of Lenin outside, Zlatko Dalic has come a long way from his arrival at Al Faisaly in 2010. Asia should feel proud of the part it has played on one of the best, biggest and most impressive stories in football this year and that is why Asian fans who are still neutral should get behind Croatia.