Enjoy Ivan Rakitić while you can …

Enjoy Ivan Rakitić while you can …

When Rüştü Reçber leapt to his left to bat away Mladen Petrić’s spot-kick at the Ernst-Happel-Stadion in Vienna, Croatia’s footballing world fell apart for a split second. A fairly inexperienced yet vastly talented group of players sat in the centre circle, some face down in the turf, others clutching their knees, others gazing up, pondering what could have been.

Ivan Rakitić was one of those to miss from 12 yards in that Euro 2008 quarter-final defeat to Turkey but, a decade on, the penalty pendulum would sway his way and, by then, for what he’d achieved in the meantime, he was one of the most coveted players on the planet.

Twelve months prior to that haunting Euros exit, a 19-year-old Rakitić was still in Switzerland, where he’d spent the entirety of his childhood. After a breakthrough year in the Swiss Super League, Basel cashed in on another precious product of their youth system as the promising midfielder headed to Germany to play for Schalke. The teenager’s performances in the Bundesliga that season earned him a first senior call-up, but not for the nation he’d represented at under-17, 19 and 21 levels, but the country of his father’s birth. Slaven Bilić barged to the front of the queue, ahead of Switzerland, to secure Rakitić’s international services.

A week after donning the red and white chequered strip of Croatia for the first time, Rakitić was back in blue playing for Schalke at the Allianz Arena. With the game goalless ten minutes before the break, Gerald Asamoah found his fresh-faced teammate on the edge of the box who, after killing the ball dead with his first touch, looked up, pinpointed the corner he wanted to find and sent a projectile shot past Oliver Kahn’s despairing dive. Miroslav Klose’s second-half equaliser meant that Rakitić’s first Schalke goal didn’t earn them all three points, but a lot of admirers from across Europe. There was also attention, more of it in fact, on one of his teammates.

The world didn’t get to witness much more than six months of Mesut Özil and Rakitić joining forces and, although that period came plenty of time before their peaks, it’s still savoured by Schalke fans. Özil left for Werder Bremen in January, but that didn’t stop Mirko Slomka’s side from making history, reaching the quarter-finals of the Champions League for the first time in the club’s 104 years. Rakitić netted in the last-16 shoot-out triumph over Porto but missed both legs against Barcelona due to injury. I guess the Camp Nou could wait. So could Spain – but not for too long.

After a less prolific second campaign at Schalke, a sizzling third season put this youngster back on the radar of clubs across Europe and, although he wasn’t able to strut his stuff in South Africa as he had done at Euro 2008 alongside Luka Modrić and Niko Kranjčar in a compelling and controlling Croatian midfield, there was plenty of interest.

Six months after watching La Roja lift their first World Cup from his sofa, Rakitić was on the move to join many of those Spanish stars in LaLiga. Sevilla paid just €2.5m to bring the 20-year-old over to the Ramón Sánchez-Pizjuán and plonk him under the nose of head coach Gregorio Manzano. While his legs were still fresh with youthful enthusiasm, Rakitić was never the quickest player and, as his speed slowed in the years to come, he slotted perfectly into the Spanish style of play.

Read  |  The making of Luka Modrić from war-torn Croatia to the world’s best midfielder

His impact was felt straight away, in fact, in an eventful first few games in his new white strip. The first blot on his coffee book came in his second appearance with an own goal in a 3-2 defeat at Racing Santander, but that page was ripped out a week later when he was the hero against Hércules, hitting the second-half winner. Those three points took Sevilla back up into the European places, but they were still a long way off the top four. A trip to the Vicente Calderón posed problems too but those Andalusian fears were eased when Álvaro Negredo rifled in the opener for the visitors.

A very young-looking Koke headed in the equaliser shortly after the break before Jesús Navas received the ball on the right wing. He looked up, spotted Rakitić lurking on the edge of the area and laid the ball back for the silky midfielder to stroke in past David de Gea and into the far corner in an eerie resemblance to that goal at Bayern Munich a couple of years before. That essence of getting forward – ‘arriving’ as they say in Spain – became a signpost of Rakitić’s game during his time in Seville. He often took up positions between the lines, but that wasn’t easy against Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona, who visited Seville having dropped just seven league points all season.

The Blaugrana took the lead thanks to a magisterial pass from Andrés Iniesta, with Bojan Krkić eventually bundling the ball in. However, the blonde-haired prodigy in the Sevilla ranks came up with his own magical moment, receiving the ball in behind Sergio Busquets and, in the split-second he had to offload it, swivelling it round to Luis Fabiano like an incredibly efficient revolving door. The Brazilian fed Negredo and the ball ended up in the back of the net via Navas’ forehead. A point against Barcelona and a further three at Mestalla the following week courtesy of Rakitić’s raking finish served as a motivational platform to continue climbing the table towards the Champions League places.

Manzano’s side came within just four points of qualifying for Europe’s premier club competition in a thrilling chase that didn’t bear fruit. In fact, there would be no continental football in Seville for the following two seasons. With mediocrity reigning under Marcelino and then Michel, Unai Emery was brought in to boost the team’s fortunes in January 2013.

