Ivan Rakitic was on the phone this week, texting friends. You have enjoyed your games so much so far that you can sit this one out, he told players in the Spain camp on Ile de Ré, just across the water from La Rochelle.
They had had their fun, the message ran, now it is someone else’s turn. The Croatia captain always talks about football as a game to be enjoyed but that will not be easy in his final game of Group D tonight. “We want the ball, that’s our style,” he says, “the problem is, doing that is difficult against Spain, who are a unique side.”
Rakitic knows that better than most; he has seen it from the inside. Spain may be unique in the international game but there is more than a bit of Barcelona about them. Busquets, Rakitic, Iniesta … He may be on the other side on Tuesday night but there will be something familiar about the midfield at the Nouveau Stade de Bordeaux: the trio who have won two leagues, two cups and the European Cup together, plus a European Super Cup and the World Club Championship.
Two seasons since Rakitic’s arrival from Sevilla it feels so natural, his position secure, no doubts that he belongs alongside Andrés Iniesta and Sergio Busquets, and he has always insisted “you’re here to enjoy yourself”, yet the size of the task that lay before him was revealed by how difficult it has been for Spain to do the same: replace Xavi Hernández, that defender of a footballing faith, who is arguably the most important footballer in the country’s history.
“I don’t think there’ll be anyone like Xavi again,” Rakitic says. Yet he has helped smooth the transition for Barcelona, alongside Busquets and Iniesta, who are performing a similar task for Spain. The latter especially; at 32 he is the ideologue now.
Rakitic coincided with Xavi for a season. “I wanted to make the most of my time with the greatest midfielder we have; working with him, learning from him,” he said. “I’m thankful for that year we had: not just because of what you learn on the pitch but in the dressing room – respect, humility, how to prepare.” This week, he said much the same of Iniesta. “Learn” was the word, and he has learnt. It has been quite the apprenticeship, even if he joined at 26 with winners’ medals in his pockets.
It has not been a simple task, despite the presence of Lionel Messi, Neymar and Luis Suárez up front and Busquets and Iniesta alongside him. Partly because of their presence, in fact. “If we have to run 5,000 or 10,000 metres for [Messi, Suárez and Neymar], then we’ll do it,” Rakitic said, and so he has. His athleticism has been almost as important as his ability. It is a different role from the one he fulfilled at Sevilla; different from the one he plays for Croatia too.
For Barcelona Rakitic lines up on the right of a midfield three. He has a more attacking brief and more freedom in Croatia’s 4-2-3-1. But then he says he would play anywhere for the country he chose to represent despite having played youth football for Switzerland, where he was born and raised. His parents are Croatians who had lived in Bosnia before moving to the small Swiss town of Möhlin, near the German border. The decision was not well received by some Switzerland fans – there were pictures sent through the post, calls to his home – but it was a decision about which he had no doubts and no regrets, even though he says he felt “very Swiss” too – so much so that he admits to being a fan of curling.
The first person Rakitic told was the Switzerland coach Köbi Kuhn. The second was the Croatia manager Slaven Bilic. Is he as mad as he looks? “But mad in a good way. There’s mad ... and mad,” Rakitic says. “He lives football: if you have to go three days without sleep for football, he does it. He works so hard, he loves the game, he’s so positive. He lives it as if the end was coming. I love his approach. He’s got such a positive mentality that you could be the worst player there is and he makes you the best. His role was so important. He was determined for me to be [with Croatia]. That made me think: ‘I want to work with this guy.’”
That was 2007. Nine years on, Rakitic has played more than 70 times for his country and this is surely the strongest side he has been part of. Many of the difficulties they faced in qualification appear to have been overcome with the arrival of Ante Cacic as coach. The quality is available to him is impressive even with Real Madrid’s Luka Modric likely to miss out with injury.
“I started in the national team at 19 and we had lots of players from the Croatian league, players from [smaller] leagues dotted round the place,” Rakitic says. “Now you pick up our squad list and ask: ‘What’s the worst team represented?’ It’s not just us at Barcelona and Madrid. We have players at Inter and I don’t know how many in England, Kiev, Shakhtar, Monaco ...”
A few months before the tournament Rakitic admitted that having players all around Europe meant it was not easy to embed an idea, a style of football. The diaspora was brought together for barely a few days at a time. But they have had that time now and there was already a sense that playing in France is special. It was here that Croatia reached the 1998 World Cup semi-final, a memory that Rakitic admitted was “everywhere”. “The idea of taking over from them, emulating them, is strong,” he says.
That is some way off and Rakitic is not talking targets, even if so far Croatia have impressed. Now, though, they face probably the most impressive team of all. It is a special match for Croatia’s captain: his wife is Spanish, his children are Spanish and to listen to him speak Spanish, Andalucían accent and all, one would think he was Spanish too.On Tuesday his opponents are Spanish, among them friends and team-mates. “I haven’t spoken to him over the last few days but we talked about it loads when the draw was made,” Gerard Piqué said. Rakitic knows them, knows how good they are; so good that while a win is important a draw would be a good result. “We know that Spain have a better team than us,” he says. “They might be the best team in the world. And Iniesta is pure magic. You Spaniards have enjoyed him enough already so he can take a little rest against us.”
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