Ivan Rakitic: Born and Raised in Switzerland but Now Croatia's Key Man

Richard FitzpatrickSpecial to Bleacher ReportJuly 6, 2018

NIZHNY NOVGOROD, RUSSIA - JUNE 21:  Ivan Rakitic of Croatia celebrates after scoring his team's third goal during the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia group D match between Argentina and Croatia at Nizhny Novgorod Stadium on June 21, 2018 in Nizhny Novgorod, Russia.  (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)
Bleacher Report

Ivan Rakitic scored the goal of the year during his first full season as a starter with Basel in the Swiss Super League. He was only 19 years old when he rifled home a snap volley from outside of the box against St. Gallen in October 2006.

It is not that goal, however, for which he is remembered by Swiss football fans. Instead, it's a near miss they recall.

"It was something very particular and strange. It became famous in Switzerland. Everyone talked about the incident," Eva Tedesco, a journalist with Swiss newspaper 20 Minuten, told Bleacher Report.

Basel was playing away against old rivals Grasshoppers when Basel won a corner. Croat striker Mladen Petric, Rakitic's compatriot, loitered by the ball at the corner flag.

"Petric was Rakitic's mentor in the team," says Tedesco. "They were always together. They always tried to do something special in a game."

Petric signalled to Rakitic to take the kick by raising his arm in the air. As he did so, Petric touched the ball gently with the outside of his boot and jogged into the box. As Rakitic ran casually over to the corner quadrant, he took a quick sideways glance at the Grasshoppers defenders clustered together in the box. None of them had noticed the ball had rolled about a foot or two from the arc. It was in play.

When Rakitic got to the ball, he gathered it and stormed towards goal. Once he got inside the box, he unleashed a shot that whistled inches wide of the far, top right-hand corner of the post. It was an audacious effort.

Rakitic became hot property. He won the award for most promising newcomer in the Swiss Super League.

At the end of the season, Europe's leading clubs, including Barcelona and Milan—that season's UEFA Champions League winners—circled, as Ivan's father Luka told Croatian news magazine Nacional in 2007.

He chose to move to Schalke in the Bundesliga. The German border was only a short hop from his hometown of Mohlin in Switzerland. He grew up speaking German, so it was an easier fit. It was an early indication of the savvy mind that has served him so well during his career.

That summer, his family became engulfed in a crisis. Rakitic is part of the Croatian diaspora. His parents are Croats. His father is from Sikirevci, a town in Croatia; his mother is from a Croat family but grew up in what is now Bosnia and Herzegovina. They sensed the gathering storm in the Balkans during the mid-1980s so they moved to Switzerland, a few years before war broke out. Rakitic was born in Mohlin, a sleepy Swiss medieval town of about 10,000 people in March 1988.

Rakitic played all his representative football for Switzerland's youth teams, including four appearances for the under-21s, but he decided to declare for Croatia in June 2007 when he got the call from Croatia's then-national team manager, Slaven Bilic.

On the same night, his parents' house in Mohlin was besieged. All through the summer, the family received hate mail. Their house was defaced with graffiti. A Swiss security company phoned asking if they wanted to hire bodyguards, Ivan's mother Kata told Nacional.

"It was a scandal," says Tedesco. "Swiss people didn't want to [accept] his decision. They said, 'Oh, he's grown up here. He's had his whole football education in Switzerland. He played for all of Switzerland's under-age teams. Only because of money, he has decided to play for Croatia.' If it's true, I don't know. Ivan said always he got no money. But the reaction was terrible. His parents got a lot of death threats. They couldn't go out because people said bad things about the family."

Rakitic nailed down a starting place in the Croatia national team for the UEFA Euro 2008 finals the following year, but he was one of the players—along with Luka Modric—who failed to score during a penalty-shootout defeat to Turkey in the quarter-finals.

At club level, his career continued to prosper. After three-and-a-half seasons with Schalke, Rakitic joined Sevilla in La Liga, where he became a sensation.

In 2013, he was the club's first foreigner to captain the side since Diego Maradona. He rounded off the season with a man-of-the-match display during Sevilla's triumphant UEFA 2014 Europa League final against Benfica in Turin, Italy. His heroics led to a €20 million-plus move to Barcelona in June 2014, which marked a curious transition for him.

