Ivan Perišić: chicken farm saviour, multi-sport Croatian international, and flying, fluid winger

Ivan Perišić: chicken farm saviour, multi-sport Croatian international, and flying, fluid winger

There’s always been something about Ivan Perišić. You could describe him as technically gifted, quick, powerful and clinical – but you could be talking about anyone. It doesn’t do him justice. Even though he doesn’t emit the arrogance that you might see from similarly skilled players, you find yourself drawn to him during matches that he’s involved in.

It might be the fluid movements, the way he can shift a ball and strike, or it might be the immaculate wrist and ankle tape combo, or the slick haircut. He doesn’t show much emotion – he rarely smiles – but there’s a joy about his incredibly controlled, composed play.

A product of Hadjuk Split’s academy, Perišić wound up in Bruges via Sochaux and Roeselare at the age of 20. Perišić’s father, Ante, had told his son to move to France three years earlier in order to bring some money into his struggling chicken farm business back in Croatia. He sent Ivan, his wife and sister to Sochaux while he stayed at home, working on the farm. “Leaving for Sochaux was best for the family at the time,” Ante Perišić told Slobodna Dalmacija in 2014. “I wanted them to move away from me and my suffering.”

By 2009, Perišić had signed for Club Brugge and was fast becoming one of the hottest properties around. During his second season with the 13-time Belgian champions, he scored 22 goals in 37 league appearances as well as pulling off stunning displays weekly. Despite Brugge’s fourth-place finish, Perišić was named Belgian Player of the Year in 2011, also taking home the 2010/11 Golden Boot.

A senior cap with Croatia came in March against Georgia, sparking the start of something special with the country he called home. Borussia Dortmund’s Michael Zorc likened the tricky midfielder to Michael Ballack when he brought him to Germany that summer.

Shortly after Perišić put pen to paper with Jürgen Klopp’s side, he properly announced his arrival with an exquisite 88th-minute volleyed equaliser against Arsenal in front of the Sudtribune at the Westfalenstadion in the Champions League – not a bad way to do it. His first Bundesliga strike came away at Thomas Tuchel’s Mainz the following week with a precise finish to bring Klopp’s men level at his old stomping ground during a 2-1 win.

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That was just Dortmund’s third win in their opening seven league games. They didn’t lose any more as they stormed past Bayern Munich to win their second successive Bundesliga title. During the trophy-clinching game against Borussia Mönchengladbach, Perišić headed in the opener past Marc-André ter Stegen to ease nerves and draw BVB closer to silverware. There was also cup glory in Berlin as Dortmund sank Bayern at the Olympiastadion.

Despite a trip to Poland and Ukraine for his first major tournament, the summer wasn’t kind to Perisic. Marco Reus had impressed for Germany at the Euros and Dortmund jumped at the chance to bring him back to the club he’d supported and played for as a youngster. Perišić’s spot on the left was suddenly under threat and, before long, he was the one watching from the sidelines.

“When I sit on the bench, I’m dying,” the Croatian said. Klopp’s merry march for more trophies wasn’t pleasing everyone and the German coach took exception to Perišić’s constant demands for game time. “Public whining belongs to kindergarten, not to the world of adults,” he scathed. “If he doesn’t play, a professional should shut his mouth, work hard and make the coach select him – not complain about it to the reporters.”

And that was that. Perišić was out the door by January as Wolfsburg offered him the chance to reboot his career. It was there that he linked up with compatriot Ivica Olić, in the twilight stage of his playing days, and the pair struck up a productive partnership under Dieter Hecking.

Olić was already celebrating when his cross-cum-shot fell to Perišić during a tetchy encounter with Klopp’s Dortmund in May. Perišić found the net from close range during that 3-3 draw against the eventual Champions League runners-up. The arrival of Kevin de Bruyne from Chelsea that summer saw Wolfsburg’s fortunes swing in a more positive direction and they were soon competing for the Champions League places once more.

An agile Perišić was proving a devilish prospect to come up against as a right-back. You knew he was going to shape to go inside, then shirk outside onto his favoured left foot and shoot at goal. But then you start to doubt yourself. ‘Is he really left-footed?’ you wonder when he cuts inside and buries one with his right. Ten goals and an eventual fifth-place finish with Wolfsburg saw Perišić on the plane to Brazil for the World Cup.

FIFA named him the second-best player of the group stage after he ripped Cameroon to shreds in the second game, but a defeat at the hands of Mexico to go with the opening loss against Brazil meant Croatia weren’t going any further. “I can’t criticise the players too much, we did what we could,” Niko Kovač said. Perišić and Croatia would have to wait another four years to spring their World Cup surprise.

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Wolfsburg kept progressing and, with an attack consisting of Perišić, De Bruyne, Bas Dost and Daniel Caligiuri, they were becoming one of the most potent forces in German football. A 4-1 win over Bayern in January signalled their title-winning intentions, but Perišić was unable to contribute as much consistency as he’d have liked, or expected, to due to injury problems.

He did feature in the damaging 1-0 defeat to Gladbach at the end of April as Max Kruse’s late winner saw Wolfsburg’s hopes of winning their first league title in six years all but diminish. But there was still a DFB-Pokal to play for, and it would be Borussia Dortmund, playing their final match before Klopp stepped down, in the final.

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang put BVB ahead in the German capital before Luiz Gustavo and De Bruyne flipped the game in Wolfsburg’s favour. Perišić crossed for Dost to head in the first before the first half was out and, after a goalless second period, Die Wölfe were crowned cup champions.

