Ivan Rakitic: I didn't feel pressure replacing Xavi – I just enjoyed being around him
Ivan Rakitic is describing a long portrait, deep in the bowels of the Camp Nou, that shows Xavi’s Barcelona career over almost two decades; 15 images of the club legend lined up in a row, year on year. FFT has been chatting with the Croatian schemer at Barça’s Sant Joan Despí training ground for over half an hour when the subject of the Catalans’ recently departed talisman crops up, and it’s obviously one he enjoys discussing.
He is, after all, talking about the man who embodies the club’s ethos; that diminutive pass-master who arrived at La Masia aged 11 and left a legend 767 appearances and 24 years later. Rakitic may have shared the 35-year-old’s final year at Barcelona with him, but in reality he was brought in to help replace the legendary metronome when he joined from Sevilla two summers ago.
“To see players like him you understand why you like this sport. There aren’t many who could say: ‘I played in this club for 15, 16, 17 years’,” Rakitic tells FFT, gesticulating to demonstrate Xavi’s ascension at Barça. “Similarly, in the Joan Gamper [in pre-season] I played against Francesco Totti who has been at Roma for 20 years – there's also Steven Gerrard at Liverpool – because there aren’t many of them still around.”
Rakitic has had since August 2014 to get used to helping ease the transition away from a Xavi-less Barcelona, but any initial fears he or the club’s hierarchy may have had about achieving it were immediately allayed by the Croatian’s incredible first season in Catalonia. The 27-year-old slotted into Luis Enrique’s midfield seamlessly as his new club swept away all in their wake to win the Treble, with Rakitic even netting the opener in the Champions League final against Juventus.
I wanted to enjoy playing with Xavi, but not only that – to enjoy living through the days with him; to be with him in the dressing room
And yet his own progression could hardly have been more different to that of the man he replaced. Xavi is Barça; the boy-turned-man who made the same journey to and from the club’s training ground every day for almost 25 years. Rakitic, meanwhile, was born in Switzerland to Croatian parents, and gradually climbed to the top via Basel, Schalke and Sevilla before his big move.
Not that he’s felt any strain trying to fill anyone’s shoes, mind (he was only Sevilla’s second foreign captain since Diego Maradona).
“No, no pressure,” Rakitic says, sinking back into his chair. “I wanted to enjoy playing with Xavi, but not only that – to enjoy living through the days with him; to be with him in the dressing room, in all the moments.
“He’s maybe the biggest player in this position [ever], so to work with him was amazing. I can only give him one thousand thanks for everything because it was important to have him here.”
He imprints himself on the Barcelona style perfectly. Seriously, so much
Luckily for Rakitic, the man himself is perfectly happy to offer his blessing when FFT picks his brain later. “I agree completely, he’s been able to interpret my role in the team fantastically well,” Xavi, now of Qatar’s Al Sadd, declares with an approving nod. “He’s got everything and can achieve anything he wants. He’s technical. He’s tactical. He’s physical – much more so than me.
“He imprints himself on the Barcelona style perfectly. Seriously, so much. He’s got goals in him, too, and shoots very well from outside the area.
"He always has a strategy. He’s a great guy. He adapted almost immediately to his new life in Barcelona and was a great signing. He’ll continue being so in the future, too. He’s still young and can still improve.”
- Messi: “He’s the best player in history”
- Neymar: “He had his best year for Barcelona. Brilliant”
- Suarez: “Vital in the most important moments of the season”
- Busquets: “Barcelona’s most important player”
- Iniesta: “So consistent, always”
Feet of the chameleon
Praise indeed. But then Rakitic has always been good at adapting to new situations – it’s one of the things that makes him such a personable individual, and a terrific interviewee. He speaks four languages fluently – Croatian, German, Spanish and impeccable English, which he demonstrates here – and has a decent grasp of two more, French and Italian (though they're "rusty").
“I have to say thank you to Switzerland; there we are speaking German, Italian and French, and in school we had English,” he says. “It was important for me to understand; communication is so important so I can speak with my team-mates.
“For example, Thomas Vermaelen arrived from London last year and we can speak together – not only about football, but if he needs some help off the pitch. We are a big family in the dressing room and have to help each other. I really like to have this communication with everybody, it’s important for the club.”