Back in the chequered colours of his country, Rakitić once again suffered Euros heartbreak in Gdansk, with Spain sealing their group stage exit in a tale of two Sevilla teammates. Rakitić missed a point-blank header that would’ve taken Croatia through and, after Iker Casillas had kept it out, Navas bashed the ball in at the other end to send them home.

Having failed to qualify for the 2010 World Cup, Rakitić was determined to make the next edition in Brazil. Croatia booked their plane to Rio despite losing three of their last four fixtures in a hotly contested group with Belgium, Serbia, Scotland and Wales. By the time the finals rolled around the following summer, Rakitić was a Europa League winner after a run full of trepidation. Emery’s side came back from a first-leg deficit in the last 16 against fierce rivals Real Betis and in the last eight against Porto. Valencia would’ve given them a bitter taste of their own medicine in the semi-finals if it wasn’t for Stéphane Mbia’s heroic 94th-minute header at Mestalla.

Sevilla’s shoot-out takers stepped up to face Jan Oblak in goal, but the Slovenian stopper was bettered by Beto, who saved two penalties as Benfica were beaten for the second final on the bounce. Now captain, Rakitić was the one trusted with lifting that flower vase of a trophy into the Turin sky before heading off in search of a bigger prize on another continent.

Read  |  The loyalty and legend of Darijo Srna, the man who made the right flank his own

Niko Kovač’s Croatia weren’t tipped to be at the Maracanã come the end of the tournament, but many fancied them as dark horses. They were under the spotlight on opening night, the villains in Brazil’s carnival curtain-raiser. Marcelo gave them a head start but Rakitić, Modrić and co. were ultimately outrun by the boisterous Brazilian midfield of Oscar, Paulinho and Luiz Gustavo.

A ten-man Cameroon were clinically dispatched in the thick jungle heat of Manaus to serve up a spicy winner-takes-all contest with Mexico in Recife. Well, a point would see Miguel Herrera’s side into the last-16 but you try telling that man to calmly settle for a draw. A three-goal flourish stopped Croatia in their tracks and it was the end of the road for the squad’s senior figures like Darijo Srna, Ivica Olić and Danijel Pranjić as far as World Cups were concerned. The flight back to Zagreb was sombre, but Rakitić wouldn’t be getting the connection to Seville afterwards. During his time away, Barcelona had agreed a deal to sign him.

Having surrendered the Copa del Rey to Real Madrid, let the LaLiga title slip through their fingers to Atlético Madrid on the final day, and then watched as Los Blancos finally got their hands on La Décima the previous season, Barcelona had work to do. Luis Enrique was the new man at the helm, bringing in Rakitić, two new goalkeepers in Claudio Bravo and Marc-Andre ter Stegen, as well as a banned Luis Suárez during the transfer window. There was a changing of the guard too as Carles Puyol retired and Victor Valdés, Cesc Fábregas and Alexis Sánchez departed. Xavi would follow them a year later, but he couldn’t leave on such a low.

Ousting that midfield maestro was tough enough, let alone cementing your place in a trio that had ruled football with both club and country. In front of the likes of Busquets, Iniesta, Xavi and Rakitić was one special trident, with Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar sticking on the same wavelength for the whole season. In May, all the ribbons were red and blue, from the Copa del Rey to LaLiga to the Champions League. Having powered past Bayern in the semi-finals, the Blaugrana would head to Berlin for the final.

Rakitić hadn’t found the back of one of the Olympiastadion nets during his spell at Schalke and he made up for that missed opportunity by tucking away the first chance of the final with Juventus. After Álvaro Morata’s equaliser, the Croatian would’ve put Barcelona back in front if he wasn’t beaten to the rebound of Messi’s shot by Suárez.

In a show of Luis Enrique’s trust in the floppy-haired 27-year-old in midfield, Iniesta was substituted first, allowing Xavi to come in for his swansong. Half an hour later, the captain held the big-eared cup aloft surrounded his teammates as Andrea Pirlo let a few tears escape his ducts on the pitch down below, with Paul Pogba, Arturo Vidal and Claudio Marchisio comforted him. That was quite a midfield, too.

Barcelona’s business wasn’t as impressive that summer and, with the Rakitić-Busquets-Iniesta stranglehold in the middle, it’s no surprise €34m Arda Turan never hit it off at the Camp Nou. The Turk, who had been on the opposing side to Rakitić in that Euro 2008 quarter-final – minus the beard – wasn’t even in the travelling party as the Catalans thumped Real Madrid at the Santiago Bernabéu in November.

Read  |  The grit and the big-game goals of Mario Mandžukić, one of the football’s most underrated forwards

With a three-goal advantage after just 55 minutes, Rakitić was rested ahead of hosting Roma in the Champions League in midweek. Four goals against Los Blancos were followed by six against the Italians and another four at home to Real Sociedad the next weekend. They needed a cricket umpire at the Camp Nou rather than a football referee those days.