During his last season with Sevilla, Rakitic scored 12 goals and provided 12 assists in La Liga. He was everywhere. During four seasons with Barca, he has averaged only five goals a season in La Liga. He has suppressed his personality—the all-action player whom fans from Basel, Schalke and Sevilla remember—to better serve the team ethic at Barcelona.

VALENCIA, SPAIN - AUGUST 25: Ivan Rakitic of Sevilla in action during the La Liga match between Levante UD and Sevilla FC at Ciutat de Valencia Stadium on August 25, 2013 in Valencia, Spain. (Photo by Manuel Queimadelos Alonso/Getty Images)
Manuel Queimadelos Alonso/Getty Images

"Rakitic was Sevilla's most important player," Jordi Quixano, a Barcelona-based journalist with El Pais, told B/R. "He went from being the king of Seville to being a servant at Barcelona. With Sevilla, he took the corners, frees and penalties. He played more attacking. He scored more goals. He didn't have to cover back as much.

"At Barcelona, that changed. He said to me in an interview: 'I run for Messi because he deserves it.' Rakitic knows the role he has at Barca. He knows he can't do the same as he did at Sevilla. He's a different kind of player."

Quixano attributes Rakitic's successful transformation to his innate intelligence. He speaks seven languages (Croatian, German, Italian, English, French, Spanish and Catalan). He married a local woman in Seville who used to serve him coffee after a courtship that he spoke about like the script of a Hollywood romcom in a recent interview with The Players' Tribune.

"He's a very normal person, as much as he can be," says Quixano. "He's intelligent, cultured. For somebody who is that open-minded, who speaks several languages, and who has interests outside of football—he's not a footballer who likes just sports—shows you he's a different kind of footballer. For these reasons, he could change his style of play. He understands what happens on the pitch. He's very smart."

"It's surprising that he has become a water carrier at Barcelona," Aleksandar Holiga, editor of the Croatian website Telesport, told B/R. "He's not one of their key players, but he is important.

"When he started playing, he was such a huge talent. His former club Schalke even let Mesut Ozil go [to Werder Bremen in 2008] because they thought Rakitic was better. It was always considered that Rakitic would become a star, but he never became that player. He became a useful team player who is not afraid to put his services at the disposal of the collective. Maybe playing for Croatia was a factor because he played alongside Modric, who has always really been the better player."

Until now, perhaps. During this summer's FIFA World Cup finals in Russia, Rakitic has come out from under the shadow of Modric. It is a revelation for supporters of his national team who have watched him play second fiddle to him for over a decade. They are now dovetailing effectively. It had always been a puzzle about how to fit the two playmakers together into the team.

Rakitic and Modric are finally complementing each other.
Rakitic and Modric are finally complementing each other.Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

"For the first time at this World Cup the problem has been solved to a satisfactory degree," says Holiga. "For 10 years, no manager could find a way to fit them both in a complementary way. There were various suggestions. We always thought it would be best to play them in a position that was closest to what they were playing at their clubs."

Part of the problem, adds Holiga, is that Croatia was without a good holding midfielder to accommodate them in a 4-3-3 system since the departure of Niko Kovac shortly after the 2008 UEFA Euro finals. Now, playing in the World Cup finals in a variation of that system—a 4-1-4-1 lineup—the pair is thriving.

Rakitic—who scored in the resounding 3-0 defeat of Messi's Argentina as well as exorcising the ghosts of Euro 2008 by scoring his spot-kick against Denmark in the last-16 penalty shootout—has been indomitable. He's one of the reasons why Croatia are heading into the quarter-final tie against hosts Russia with confidence.

"Previously Rakitic would sometimes fail to deliver for Croatia, especially at the big tournaments, but not this time," says Holiga. "If I had to name one Croatian player that has really risen to the occasion at this World Cup, it would be Rakitic. You always expect it from Modric, but Rakitic is just as good as him at this World Cup. It's something new for Croatia." 

        

Follow Richard on Twitter: @Richard_Fitz  

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