Croatia coach Zlatko Dalic said his side “deserves respect” following controversial comments made by Canada coach John Herdman this week.
Herdman said he told his players to “go and ‘eff’ Croatia” in an on-pitch huddle following their narrow defeat to Belgium in their World Cup Group F opener on Wednesday.
– Stream on ESPN+: LaLiga, Bundesliga, more (US)
The word ‘eff’ — widely assumed to be an abbreviation for an obscenity — sparked furore in the Croatian media, with one newspaper mocking up a picture of a naked Herdman on its front page.
“The Croatia team deserves respect from everyone,” Dalic said on Saturday, the day before the two sides met in a ‘must-win’ match.
“We are the runners-up, second in the world. We respect everyone equally so we expect our opposing teams to respect us. This way of putting words together is not a sign of respect.”
Croatia opened their campaign with a goalless draw against Morocco.
Herdman brushed off the response to his comments in his own news conference on Saturday.
“We’ve been on a media blackout since November 14th, so there’s not much we see in the media, but when you get a text from your wife telling you you need to start working out before you get home, you know something’s going on .”
Canada had just lost their first World Cup match in 36 years, outplaying Belgium for much of a 1-0 defeat, and an emotional Herdman revealed in the on-field interview what he had just told his players during a postgame huddle.
“I told them they belong here. And we’re going to go and eff Croatia,” the coach said. “That’s as simple as it gets.”
Those words reverberated all the way to Zagreb as Sunday’s Croatia-Canada game approached.
Croatia’s 24 Sata (24 Hours) tabloid ran a full-page photo of a naked Herdman with Maple Leaf flags over his mouth and private parts and a headline that translated to: “You have the mouth, but do you have the [guts] as well?”
Commenting Saturday on Herdman’s words, Dalic used the word “respect” 13 times in a 90-second span.
“This way of putting words together is not a sign of respect,” he said through a translator. “The way we play, the way we behave and the way we respect all others are the reasons we are worthy of respect.”
Sitting next to Dalic, winger Ivan Perisic said simply: “I second the head coach and I cannot wait for the match to begin.”
Speaking before Dalic, Herdman used humor in an attempt to defuse tensions, noting the newspaper image was of a trimmer midsection than his own.
“My wife’s coming after you guys,” he told a reporter from that Croatian paper, laughing. “She wishes she got that guy. I’ve got a bit more of a belly than that. I’ve been eating too much.”
On Thursday, Herdman had explained what his intention was.
“You say those things in an impassioned moment trying to inspire your team in a huddle, and when you’re asked the question what you said in that huddle, yeah, it was what I said,” he said.
“It’s not massively respectful to Croatian people and the Croatian national team. I understand very well where they’re at on the world stage. But in that moment, you’ve taken your men to that next place,” he added.
Playing Croatia for the first time, Canada could be eliminated with another defeat. Croatia, who lost the 2018 final to France, are the world’s 12th-ranked team and opened with a 0-0 draw against Morocco.
Canada have played just four World Cup games in their history and are still searching for their first goal.
“We know exactly what our slingshot is and we’ve got to be ready to attack that across different games now because, as I say, the cover’s off from Canada,” Herdman said.
“I think people come into this game, the next games respecting us a little bit more.”
Captain Atiba Hutchinson, at 39 the only member of the current roster alive when Canada went 0-3 at the 1986 World Cup, can make his 100th international appearance Sunday — Julian de Guzman is second with 89.
Midfielder Jonathan Osorio is looking forward to facing the last World Cup’s runner-up.
“We like to play the best,” he said after the Belgium match. “We’re excited for the challenge.”