Not only was it Klopp’s final game in Germany, but Perišić’s too. The forward was part of Internazionale’s summer intake as they looked to better their lowly eighth-place finish the season before. Miranda, Alex Telles, Geoffrey Kondogbia and Stefan Jovetić also arrived in Milan during that particular window. Perišić took the number 44 shirt, with his preferred number four still belonging to the retired Javier Zanetti.

The delayed transfer meant that the Croatian didn’t make his Inter debut until September in a 1-0 win in the derby against Milan. Roberto Mancini’s men were top of Serie A in January but fell to a disappointing but improved fourth. The Coppa Italia provided a more realistic chance of silverware before they were drawn with Juventus in the semi-finals. A 3-0 defeat in the first leg in Turin looked to have booked Juve’s place in the final at the Stadio Olimpico before Inter fought back.

Marcelo Brozović fired the Nerazzurri in front after 17 minutes before Perišić lost Juan Cuadrado at the back post to tap in Éder’s cross shortly after the break. Into the final ten minutes, Perišić ran onto a pass down the left and, as Daniele Rugani cornered him by the flag, he burst inside past the Italian defender, who brought him down inside the area. Brozović scored the penalty to take the game to extra time before Leonardo Bonucci sent Juve into the final after Rodrigo Palacio had missed during the shootout. Perišić went into Euro 2016 trophy-less for the campaign but with his reputation firmly enhanced.

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There was a sense of momentum growing in the Croatian ranks as the likes of Luka Modrić, Ivan Rakitić and Mario Mandžukić came into the peak of their careers. But this time, in France, their progress was truncated by a cruel blow by the head of Ricardo Quaresma in the dying embers of extra-time in Lens.

Ante Čačić’s side really should’ve beaten Portugal in that last-16 tie. They’d already triumphed over Spain in the group stages; Perišić, who had donned patriotic haircuts in the first couple of games, hit the winner when he strode past Juanfran on the halfway line and launched himself into the space in front. Nikola Kalinić sent the ball out to him and, before he could get into the box for a cross, Perišić had slid one past David de Gea at the near post.

A crazy campaign with Inter followed as, in between three different coaches and an eventual seventh-place finish, Perišić netted a late winner against Juventus in one meeting and was sent off in the next, and also came on to equalise in stoppage time against Milan.

Fed up with football, he turned his attention to another sport during the summer. He was picked to represent Croatia in the FIVB Beach Volleyball World Tour in Poreč, playing alongside Nikša Dell’Orco in their home tournament. Perišić’s involvement caught the attention of locals and saw increased crowd numbers than previous editions, but there wasn’t much success on the court for the footballer.

He and Dell’Orco were beaten in each of their three group stages matches, losing every set to pairings from the United States and Brazil. Perišić donated his match fee to the Croatian Volleyball Federation to help them develop the sport.

He had a Croatian badge on his chest again a year later in Russia. Zlatko Dalić had rescued Croatia’s chances of reaching the World Cup finals when he’d taken charge the previous October, guiding Perišić and co through a playoff against Greece in November to confirm their place in the tournament.

An unassuming win over Nigeria was practically forgotten after Croatia, in their black and navy changed strip, ripped Lionel Messi’s Argentina apart in Nizhny Novgorod. Dalić stuck to his 4-2-3-1 system for the next four weeks: Mandžukić through the middle, Perišić on the left, Ante Rebić on the right, Modrić as a number 10 or alongside Rakitić in midfield, with Brozović and Andrej Kramarić coming in to accommodate for the opponent.

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With half of the team rested against Iceland, Perišić secured maximum group stage points with a late winner to send Iceland home. They would face Denmark back in Nizhny in the round of 16 but, before they had the chance to earn their first knockout win in 20 years, they watched Spain bow out on penalties as Russia threw Croatia’s side of the draw wide open. Suddenly everyone was looking over at each other.

There were the hosts, Gareth Southgate’s young England and an awkward Colombia. Croatia dealt with Denmark and Russia from 12 yards after scrappy yet compelling theatre during normal and extra-time. England had already come through a shootout to make their own piece of history and swept aside Sweden in the quarters. Perišić’s contribution to Croatia’s semi-final victory has gone largely unheralded, perhaps because he isn’t Modrić or Rakitić.

After Kieran Trippier’s free-kick, Croatia hung on to stay in the game and were hauled back on level terms by Perišić’s heel in the second half at the Luzhniki. Then, amongst outrageous tension, he took control. He was unlucky to strike the foot of the post after a stepover and shot just minutes later, and his cross for Mandžukić in extra-time deserved a goal, but Jordan Pickford thought otherwise.

As penalties crept closer, Perišić headed Kyle Walker’s wild clearance back into the England penalty area for John Stones to inevitably head away. But he didn’t – it fell to Mandžukić who swept past Pickford to send Croatia into their first World Cup final.

You all know what happened in the final. Antoine Griezmann, Paul Pogba and Kylian Mbappé’s celebrations are the enduring image from that afternoon in Moscow. But it was Perišić who equalised for Croatia and scored their first World Cup final goal by drawing his slingshot past N’Golo Kanté and Hugo Lloris. It was also Perišić who was deemed to have handled the ball by Néstor Pitana, which gave Griezmann the opportunity to put France back in front from the spot.

They say you don’t remember losers, but you can acknowledge them and their contributions. Ivan Perišić, however, isn’t a loser – he’s just a kid that was sent to Sochaux to save his father’s chicken farm. Anything else was a bonus.

By Billy Munday @billymunday08

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