Rafa Benítez’s office at Valdebebas was cleared out soon after and, by the time Real Madrid docked Barcelona in April, the tide had changed. With Zinedine Zidane at the helm, Los Blancos had hit form at just the right time and were now challenging on all fronts.

Their victory at the Camp Nou was the first of four in five for Barcelona as their spot at the top of the LaLiga table toppled and their seat at Europe’s top table was taken from under them by Atlético in the Champions League quarter-finals. Valencia were given a helping hand by Rakitić’s own goal and, as they took away from the Camp Nou with three points, just one separated Barcelona and Real heading into the final five fixtures.

Those five matches produced 24 Barcelona goals, including a vital opener from Rakitić back in Seville against Betis, maximum points and a second league title in succession.

In a matter of weeks, Rakitić was in France preparing for another major tournament in which he and his teammates were being namechecked by many but tipped to win the trophy by very few. The Barcelona midfielder made his mark during the second group game against the Czech Republic in Saint-Étienne, digging the ball up and over Petr Čech to put Croatia 2-0 up. A Czech fightback meant that qualification for the round of 16 wasn’t assured as Croatia travelled west to meet Spain in Bordeaux.

With Modric out injured, Rakitić took on the responsibility of winning the midfield battle against some of his clubmates. After Morata had opened the scoring, Nikola Kalinić chased down David de Gea’s heavy touch and there was Rakitić, in his natural habitat, waiting for something to arise from the edge of the area. The ball fell to his feathery feet and, with his first touch, he lifted it over a stranded De Gea. With Gerard Piqué jumping to clear it off the line, it pinballed off the crossbar and the far post before bouncing back into the goalkeeper’s grateful grasp. A let-off, for sure, for the reigning champions, but the Croatian comeback was on the cards anyway. Kalinić and Perišić made sure of that to see Ante Čačić’s side into the last 16 as group winners.

Cristiano Ronaldo awaited them in Lens and, with Rakitić watching from the bench having been taken off in extra time, Portugal waited 117 minutes to hit the winner through Ricardo Quaresma, although Croatia would’ve certainly been kicking themselves for the chances they’d passed up.

There was a new Portuguese player on the block at Barcelona as Andre Gomes was prised from Valencia for big bucks. Despite the 23-year-old appearing slightly out of his depth, he was still given the odd start, sometimes at Rakitić’s expense, to prove himself. One of those came against Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League – and it didn’t end well.

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

After being pummelled at the Parc des Princes, Luis Enrique returned Rakitić to his rightful place for the second leg. The comeback was on thanks to strikes from Suárez and Messi and an own goal from Layvin Kurzawa, but then Edinson Cavani’s rocket rendered the previous hour’s efforts pointless. With Barcelona needing to switch from their game plan of control, Rakitić was swapped for Gomes and, well, you know the rest.

There were more tables to be turned at home, with Real Madrid sitting comfortably on top of the LaLiga one with just a month of the campaign remaining. If Barcelona dropped points at the Bernabéu, there would no longer ‘be league’ as the Spanish refer to a title race.

Casemiro scrambled in the first for the hosts before a bloodied Messi slid the ball under Keylor Navas a few minutes later. The visitors then went in from thanks to Rakitić’s first Clásico goal – a majestic left-footed piledriver into the side netting from the edge of the box. James Rodríguez emerged to level the scores before Messi ensured there definitely would ‘be league’ in the weeks to come, even if the trophy stayed in the capital.

Having shared plenty of pitches in club football, Rakitić and Messi’s paths crossed on the international stage for the first in Russia the following year. Croatia took advantage of Jorge Sampaoli and his squad self-imploding in Nizhny Novgorod with three second-half goals. The second and third were converted by the two ageing artists in midfield who, with years of experience at the highest level under their belts, were now handing out the lessons, even to each other. Composure was key for Croatia in their last-16 tie with Denmark and, after a frantic start and a missed penalty from Modrić, Rakitić rolled in the winning spot-kick to seal their safe passage to Sochi.

It was there, in the sticky heat of the south, that they encountered the hosts. After a match which had lurched left and right, Mario Fernandes, the hero of extra-time, sent his penalty in the same direction as Rakitić had done ten years before in Vienna – wide. That just left the Croatian midfielder to pick out the same few net squares that he’d smothered in the previous round with his penalty to send Zlatko Dalić’s men into the final four.

Where English minds muddied in that semi-final, Croatian ones sharpened as tiredness became just a word for the team that had played 510 minutes to get to Moscow. Those history makers, whirred on by their two midfield brains, had plenty left in the tank but, in the biggest game in all of their lives, not enough to beat a boisterous France in the final.

It’s been a chequered couple of campaigns at the Camp Nou since – and I’m not talking about the kit. “They have taken the ball away from me, I feel sad,” Ivan Rakitić said as he began to be left out of Barcelona teams and squads under Ernesto Valverde. I imagine that’s how we, as football fans, will feel when he finally hangs up his boots – so enjoy him while he’s still here.

By Billy Munday @billymunday08

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