(Photo credit: Clément Bucco-Lechat)
Ivan Rakitic was destined to be an architect.
The Barcelona man put in another majestic performance on Tuesday night, helping his team to a 1-1 draw at Stamford Bridge.
Had he made different choices as a youngster, though, he may not have been a footballer at all.
Before deciding on a professional career, he interned for Herzog and De Meuron, one of Europe’s premier architects involved in the construction of Beijing’s ‘Birds Nest’.
Ivan’s father would have been proud either way. He too had been a footballer, lining out for Celik Zenica before the Bosnian War put an end to his sporting career.
With the world disintegrating around him, he moved his family to Mohlin, an unassuming village in Switzerland where stability and sanity prevailed.
Rakitic’s parents got working-class jobs and settled into working class lives. Their sons Dejan and Ivan grew up Swiss, considered themselves Swiss and, in Ivan’s case, played for Swiss football teams.
His talent was so prodigious that he was drafted into the youth academy at FC Basel aged 7, a cocky young playmaker who idolised Robert Prosinecki.
Bright young talent
By the time he made a first-team debut ten years later, he was considered one of the brightest prospects on the continent.
So much so, that he was on the radar of the Croatian Football Federation. Slaven Bilic visited the youngster personally, convincing him to align himself with the country of his mother and father.
Just like that, the gem of Switzerland’s multi-kulti generation, a star at a raft of youth international levels, was lost.
A German distraction
Rakitic’s decision brought repercussions for his family in Basel but his own move to Schalke in 2007 helped distance him from the backlash.
He took the number 10 shirt in Germany, with his frosted highlights and fancy technique helping the club to consecutive places in the top six.
In his final season, he was integral as the club finished runners-up in the Bundesliga, but new horizons opened up as his contract expired.
Sevilla: City of Love
Internazionale and Manchester United were linked but Rakitic decided on one of his idol’s former clubs. Robert Prosinecki was past his best for Sevilla in 1996, but nobody could accuse Rakitic of the same.
Slotting immediately into the midfield, Rakitic evolved into one of Europe’s best playmakers, sitting deep as he threaded plays for Diego Capel and Jesus Navas. Sevilla finished fifth in his debut season, but his first year in Andalucia was memorable more for matters off the field.
On the night before signing for the club, Rakitic took himself to the hotel bar, unable to sleep with the nerves. There, he encountered a beautiful waitress named Raquel. Turning to his brother, he promised that he would marry her – a difficult proposition with the young Croat not knowing a word of Spanish.
A months-long courtship ensued. Several hours of language lessons and hand-gestures later, they became an item. ‘Raketa’ (‘Rocket’) as he was nicknamed by the Croatian press, was finally beginning to take off.
The Rocket takes off
By the end of the 2014 season, he had led his side to consecutive victories in the Europa league, whilst also becoming the side’s first foreign captain since Diego Maradona.
His final campaign had been the most prolific of his career, with 15 goals and 17 assists. At the age of 26, he was finally ready for the step-up to the elite.
So too was Luis Enrique, whose work at Celta Vigo had piqued the interest of a Barcelona board looking to replace Tata Martino. Rakitic was his first signing, but he was more than a world-class footballer.
He was also a symbol, a harbinger of a new era at the Camp Nou that would be less devoted to a Cruyffian ethos. Barcelona would not forget their roots, but they would be less shackled by them too, keener to use the talents of the gilded individuals at their disposal.
Rakitic was like Xavi, the man he was ostensibly brought in to replace, but he was also more vertical than the Spaniard.
This cultural shift brought results – a treble in Enrique’s first season – but it didn’t bring universal acclaim. Barcelona’s coach was gruff and uncommunicative, a surly presence whose achievements were tainted by a streak of pragmatic result-ism. More glory, less soul.
Rakitic didn’t care, admitting at one point that he would happily “jump off a bridge” for his manager. His performances reflect that commitment too, as he was voted in La Liga and Champions League Team of the Year.
Per ardua ad astra
It hasn’t all been plain sailing, though. As Enrique’s tenure grew cold and sour, so too did the Croatian’s form. Last season, rumours emerged that he was fed up with life in Catalunya, with a move for Philippe Coutinho making him question his long-term future.
It didn’t help that the club seemed equally chaotic. Josep Maria Bartomeu and his board were bombarded with criticism for the debacle that allowed Neymar Jr. to join PSG.
Ernesto Valverde, meanwhile, was unproven at elite level. The malcontent was worsened when, after losing 5-1 to Real Madrid in the SuperCopa, Gerard Piqué admitted feeling “inferior” to their great rivals for their first time.
Those neuroses are long-forgotten now. Barcelona have coasted to the top of the league and are near-guaranteed to win LaLiga.
Neymar’s departure might have robbed the team of its saccharin glamour but his former teammates have rallied after his departure. Barcelona are more focused, unified, effective.
Rakitic has been central to their achievements, in every sense. Few players have made as many appearances as the Croat this season but his position on the right of midfield under Enrique has been converted into a more central, supportive role under Valverde.
He has, by way of Croatia, Switzerland, Germany and Andalucia, finally arrived. Moreover, he doesn’t look like leaving anytime soon.
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