THE EXPLOITS and activities of elite football clubs in the current era are often ruthless, both on and off the pitch. Every European superpower has a youth system filled with talented players, plucked from their local area or carefully cherry picked from rival clubs or international partners via an extensive scouting network.
The tentacles of major clubs can reach every corner of the globe; they have influence, both informally and formally, with clubs that will often alert them about a developing talent. If deemed good enough, the player will get a chance at a big club, with his selling club usually receiving some form of settlement. This strategy represents little risk for either club given their relative financial positions, with the only real likely fall guy being the player himself. These situations are far from a new occurrence, and the old adage of the potential reward of a big chance is often enough to encourage players to make moves of this ilk.
The demands at major sides, competing for both domestic and European honours, creates a necessity for large squads in order to cope with the rigours of a long season. Indeed, certain clubs have gained reputations for stockpiling players and over filling their academy sides with players simply because they can, and the level of investment is paltry compared to their income.
When a player is snapped up as a 12-year-old – or younger in some cases – their progress is mostly kept in-house, with only club zealots overly informed as to how likely they are to make it. However, when a young player is signed further into their development – as a late teenager perhaps – that has played first team football, fans and the club itself are more demanding.
When there is large-scale hype surrounding a young player, managers will look to be defensive and pragmatic, and demand time for them to adjust to the physicality and pace of the professional game, as talent only gets you so far. This style of gently-gently was employed by Barcelona following their 2014 signing of Croatian youngster Alen Halilović, with the club looking to keep under wraps a very talented prospect.
Halilović progressed through the youth ranks at Dinamo Zagreb and came to the attention of clubs across Europe due to his precocious talent in midfield. He became Dinamo’s youngest ever player in 2012 at just 16 years and 101 days, before becoming their youngest ever goalscorer a few weeks later. His first season with the club, initially under Ante Čačić and then under Krunoslav Jurčić, was one of development, used sparingly as an impact sub to acclimatise him to senior football. He made real progress over the course of the season and was rewarded with a senior cap for Croatia, in a close season friendly against Portugal, making him the nation’s youngest ever debutant just 16.
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In the 2013-14 campaign, he established himself in the first team under Jurčić, making 41 appearances in all competitions. He had endeared himself to a set of fans who, over the years, had seen talent such as Zvonimir Boban, Robert Prosinečki and Luka Modrić come through their ranks, with assured displays as the team’s creative output. He was given a real tactical freedom by Dinamo, playing between midfield and attack, with a more structured unit behind him supplying the passes for him to create the goals.
Dinamo were confident that Halilović, alongside another rising star in Marcelo Brozović, could help build a platform for success for the coming years. The midfield partnership of the two youngsters, with Brozović in a slightly withdrawn role and Halilović further forward, looked full of promise, particularly as the club tried to overcome the exit of Mateo Kovačić.
Kovačić had left the club to join Inter Milan in January 2013, despite showing early glimpses of a potentially lethal partnership with both Halilović and Brozović in 2012-13. However, a big money offer from the Italian giants was never likely to be turned down by a club in Dinamo’s position. Despite the lingering threat of players heading for the exit, the club marched on and secured the Croatian league title in 2013-14, but the writing looked to be on the wall for Halilović. The triumph was to be Halilovic’s second consecutive one, but also his final one, before a summer exit to Spain.
Although somewhat expected by both the club and its’ fans, it was a real hammer blow for the Croatian champions to lose not just one but two of their best players in a matter of months. Although Halilović’s departure was far less acrimonious than Kovačić’s a year earlier, leaving for Barcelona was seen as a young man following his dream, even by those within the club.
Barcelona had made their interest known earlier in the season, and despite a potential transfer ban they still forced the deal through, concerned about interest from other European sides. In fact, Barcelona even agreed to move Halilović’s whole family from Croatia to Catalonia, including his father, Sejad Halilović, a former Bosnian international, and his younger brother, who signed for the Barcelona academy.
Halilović bore all the hallmarks of a typical Barcelona player; technically accomplished with accurate passing, quick off the mark and positionally flexibility, he was earmarked as a player with a first-team future. His first season at the Camp Nou was unremarkable, playing for a B side which finished bottom of the Segunda Divisióon, with just one substitute appearance in the Copa del Rey to his name. Despite a low-key beginning to life with the Spanish giants, he was still talked about in whispers as a real prospect, but his chances would be limited in the short term.
With this in mind, Barcelona opted to loan him out in 2015-16, to Sporting Gijón, to gain first team experience and get him up to speed with the pace of La Liga. He performed well under Abelardo, forming a great relationship with Jony Rodríguez and Antonio Sanabria, and helping the club stave off relegation.
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He returned to Barcelona but again his path was blocked. His Croatia international team-mate, Ivan Rakitić. who had signed from Sevilla the previous season, had cemented a first team place, while La Masia academy graduates, Sergi Roberto and Rafinha, had also pushed themselves ahead in the queue. In addition to this, Halilović was returning to a side that had won consecutive Liga titles, and despite his performances in Asturias, a winning formula was unlikely to be disrupted.
Halilović was left out in the cold, deemed surplus to requirements at the club, and at 19 he could see his big move already in danger of turning sour very quickly. Barcelona had held him in high regard, perhaps not as a future Messi or Neymar, but as a player who could fulfil a role within their system akin to that of Denis Suárez or André Gomes. Placed at a crossroads, the club and the player decided that a move was necessary to stop stagnation, and Bundesliga side Hamburg swooped to sign him for €5.5 million. Barcelona, unsurprisingly, inserted a buy-back clause into the deal. The nature of the buy-back, particularly in this deal, again reinforces the notion of the lack of risk for big clubs when dealing with emerging players.
Halilović should go on to have a successful career as he has all of the raw materials at his disposal, but circumstance has dictated that his biggest chance may well have already gone. Few doubted his ability upon arrival in Catalonia, but the environment changes quickly at clubs such as Barcelona and he was caught in a moment that just was not his.
Had he arrived a few months earlier, or even at the start of the 2016-17 rebuilding project by Luis Enrique, he could have had a chance of making an impact. But with the pressure to be successful instantly, Barcelona have little time for developing players within the first team, and Halilović was a casualty of this relentless pursuit of winning.
He only has to look to Madrid to see how environment and timing can dictate vividly how successful a new recruit can be. His former Dinamo team-mate Kovačić, signed by Los Blancos in 2015, has only now carved out a niche for himself under Zinedine Zidane, as the club needed an energetic creative midfielder to supplement their collective unit.
Norwegian teenager Martin Ødegaard, however, who signed for Real amid much fanfare in 2015, has seen his progress come to a halt. He has been loaned to Dutch side Heerenveen, and although he still has time on his side, there is a feeling that his move to the Eredivisie is make or break for his time at the Bernabéu.
The margins are so pitilessly thin, and the demands are so high, that even the best and the brightest can struggle under the spotlight. The striking notion about Halilović is that had all the variables aligned, he could have been part of the Barcelona future, however it was just not meant to be.
By Feargal Brennan. Follow @FeargalBren