Ivan Rakitić: The Return of Sevilla’s Lost Son
Written by Alan Feehely
Sevilla has personality. On paper it’s no different to any other city, with buildings, streets, parks and bars. But there’s a collective spirit that sets Sevilla apart from many others - a joie de vivre that’s hard to find and even harder to maintain, something that runs through the veins of both the city and its people.
Ivan Rakitić discovered the full force of this personality on his first night in the Spanish city. At 21, the Croatian footballer arrived in Sevilla late at night with the intention of finalising his transfer to Sevilla from German club Schalke. Uncertain of his future, with another offer on the table, he couldn’t sleep, so persuaded his brother to go for a drink. “The woman who happened to be working at the hotel bar was… Wow,” he recalled in The Player’s Tribune. “[It’s] the part of the movie where everything goes into slow motion, you know? She was so beautiful. I said to myself, OK, Sevilla. Wow. I like this place.”
His uncertainty departed him. “I pointed across the bar and I said, ‘you see our waitress? I am going to play here for Sevilla and I am going to marry that woman.’” The first part of that promise was met the following day, when he signed for the club. The second part took considerably more persistence - he asked her out “20 or 30 times” only for her to make some excuse and turn him down. Finally, in August, he convinced her to go out on a date with him, six months after his quest had begun. Now, Rakitić and Raquel are married with children, and after six years in Barcelona are returning to where it all began - Sevilla, the club and the city of his heart.
Rakitić was born in Switzerland to Yugoslavian parents. He began his professional football career with Basel after time spent in the Möhlin-Riburg youth system, spending two years with the club (aften 10 in the youth system), scoring 11 goals in 50 appearances and forming part of the team that won the 2007 Swiss Cup. His performances in Switzerland, especially in the UEFA Cup, did not go unnoticed and he signed for Schalke for €5 million in the summer of 2007.
He spent four years there, making 135 appearances and scoring 16 goals. Rakitić played for Schalke during a strong moment in their history, performing especially well in the Champions League, but it wasn’t until he moved to Sevilla in January 2011 that he took his game to another level. “Nobody thought that he was going to be the kind of player he became when he initially came to Sevilla,” explained Spanish journalist Nacho Sanchis.
“He started as a midfielder, but [Unai] Emery moved him closer to the goal in order to enable him to see more of the ball and become a protagonista.” In his first year with Emery he scored eight goals and contributed 10 assists, and then the next season 12 goals and a further 12 assists. “He’s a leader. He wants the ball, and he wants to be the one dominating the game.” Rakitić’s success on the field, Sanchis explained, was aided by his happiness off it. “His wife and children are from Sevilla. He doesn’t speak Spanish with a Spanish accent, but with a Sevillano accent.”
As a Croatian who was born and raised in Switzerland, it makes sense that Rakitić’s conception of ‘home’ could be complicated. Sevilla seems to be a city that holds great importance to him. “[Sevillanos] have a really open spirit and receive everyone like family,” he explained. “It was funny because my wife doesn’t care about football at all, so I thought maybe her family was the same, but they’re big Sevilla fans. My wife’s grandfather had already passed away when I met her, but her father told me that when he went into the hospital during his final days, the nurses took off his clothes and put him in a hospital gown, but when they tried to take off his watch, he refused - it was his special Sevilla watch. He said, ‘No, this stays with me. To the very end. If I go, I go with my club.’”
Rakitić spent three years in Andalusia, making 149 appearances and scoring 32 goals. Ahead of his final season at the club he was made their first foreign captain since Diego Maradona, and he repaid their faith by leading the club to a third Europa League title in less than a decade, delivering a man-of-the-match performance in the final against Benfica in Turin. He performed so strongly that he attracted the attention of Barcelona, whom he joined that close-season. “[Rakitić] is probably one of Barça’s most profitable signings ever,” said Barcelona-based journalist Román de Arquer. Signed for €18 million, he would go on to make 310 appearances for the club, with Lionel Messi, Dani Alves and Javier Mascherano the only foreign players to play more matches for Barça.
“He immediately found his groove in his first season, which isn’t easy at the Camp Nou. We all know how hard it was for other players such as André Gomes, Arda Turan and [Philippe] Coutinho, so a lot of credit goes to Ivan for quickly adapting and becoming a starter. With Luis Enrique he was asked to turn into a ‘box-to-box’ midfielder. Lucho’s Barça was extremely offensive with Messi, [Luis] Suárez and Neymar up front, so Rakitić had to have a presence in attack, but then work hard to get back and defend.”
Rakitić came to Catalonia to win medals and ascend to the elite, and on that level it couldn’ta have gone much better. He was part of a Barça side that won La Liga and the Copa Del Rey four times, the Supercopa de España twice, the Champions League, the Super Cup and the Club World Cup. “In all my languages there are no words to describe this moment,” Rakitić told GQ about winning the 2015 Champions League and scoring in the final against Juventus. “It’s impossible. You feel like hugging every supporter inside the stadium, and in a minute the moment is gone so you push to do it again.”
