Football often writes the most beautiful stories. You know, those “from rags to riches” anecdotes that we see teachers tell their students to show them how life can swiftly turn around, and that sometimes you simply have to fall to get back up again. The story about Ivan Rakitić could easily be seen as one of those. A tale of blood and tears turned to love and song – the kind that is written on the green field and with a ball rather than with a pen. Ivan Rakitić is also a poet of sorts, but his symphony starts with a rather dark note.
During the 90s, his family was forced to flee the soon to be completely war-torn Croatia to guarantee safety for them in a time when rarely anyone had such privilege or rather, the power to do so. Switzerland was the Promised Land, as it nowadays still stands, but getting to neutral ground was definitely easier said than done.
As Ivan recalled himself numerous times, his relatives literally boarded a ship and they did not care where it would take them, as long as it was far away from fire and death. His uncles fled to Australia, and the Rhine River took his parents to Switzerland. There, hope was found once more.
His mother worked in a sock factory while his father was a construction worker in a company of his own. They were lucky to have such jobs but his father, just like Ivan himself after him, along with his brother, had a passion for football. Unfortunately, football at that level could not be enough to sustain a healthy family so he had to abandon his dream. In a way, Rakitić is living it for both of them, and it fills him with pride and gives him that extra something that makes his engine go on and on.
If we fast forward just a tiny bit, Ivan went from collecting balls for the senior players in Switzerland, turning red after every hello, to being one of the most successful Croatian players, and a nation’s pride – the conqueror of Spain and Europe. Not to mention that he almost had the whole world at his feet were it not for a rather talented French squad on the other side of that field. But I digress.
The truly big things all started in 2011. It was late January and a 22-year-old blonde boy arrived from Germany to a hotel called Lebros in Seville. It was the place that would change his life forever. Standing at just a 50 odd meters from Sanchez Pizjuan, Sevilla’s fortress, Lebros was the place where Ivan would seal his fate and find love, or rather, he would find two loves: A beautiful waitress called Raquel who brought him his coffee but along with some change, also took away his heart, and a promise that he would sign for the local giant to kick start his career.
Actually, to be precise, he made two promises, both of which he held true – indeed, he would sign for Seville but he would also marry that mysterious waitress. And he did. Today, they have two beautiful daughters but instead of enjoying Seville, they all moved to Catalunya, and are proud to wear the most famous Blaugrana jersey in the world: That of Barcelona.
In season 2014/15, having spent three years with that Seville squad, Ivan led the inspired Andalusian side to a Europa League title, crowning his time with them in the best possible way. Or so he thought, at least. Not long after that, an offer arrived that could not be denied. The first foreign Seville captain after Diego Armando Maradona had to abandon ship and start a different voyage having played 149 games and having scored 43 goals in that period – one that would take him to new heights and on top of Europe once again.
Barcelona knocked on the door, and both Ivan and Seville had to answer. Later he revealed that had the club asked him to renew his contract, he would have said “no” to the Catalans but they knew this was a once in a lifetime opportunity, and they loved him too much to deny him of that special move.
A meager 18 million offer was all it took the Catalans to get a man who was dubbed as “the best signing in many years” by the legendary Xavi Hernandez, and a man who would sacrifice everything to become the crucial piece in the Blaugrana puzzle, even if it meant losing a part of who he was back at Seville.
Looking back at that moment, as proud as I was that the club of my youth would once again house a Croatian national, we all couldn’t help but feel a bit anxious about that move. “Is he really that good? Is he really going to do well at Barcelona of all places? Maybe leaving Seville is not the best move for him.” Boy, were we all wrong. And now, I feel ashamed even admitting that I ever doubted him.
Ever since he first donned the Red and Blue shirt he was a constant in the Catalans’ system: was it the chaotic Luis Enrique’s offensive mindset or Ernesto Valverde ’s pragmatic approach to football, Ivan Rakitić did not care – he just kept running and asserting his presence in that midfield. The result? He is now an indispensable cog in the Ant’s well-oiled machine that is gathering pace at an enormous rate.
Funnily enough, I recall Ivan stating in an older interview with one Spanish sports outlet that was it not for football, he probably would’ve been an architect. Why is that so funny, you may ask? Well, in a way, Rakitić got to live his dream by playing the beautiful game but also to be an architect, as well, albeit a very different one.
Instead of making plans for buildings, he builds Barcelona’s attacks and their defenses. In a way, he designs the Blaugrana system together with his teammates but his importance, as much as some would say differently, simply cannot be denied.
In a squad that has that privilege, or the curse, to constantly be competing on all fronts, being able to withstand that tempo is extremely important. Sure, Ernesto Valverde still seems to be getting the hang of how rotation actually works but luckily, he has Ivan Rakitić to cover for him. If there is one thing that no one can deny it’s the fact that the Croat has an engine that almost never shuts down.
Last season, for example, he broke a record by playing a total of 71 games (60 for Barcelona, 11 for the Croatian national team), which is totally insane, to say the least. Not to mention it shows how important Ivan seems to be to Valverde and his system. You could even say that things would definitely not run smoothly without him, and you wouldn’t be wrong. Not in the slightest.
Sure, this season, learning from past mistakes and over exhaustion of his players, the Ant decided to decrease the minutes of his gala XI, and for that reason, Rakitić has played a total of 29 minutes less than at this point last year (415 – 386).
When asked about his stamina, Ivan replied in the most “Ivan Rakitić manner” of all: “It’s possible that I feel privileged (for living my and my father’s dream), and that’s why I run so much. But more than anything it’s because I enjoy every moment I spend on the field, in the locker room or during our trips”, he told El Pais a couple of years ago, and it still stands true to this very day.
