The Next Lionel Messi? How Barcelona Beat Arsenal and Spurs to Alen Halilovic

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The Next Lionel Messi? How Barcelona Beat Arsenal and Spurs to Alen Halilovic
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On Wednesday February 26, Alen Halilovic played the best game of his career.

As his table-topping side Dinamo Zagreb went down 0-2 away to third-placed Rijeka, coach Zoran Mamic already had a substitution lined up to replace him. But then the 17-year-old Croatian wonderkid worked his magic and levelled the score with two beautiful back-to-back goals, just 90 seconds apart from one another.

The first was a low curler from the edge of the box; the other came as a result of neat first touch and quick half-turn which saw him losing an opposing defender before he smashed the ball into the net with his left foot.

That, understandably, made coach Mamic change his mind and he left the youngster on the pitch. At the final whistle (it ended 2-2), all eyes were on the blond, diminutive starlet, who even received applause from the hostile home crowd.

And yet, as it turned out, for Halilovic this was merely foreplay to a much bigger life-changing event.

The next day, photos of Raul Sanllehi, Barcelona’s Director of Football, surfaced all over the online media in Croatia. He came to Zagreb to secure the capture of Halilovic and wasn’t returning home without his signature.

In the evening hours, some outlets in the country already broke the story that agreement had been reached, with reports on transfer fee varying greatly from source to source. But there was no official confirmation. After midnight the player himself announced on his personal Instagram account that he was going to leave Dinamo for Barcelona in the summer.

Though Halilovic will only turn 18 in June, speculation about his future mounted for years. Even at 14, he was already well-known to big European clubs.

“I took him off the truck heading to Madrid,” Dinamo’s controversial chief executive Zdravko Mamic (brother of Zoran, the head coach) once revealed at a press conference. “His father had everything agreed with Atletico and they were moving to their new home there, but I personally stopped the family in front of the customs office at the Croatian border and talked them into returning.”

The club has long been dealing with various attempts to lure their brightest talent away from Zagreb. Multiple YouTube compilations of him dribbling and scoring for fun were made and the “Halilovic Hype” was a thing among football hipsters as soon as the player made his senior debut at the tender age of 16.

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In October 2012, he became the second-youngest player to appear in the Champions League (after Anderlecht’s Celestine Babayaro in 1994) and in June last year he made his full international debut for Croatia in a friendly match against Portugal, even looking the part.

The closest he came to leaving was last summer, when Dinamo reportedly accepted a €15 million bid from Tottenham, but the prospect of whole family moving to London did not please Halilovic’s father Sejad (a former Bosnia international). There were stories about Arsenal trying to hijack the deal, offering Sejad a job in their academy (via FourFourTwo). Soon Bayern, Borussia Dortmund and even Shakhtar Donetsk were added to the list of potential suitors.

Halilovic the father later fell out with club management, claiming Dinamo were pushing his son too hard and too soon, due to their eagerness to make him into another “project” that will make them millions, while at the same time not giving Alen a proper chance to shine in the team.

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He told Jutarnji list, a national daily newspaper, that he regretted not letting his son leave, as mediocre foreign players kept him away from the starting line-up. Dinamo claimed they had a valid professional contract with Halilovic, while the family was prepared to legally dispute it as Alen was (and still is) a minor when he signed it.

The similar case of Robert Muric, another homegrown Dinamo prospect wanted by big European clubs, was a warning enough. Muric's agent and lawyers successfully disputed his contract, meaning he can walk away once his youth deal expires. If the same was allowed to happen with Halilovic, all those years of hype and taking him off various “trucks” would pay off meagre dividends for Dinamo.

Not many people besides the Mamic brothers and Sejad Halilovic know how exactly this very tense situation was resolved, but the reasonable speculation among Croatian journalists is that it led to an intimate agreement: the kid would not leave Dinamo without a proper compensation for the club, but the family got to decide when and where. And in one TV interview back in 2012, Alen claimed his favourite foreign club was Barca.

“Barcelona are coming for Halilovic,” Zdravko Mamic revealed at another recent press conference, via Tportal. “And we are helpless to prevent them.”

It sounded like another thinly veiled attempt to fuel the hype, but it wasn’t. Andoni Zubizarreta (Barca’s other Director of Football) already struck the deal with the Halilovic family on Wednesday night, hours after Alen’s great display in Rijeka; Mr. Sanllehi, who is in charge of the business side of things, arrived in Zagreb on Thursday only to work out the details with Dinamo.

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The transfer is yet to be officially confirmed and different reports mention different amounts of money the club is bound to receive, but it can now be said with certainty that Halilovic will move to Camp Nou in the summer and start in the “B” squad.

Is it a downgrade for a player who already has the experience of playing in the Champions League and is fully capped? Perhaps, but for him it’s also a move away from the beggar’s opera that is the Croatian top division, where Dinamo Zagreb are so dominant that they won eight consecutive titles and are now marching to their ninth in a row.

Their budget is almost as big as that of all the other nine clubs combined and yet they rarely win with big margins or play good football. Complacency has become a major issue for the champions and lack of teams who can seriously challenge them domestically is taking its toll in Europe, where they are mostly getting humiliated. They haven’t won a single match in the group stage of a continental competition since 2010, managing only two draws.

That, in turn, leads to an insane number of changes at the helm – two head coaches have been fired already this season before sporting director Zoran Mamic decided to take over. In this environment, it’s not easy for a special kid like Halilovic to develop steadily.

He suffered a big slump in form and struggled to make the team – hardly a tragedy for a 17-year-old, but everyone had expected more from him. It can also be argued that Dinamo failed to find the best way to unlock his vast potential – they mostly played him on the right wing and, had not his team mate Soudani been injured, Halilovic wouldn’t even start in Rijeka.

After that game, this writer penned a column for the Croatian website Tportal, claiming the youngster’s flash of brilliance is only a further proof he must leave Dinamo sooner rather than later if he wants to prosper. At the time, I was unaware that the Barcelona deal was just hours away.

A performance like that one was long in the waiting. It wasn’t the manner in which he scored his two goals that impressed the most, but what came before them. If you pay attention to his movement before receiving the ball, you’ll see exceptional spatial awareness, so crucial in today’s game at top level.

He has great feeling for timing his runs – this instinctive understanding of space and finding just the right moment to step in from behind (The Spanish even have a word for it: llegada) is a trait greatly appreciated in Total Football, the tiki-taka and in systems utilizing the false nine position. That, along with his fabled technique, may be the principal reason why so many European giants came knocking – but also why Barcelona beat them all to his signature.

Halilovic’s style drew many comparisons. David Silva, Arjen Robben and Andres Iniesta were often mentioned, while many dubbed him the “next Modric” – probably just due to his slight build and light hair, because they are different types of players. Though there are some obvious similarities with Leo Messi as well, most people hesitate to utter his name in the same breath as Halilovic’s.

Not Zoran Mamic. Back in 2012, speaking to Spanish Canal+ TV who asked him about a player who hadn’t yet made his debut for Dinamo, he said: “I’m fully aware of how pretentious this may sound – but he’s a Messi-type player if there ever was one.”

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