De Arquer believes that his performances declined after the 2018 World Cup, with the midfielder appearing tired physically and mentally, but underlined the Croatian’s human qualities. “As a person and a professional he’s always been an example. Humble, hard-working, educated and very responsible - the kind of player every manager wants in his team.
José Mourinho agreed, proclaiming on BeIn Sports in March 2019 that he’s “one of the most underrated players in the world. He is fantastic on all levels - he defends, he compensates for Messi, he runs and he’s sensible with the ball at his feet.” This notwithstanding, his place in Barça’s midfield came under threat after the signing of Frenkie de Jong. Rakitić played 4,237 minutes in 2018/19, but just 2,111 in 2019/20. Barça needed his expensive wages off the books, he needed more game time and Sevilla needed to replace Éver Banega. His return to Sevilla was right for all involved.
It wasn’t the first time the club have tried to move him on, but this time he was acquiescent in their desire. “I understand the situation but I’m not a sack of potatoes who you can do anything with,'' Rakitić told Mundo Deportivo after turning down a move to Paris Saint-Germain the previous summer, a deal that would have seen him serve as a makeweight to bring Neymar back to Catalonia. “I want to be somewhere I feel wanted and respected. If that’s here then I’ll be delighted, but if it’s somewhere else then I’ll be the one who decides where.”
It feeds into an interesting situation for many footballers who operate in the elite. They’re good, but they want to be great, and they need their due respect. Back home in Croatia, for instance, Rakitić has been undervalued somewhat in comparison to his compatriot, Real Madrid star Luka Modrić, according to Croatia-based journalist Aleksandar Holiga. “Over the years the media and the general public have often been critical of him and I feel he’s never been fully recognised for his accomplishments,” he explained.
“People never saw him on the same level as Modrić, or even close to that, even when he had great seasons and was brilliant for Croatia. There could be a number of reasons for this. One is that he never played club football in Croatia and maybe that makes it a bit harder for people to truly relate to him, and another is because he actually struggled in the Croatia team for years - managers couldn’t find a way to use both him and Modrić as playmakers in a complementary manner, so Rakitić was forced to play as a winger, a defensive midfielder, and a number 10 at times. He was always in Modrić’s shadow, even at the Russian World Cup where he was absolutely outstanding.”
That tournament is undoubtedly the pinnacle of Rakitić’s international career - Croatia went all the way through the final only to lose to France. “Reaching the final was so unexpected,” he said. “I knew we had a good team with very good players, but there were other very good teams also with very good players. It’s a cliché, but it was a dream that came true.” Should he endeavour to make it to the 2022 World Cup and try to repeat this success, however, he’ll need to reassert his importance to the contemporary Croatian setup - he featured in just four out of the eight games during the qualification phase for Euro 2020 after falling down the pecking order at the Camp Nou.
Regular first-team football will clearly help his aims to be part of next summer’s finals, and another reason for his return to the Estadio Ramón Sánchez Pizjúan is the project in motion in the Andalusian capital that could be about to have an important year. Director of football, Monchi, is back in situ after a brief spell in Italy, while coach Julen Lopetegui is rebuilding his reputation with dead-eyed focus after his unfortunate experience with the Spanish national team and Real Madrid. On the pitch, the team is a balance of youthful exuberance and old hands, with both camps blending together well and desperate to prove something - whether it’s that they’ve still got it, in the case of Jesús Navas, or that they have what it takes to hit the big time, in the case of Lucas Ocampos.
Into this mix comes Rakitić, who will nominally replace Saudi Arabia-bound Banega and contribute big-club, trophy-winning experience to match his desire to prove that he’s not “a sack of potatoes”. Comparing Rakitić with Banega is difficult because they’ve played different roles over the last few seasons, but a statistical comparison suggests that Rakitić will be more active in winning possession but less effective in the final third. Given that he will be the main man at Sevilla, it’s likely that his game will change compared to the role he played at Barça.
Sevilla finished fourth last season, 10 points clear of fifth-placed Villarreal and level on points with third-placed Atlético Madrid, and won their sixth Europa League title, beating Internazionale in the final in Cologne. This season represents a huge opportunity for them. The financial reality of our new Coronavirus-tinted world means that big money signings will be infrequent, suggesting that they will have a better chance of holding on to key performers such as Jules Koundé, Diego Carlos and Ocampos. Madrid are the best team in Spain, but they’re not of a vintage calibre, Barça’s woes have been well-documented and Atleti are still in transition. There is talent coming up from the rear - Villarreal particularly have strengthened with intent during the close season - but this year is as good a chance as any for Sevilla to push on and ask some searching questions of the so-called ‘Big Three’.
Crucial to their hopes will be Ivan Rakitić. Fernando will continue to sit as a pivote, with Joan Jordán likely to pair him in the more central midfield positions. The onus therefore will be on Rakitić to assume more creative responsibility and become the senior voice in the dressing room. He’s already loved in Sevilla, but this second spell is a chance for him to truly write his name into their history and repay the city and the club for the life that it’s given him.
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