Maybe he’ll break some sort of a record again, and it wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest. Nonetheless, being a player that you can always count on is something that not all will give you, and Barcelona know this more than most. With a history of players who tend to injure themselves more often than not, being that one go-to guy who will play even if he is broken, beat and scarred will get you a privilege not all can enjoy. And that privilege is actually – to play consistently. Not that this comes as a surprise but how else would you reward such a player but with the thing he enjoys more than almost anything else in the world?
That one “small” detail is what describes Ivan’s identity perfectly but now that I have mentioned that word – identity, let’s hold on for just a second. Because identity is what Barcelona fans, or Cules, are very keen on, and can be what makes or break their relationship with the player in question.
Ivan Rakitić is not a La Masia graduate, far from it. Does he have the finesse or the technique of a player born and raised in the world’s best youth academy? Probably not. Does he have that pedigree or that reputation alone on his side? Not really, no. Is he fancy or always thrilling to watch? Does he always keep you on the edge of your seat? Does he make you smile every time he touches the ball? Most would probably answer “no” to most of those questions.
At this point, along with identity, tradition would also be put into the whole story. Traditionally, Barcelona always look for a profile that must fit the system. Rakitić, on the surface, is not really an exact fit, is he?
“More than a Club.” That’s Barcelona’s motto and something they live and play by. As a true fan, I have to say that I’ve respected it, and think that it holds true and should be respected by others as well but does it mean that there is no place for players like Ivan in that squad? That’s a resounding no from me, and let me tell you why exactly.
Ivan Rakitić is a player who had it all at Seville – he was the pride and joy of Andalusia. The almost fictional “Super Saiyan”- like blond character who led his troops to glory. A true captain and a true leader. He was the alpha and the omega if you will. Sure, I might be just a tad overselling him but stating all those things would certainly not be too far-fetched, would it?
Now that he made his big transfer, he graced the pitch of the Camp Nou countless times, he donned the Blaugrana shirt with pride, and now… he is no longer a star. No, Ivan Rakitić is now without identity. Sadly, he disappeared into the void, he became whatever and whoever the coach(es) wanted him to be.
From doing the dirty work, sacrificing his style, his preferences, likes, wishes and opinions just to compliment the system, just to satisfy his coach, his teammates and his superiors. Ivan Rakitić vanished so he could honour the badge he kisses when he rattles the net with that sweet volley from the edge of the box or when he makes that lovely long ball from one side of the pitch to the other. Pinpoint precision.
That’s why tradition and identity have absolutely nothing to do with the situation he is currently in. This is a man that never complains, never doubts the club’s decisions and is always ready to throw himself in front of the bullet for the greater good.
Now, when new young talents are emerging, either from the academy or from abroad, his name is once again popping up as one of the most likely candidates to leave Catalunya in the summer. A man who gave his all could leave the club with more than half of his fanbase wishing him injuries and for him to get benched game after game.
Is Ivan Rakitić the best midfielder in the world? Far from it. Is he the most entertaining player to wear the Red and Blue jersey? Not in the slightest. But he is that perfect squad player, that piece that fits almost any puzzle, that band-aid that will stop at nothing just to help. He may not make you hold your breath but he is one of those players that play with their hearts. And it shows.
Bringing too many stats into a piece like this one would simply be wrong but I guess a tiny bit wouldn’t hurt. Would it change anything if I were to tell you that Rakitić is the player with second most accurate passes completed in La Liga this season (1436), the one with most appearances for Barcelona since 2014/15 (243) or the seventh best player in Europe in ball progression to the final third, or that he leads the Barcelona midfield in interceptions per 90 minutes, or that he is the least dispossessed midfielder in Barca per 90 or that he had as many through balls as other Barcelona midfielders per 90 or that he had 227 recoveries in 2018? Probably still not but at this point, it doesn’t even matter.
And on top of it all, that was without taking into account what could very well be his biggest accomplishment in the entirety of his footballing career: The 2018 World Cup in Russia where he led his country to the final, alongside Luka Modrić as the Golden Ball winner.
Third most possession won in midfield (22), second most recoveries (40), second most distance covered (14.5km) vs. England in the semis, playing with a fever (!), and the man to bury two last penalties in cold blood to send Croatia onward to the next stages of their biggest World Cup since 1998. And to think that he could’ve represented a different country on the biggest stage of them all… But instead, luckily for us, he followed his heart, and it said: Croatia.
Let’s not start with the big club games like Champions League finals or El Classicos where he ran rings around some of the best midfielders in the world, and put some of the greatest squads to shame. That is the importance of Ivan Rakitić.
Now, with his 30s already sneaking up on him, Ivan could very well be playing his last season(s) in the Catalan capital, and for a real fan of the beautiful game, it is a real shame to witness it. When he was just a kid still in school, and when everyone was telling their teachers how they wanted to become doctors or firefighters, he kept exclaiming that he wanted to be a football player.
“But that is not possible, Ivan”, they kept telling the boy who, for the first day of his classes, packed a football in his bag instead of books before being corrected by his mother. Today, he is living his dreams despite the words that were thrown at him. He made it even though many doubted him, and many were quick to forget him. Now the tables have turned.
Somewhere in the spring of 2015, when Rakitić first returned to face Seville with his new shirt on, the banner in the stands said: “This will always be your home. Thank you, Captain.” A wonderful sight that was followed by thunderous applause from the crowd, home and away alike.
He may not finish his career in Barcelona but who knows, maybe one day we’ll see a similar banner at the Camp Nou. He will definitely not be one of the captains of the Blaugrana ship but he’s become a true pillar of the club, and that should not be ignored.
Grande Ivan, Barcelona’s Super Saiyan.