A handful of clubs in the world today represent the highest peak a football player can reach in his professional career. For Ivan Rakitic, there has been only one of them: Making a debut for Barcelona will be like conquering his own personal Mount Everest.
Many wanted Rakitic after his brilliance last season, which climaxed in the Swiss-born Croatian midfielder leading Sevilla to the Europa League title as team captain. He produced 15 goals and 18 assists across all competitions, with WhoScored.com ranking him as La Liga’s fourth best performer. Ahead of him were only Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale.
He could choose where he wanted to go, but he only ever wanted Barca, Rakitic revealed to Croatia’s daily newspaper Sportske novosti (via Football Espana, original article in Croatian here). “I always wanted to join Barcelona,” he said. “It was my desire.”
And it’s not just courtesy talking. Rakitic is the type of guy who speaks his mind or he doesn’t say anything at all.
There were times when it didn’t look like he was going to make it to the very top, though.
Sure, he was something of a wonderkid in his teenage years and Chelsea reportedly made a very serious attempt to sign him when he was merely 16, as per the Guardian. But he rose through the youth ranks at FC Basel and joined Schalke, wanting to have a more steady and gradual development.
The Bundesliga club even offloaded their homegrown star Mesut Ozil to Werder Bremen in order to make room for Rakitic. But in the end they had to let him go for just €2.5 million—half of what they paid Basel for his services—as his contract was about to expire after three-and-a-half years in Gelsenkirchen and the player wasn’t happy at the club anymore.
The move to Sevilla perhaps wasn’t a downgrade, but it certainly wasn’t a step forward, either. Rakitic had a decent season-and-a-half in Spain, but—already turning 24—he was still very far from reaching the star status and class he now has.
And then, in the summer of 2012, something happened that set him right back on track.
“That experience will stay with me forever;” Rakitic told FourFourTwo in January this year, referring to a huge chance he missed for Croatia—the country of his parents that he chose to represent after playing for Switzerland’s national youth teams—at Euro 2012. Spain’s Iker Casillas saved his close-range header in the group decider, with 30 minutes to go and the score at 0-0.
It was a failure for Rakitic, but it only served to inspire him, he claimed. “You have to make mistakes in order to improve and I think that particular one helped shaped me into the player I am today, because somehow my career really kicked off from there,” he said.
Rakitic did improve, even rapidly so, morphing into one of the hottest La Liga midfielders over the next two seasons, but of course it wasn’t just because the Casillas save that set him on a soul-searching course. Arguably more important than that was the fact he began to be increasingly used in a more advanced midfield position at Sevilla, closer to the attacking action.
While he’s a good defensive midfielder, Rakitic’s main strengths are key passes, crosses and shots from outside the area. He really comes to life in central or attacking midfield positions. His very deep midfield role for Croatia at the 2014 World Cup was a key issue in all the discussions about Niko Kovac team’s failure to get past the group stage in Brazil.
It seems that new Barcelona coach Luis Enrique primarily sees Rakitic as the longer-term replacement for Xavi. But how do you replace such a seminal player, one that has redefined our understanding of the playmaker in modern football and has been central to the style that conquered the world?
“I am not Xavi,” the Croat said in that Sportske novosti interview. “Replacements for such a great player don’t exist.”
Ivan Rakitic is set for his official debut for Barcelona on Sunday evening against Elche and questions are abundant.
Is he really good enough? How will he fit into the team? Can he offer an option of a more direct playmaking approach, whilst still retaining the ability to operate in classic Barca mode? Can he play tiki-taka?
It’s exciting and terrifying at the same time. It might be the dawning of a new Barcelona era. But as he steps foot onto the hallowed Camp Nou turf, Ivan Rakitic will be living the dream and trying to make the best out of it.