June 11th 2010: the World Cup opening ceremony kicked off in front of the capacity crowd at the Soccer City stadium in Johannesburg, Mateo Kovačić was yet to train permanently with the senior at his club side Dinamo Zagreb and hadn’t even come close to a full international cap. He was still playing with the Croatian Under 17’s setup at this point.
June 12th 2014: this year, he’ll be in attendance at the lavish ceremony planned for the Arena de Sao Paulo in front of an almost-capacity crowd; the stadium isn’t fully constructed yet.
Kovačić has come an awful long way in the space of four years but it is hardly surprising when you learn he is nicknamed ‘The Professor’ by his team-mates; he turned 20 at the beginning of May. He’ll certainly be one of the youngest to feature in Brazil, and one of the most admired. The Internazionale midfielder has been touted as a future star ever since he could kick a ball, and was signed up by local side LASK Linz – a historic club, but one which currently languishes in the third tier of Austrian football.
Born in Austria to Bosnian-Croatian parents, Kovačić’s allegiance to Croatia never wavered – and he’s represented them for almost a decade – beginning at Under 14 level all the way through to becoming a fully-fledged international, culminating in the upcoming World Cup. Croatia have rewarded his fidelity, too. He’s one of the nation’s most prized assets. In 2011 he was named ‘Croatian Football Hope of the Year’, a lofty amount of pressure to place on the shoulders of a then 17-year old. He’s handled it well, though – heading into his third year in Milan at Internazionale, he is in good stead to continue to build on his reputation as one of Europe’s top-rated young talents. A large amount of credit, must go to his Father, and the life-altering decisions he made for Mateo in his early teenage years.
With top European scouting networks being what they are, it didn’t take too long for Kovačić to be identified as a standout talent in the youth setup in Zagreb. Ajax, Arsenal, Bayern Munich, Internazionale and Juventus all expressed an interest in the young starlet in his early teenage years – all efforts made by each of these clubs were rebuffed by his Father, who even rejected a move to Mateo’s current club Inter Milan in 2007. When an offer came from Mercedes-backed Bundesliga outfit Stuttgart, a clause was inserted to the deal by the top brass at Daimler AG Headquarters which guaranteed Mateo’s Father Stipo a well paid job with the company on arrival alongside his young son. This offer too, was rejected.
Stipo Kovačić admitted he had always dreamt of living in Zagreb, and drinking coffee in the Ban Jelačić Square; so, when the offer came from Dinamo to acquire a then 13-year old Mateo for their budding youth system – it was accepted and he moved there. Stipo is quoted as saying “Drinking coffee there [the square] is worth much more than thousands of Euros”. A questionable statement, but the family moved from Linz in Austria at that time, and remain in Zagreb to this day.
Kovačić didn’t take long to make his mark. Under Vahid Halilhodžić, current Algeria coach – it would take nothing less than a miracle to see the two meet in Brazil, he was brought into the first-team. He debuted at the tender age of 16 [and 198 days], becoming the youngest player and scorer; he bagged a goal on his debut, to have appeared in the Croatian top division – the Prva NHL. With Croatia’s World Cup side certain to feature Luka Modrić fresh off the back of his side’s Champions League triumph, and Ivan Rakitić who also comes in on a high; having lifted the Europa League with his domestic side, Sevilla – who he captains. It’s understandable then to wonder quite where Mateo Kovačić will fit in, amidst this plethora of playmaking talent.
His path to the inevitable success the future holds for him has become rocky this year with Internazionale appointing Walter Mazzarri, a man who at times seemed unwilling to risk playing Kovačić in his side; given his rather undeveloped nature as a footballer – he instead opted for experience, but experience doesn’t necessarily bring ability; and the season was inevitably fruitless. The midfielder averaged a mere 46 minutes per-game for the Nerazzurri in the 2013/14 Serie A campaign. The midfielder put in a stellar performance in Javier Zanetti’s farewell game at the San Siro, racking up a hat-trick of assists in a 4-1 victory over Lazio – the youngster perhaps had an eye on the World Cup, with the season concluding. Zanetti himself has noted that young Mateo is the “future of Internazionale. And I’m old enough to be his Father”. Praise indeed.
The question then is, where will the 20-year old fit in for the Croatian side? Given Rakitić’s and Modrić’s spectacular season’s, the midfield is swamped with creativity as it stands. New coach Niko Kovač has promised though, to do away with the perpetual tactical experiments of his predecessor Igor Štimac; and solidify the team in a 4-2-3-1 ‘come 4-1-4-1’ formation. This appears to be good news for Kovačić who has featured behind the striker in both of Croatia’s most recent warm-up games, and laid on a goal for Ivaca Olić against Switzerland.
A creative axis comprised of Luka Modrić, Ivan Rakitić and Mateo Kovačić is a frightening thought. But it isn’t quite as simple as that. Kovačić isn’t as sculpted, not as cultured and certainly not as industrial as his playmaking compatriots. He will need to be given more time, more space – he isn’t as capable as Luka nor Ivan in working in compact areas of the field and given Brazil’s high pressure nature, also taking into account that it’s the opening game of their host World Cup – perhaps it is wise to acknowledge there be an absence of the fireworks we’d like to see from Mateo, come June 12th.
Croatia return to the World Cup this summer having missed South Africa in 2010, the first time they’d failed to qualify in 4 attempts. This for many is as exciting as we’ve seen a Croatian side since their ‘Golden [Bronze] Generation’ of 1998, featuring the likes of Davor Šuker and captain Zvonimir Boban. The latter said of Kovačić when Inter signed him – “He could be a better player than I was. He’s a complete talent”. No better place to fulfil your potential than in front of the World, Mateo.