In response to harsh comments made this week by Canada coach John Herdman, Croatia coach Zlatko Dalic stated his team "deserves respect."
Herdman said that after Croatia's narrow loss to Belgium in their World Cup Group F opening on Wednesday, he instructed his teammates to "go and 'eff' Croatia" in an on-field discussion.
The word "eff," which is commonly believed to be an acronym for an obscenity, caused outrage in Croatian media, with one newspaper fabricating a front-page image of a naked Herdman.
On Saturday, the day before the two teams face off in a crucial must-win match, Dalic remarked, "The Croatia team deserves respect from everyone."
"In the entire world, we are the runners-up. We respect everyone equally, thus we demand respect from the teams we play against. This kind of language does not demonstrate respect."
Croatia's journey got off to a goalless tie with Morocco. Herdman disregarded the feedback in his own news conference on Saturday.
“Since November 14th, there has been a media blackout, so we don't see anything in the news. However, when your wife texts you to tell you to start working out before you come home, you know something is wrong”.
An emotional Herdman explained in the on-field interview what he had just said to his players during a postgame huddle after Canada had just lost their first World Cup game in 36 years, outplaying Belgium for the most of a 1-0 defeat.
"They are welcome here, I assured them. And we're going to Croatia to eff it up" said the coach.
“That's as straightforward as it gets”.
As the match between Croatia and Canada on Sunday drew near, those words echoed all the way to Zagreb.
A naked Herdman with Maple Leaf flags covering his mouth and private areas appeared on the front page of Croatia's 24 SATA (24 Hours) tabloid with the title, "You have the mouth, but do you have the [guts] as well?"
In a 90-second response to Herdman's comments on Saturday, Dalic used the word "respect" 13 times.
He said via a translator, "This manner of putting words together is not a sign of respect. We are deserving of respect because of the way we act, play, and respect everyone else”.
"I second the head coach and I cannot wait for the game to start," winger Ivan Perisic said, sitting close to Dalic.
Herdman, who spoke before Dalic, tried to diffuse the situation with humor by joking that the newspaper photo showed a slimmer waistline 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."
Herdman had defined his intention on Thursday
"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 at that moment, you've taken your men to that next place," he added.
Canada might be eliminated with one more loss when they play Croatia. The world's 12th-ranked Croatian team entered the tournament with a 0-0 tie against Morocco after losing to France in the 2018 World Cup Final.
Canada have only participated in four World Cup tournaments and are yet to score a 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."
Atiba Hutchinson, the captain, can play in his 100th international match on Sunday. Julian de Guzman is second with 89 appearances, and at 39, Hutchinson is the only player on the current team still alive when Canada fell 0-3 in the 1986 World Cup.
Jonathan Osorio, a midfielder, is excited to face the runner-up from the previous World Cup.
"We like to play the best," he said after the Belgium match. "We're excited about the challenge."