Ivan Rakitic on death threats, his 'beef' with Ozil and moving to England
"That experience will stay with me forever," Ivan Rakitic tells FFT when reminded of one of his career-defining moments.
"I failed, just like I failed at times before. But you have to make mistakes in order to improve and I think that particular one helped shape me into the player I am today, because somehow my career really kicked off from there."
He is referring to his big chance at Euro 2012, when he found himself in the Croatia team, eye-to-eye with Iker Casillas in the deciding group game against Spain. It was a heart-stopper for both sets of fans: as Luka Modrić made a sublime cross from the edge of the box, the ball seemed to have travelled for an age before it finally landed on Rakitic's head. But the rest of the play unfolded in fast-forward: he took that header from a very close range and the keeper saved it with a reflex reaction.
Had Rakitic scored, Croatia would have gone ahead with 30 minutes to go, pushing the Lords of tiki-taka, the eventual winners of both that match and the tournament, to the brink of elimination. It didn't happen and many blamed it on Rakitic's miss, failing to acknowledge how he first had to run across half the pitch and escape Sergio Busquets' attention to find himself there in the first place.
But that moment of failure only served to inspire him. "It's nothing strange when you think about it," he says. "Playing in those big games can give you enormous confidence."
Armed with this newfound self-belief, Rakitic has gone from a mediocre player, one Schalke offloaded to Sevilla for just €2.5 million in 2011, to arguably the hottest playmaker in Europe, wanted by the likes of Manchester United, Liverpool and PSG.
Rakitic's form this season has been nothing short of sensational, as his staggering stats prove. In 16 league appearances, he scored eight goals and provided six assists, creating further 19 goal-scoring opportunites for his team-mates. Statistically, he is rated as La Liga's third best player, behind Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. In the year 2013, only one player in Europe's best five leagues (Marseille's Mathieu Valbuena) created more chances, while only Mesut Özil and Franck Ribery had more assists.
What's interesting, though, is that Rakitic creates from just about anywhere: deep from around the halfway line (5.6 accurate long passes per game, 71.2% accuracy), from the edge of the box, from the left, right or just in front of the goal. He's all over the place: one moment you see him picking the ball up from the goalie, the next he's spearheading the attack.
Marca recently dubbed him the team's 'todocampista' (a player capable of playing anywhere in midfield): he's equally adept at playing as a defensive, central or attacking midfielder; he's comfortable off both feet, composed in front of goal (almost any striker, let alone midfielder, would be happy with his 67% shot accuracy and a goal every two games), while his defensive contribution (2.4 tackles and 2.4 interceptions per game) is also significant. No La Liga player has made more accurate crosses this season than his 47 (2.9 per game with 41.6% accuracy).
And all that with Sevilla, a side dramatically weakened by outgoing transfers last summer (Kondogbia, Medel, Negredo, Jesus Navas). Rakitic has been instrumental in dragging them to 7th place in the table, currently just four points shy of the Champions League qualification spots.
For the time being, I only think about Sevilla...
"The players we lost last summer were very important, but they have been replaced with very talented youngsters," he says. "We set out on a new course, with a young and very potent team which has plenty of room for improvement. In an extremely difficult league, where anyone can beat anyone, we are doing well – we play an important role in the competition and I believe we are capable of doing something significant in the future.
"The club has this idea of signing players on long-term contracts, so that the squad can gradually mature together. The result is, of course, always important, and what we've accomplished so far this season is a proof of our quality. We're gathering points."
However, with him doing so well and with the transfer rumour mill churning out stories linking him to several major European clubs, what does the future hold?
"For the time being, I only think about Sevilla," he explains. "I have important matches ahead of me and additional responsibilities as captain of the team, so leaving is not something I'm considering now."
But just days after FFT had spoken to Rakitic, his father announced to Croatian press that his son would "make the record transfer in Croatian football history". That would mean topping the £30 million deal that took Luka Modric from Tottenham Hotspur to Real Madrid. Rakitic Sr, however, didn't specify when this would happen.
The Rakitic family have never made decisions lightly, are know to take their time. At 16, Ivan was approached by a member of Jose Mourinho's Chelsea coaching staff, who tried to woo him from Basel to Stamford Bridge, also offering his father a job in London. It was a tough call, but eventually the family rejected the offer and Ivan later found himself at Schalke, who even sold their homeboy Mesut Özil - now star man of the Arsenal midfield - to Werder to make room for the young Croatian.
The situation was reported to have created some friction between the two players, but Rakitic insists they stayed friends: "We have an excellent relationship, even today," he tells FFT. "I know his father and I speak to Mesut sometimes as well. He wasn't happy with the attention the club gave him – or didn't give him, to be more precise. That was the only true reason he wanted to leave, not because of me."
He also had to decide who to represent internationally: his native Switzerland, who he played for at youth level, or Croatia, his parents' homeland. In the end he chose the latter, despite death threats his family had reportedly received. "I got two call-ups from the Swiss federation to play for the senior squad," he recalls. "Both times I decided to wait, because I needed more time to think. Negotiations with the Croatian federation also took some time before all my doubts were gone."
Anything is possible [...] but I haven't spoken to them about England.
Now he has a choice between staying at Sevilla, where he was made captain, or taking his chances with one of the big-name suitors. He recently married a local girl and became a father. The club, who sold a €90M worth of players last summer, set an unreasonably high price tag at €40M, but Rakitic's contract runs out in 18 months, and the player is surely tempted to see if he can prove himself on a higher level – for all the talk of love and loyalty, he still hasn't agreed to extend it.
He speaks five different languagues, including English ("my French is not that good anymore", he admits); that, combined with his versatility on the pitch, means he shouldn’t have too much trouble adapting to just about any new club. So would England - the new home of former team mates Jesus Navas, Alvaro Negredo (both Manchester City) and Gary Medel (Cardiff) - be somewhere he'd want to go?
"Anything is possible," he answers. "However, family is now the most important thing to me and it will have a key role in all my future professional decisions. I haven't spoken to them [his former colleagues] about England. I wish them all the best in their careers and I like to see their new teams winning, but I never asked them how they live or play in England. It doesn't concern me."
Maybe not 'for the time being', as he says himself. But it soon could.