That communication is doubly important when you’re trying to play in the world’s most demanding midfield, something Rakitic has managed to look bewilderingly straightforward.
Xavi may have moved on but two essential figures of Pep Guardiola’s original engine room still remain in Sergi Busquets and Andres Iniesta, who the Croatia international had to get in tune with quickly.
“It wasn’t easy, I can assure you,” he smiles. “You have to be here in Barcelona to enjoy everything – not only what happens in the stadium or on the training ground but life in general with my family.
You have to understand the system in Barcelona is different than in Seville or at other clubs. Possession is really important here
“You have to understand the system in Barcelona is different than in Seville or at other clubs,” the 27-year-old adds. “Possession is really important here, they are always looking at your first touch, and you just have to enjoy this game with them because they are the best players in the world.
“Normally in games the domination is from Barcelona, so what can you do? You feel really lucky.
“We have a good understanding through the whole team. If we attack from the left side we have to tuck in, and if we’re attacking down the right then we have to cover for Leo [Messi]. It’s about working together.”
They are players with individual qualities so it’s not always so easy. When they have the ball one-on-one, they’re killers
So what about playing behind Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez, then? Barça's fearsome threesome thumped in a combined 122 goals in all competitions last season, and have continued in a similar vein this season despite Messi having missed two months with injury. “It’s not always so easy because you have to play differently,” Rakitic admits. “I like to speak about them because they are the biggest players in the world, and among the best players in the history of football, but you have to play differently.
“They are players with individual qualities so it’s not always so easy. But when they have the ball one-on-one, they’re killers. The important thing is that we get together as one strong team. If we have to defend, we defend together, and we attack together. It’s difficult to speak about them or all the players. We are one big family. They are the biggest players but we have a lot [of others] with strong history in football. We are Barcelona, the biggest team in the world, so all the players have different ideas and character.”
Prosinecki was my favourite player – he had so many different qualities. He had a lot of injuries but was still unbelievable for all Croatian people
Rakitic might be enjoying life in the pressurised environment of the “world’s biggest club”, but there was a simpler time when he was just a 10-year-old boy back home in Switzerland watching Croatia claim a memorable third-place finish at France 98. “It was like a party for a month!,” he recalls with a chuckle. “It was crazy to see these games watching people like Suker, Boban, Prosinecki. They were special days for all Croatian people. I hope we can get those moments again. Prosinecki was my favourite player – he had so many different qualities. He had a lot of injuries but was still unbelievable for all Croatian people. I worked with him for five years with the Croatian team – he was the assistant [to Slaven Bilic] – and that was really special to have him next to me.”
Away from football I just want to be and play with my daughter, with my dogs. It’s the most important thing when I get home to see my daughter, I forget everything. Even if I’m tired I don’t feel it. My daughter, my wife and my two dogs are the most important thing
We’re approaching the end of our enjoyable hour with Rakitic, who’ll soon be setting off home to see his young daughter Althea and wife Raquel – the only two things on his mind when he’s finished up at Barça’s training base every day. Well, them and the daily siesta that seems to be of an unsung secret to his success.
“Away from football I just want to be and play with my daughter, with my dogs,” he says. “It’s the most important thing when I get home to see my daughter, I forget everything. Even if I’m tired I don’t feel it. So my daughter, my wife and my two dogs are the most important thing. If my daughter’s asleep then I also like to sleep... I need it!”
You have to enjoy your football; to be happy. I don’t want to say I enjoy my ‘job’ because it’s the thing that I like to do
So what happens, then, in the faraway dreams of a footballer who has everything he needs to succeed in arguably the planet's greatest team? “I don’t like to think what will happen in a few years. I don’t want to dream, I want to live,” Rakitic concludes.
“The most important thing is to do it in this moment, in the best way you can. Remember you are doing what you like. You have to enjoy your football; to be happy. I don’t want to say I enjoy my ‘job’ because it’s the thing that I like to do.
“What will happen in one, five, 10 years I really don’t know. I enjoy the moment and am really happy to be in this situation. I want to do it better."
And that's what Cules everywhere want to hear.
Xavi interview: Andrew Murray.