El Clasico build-up: Ivan Rakitic's 'special story' includes turning down Chelsea as a teenager
Ivan Rakitic has a phrase to describe Barcelona’s football. “Dominate with the rhythm,” he says before covering his face to illustrate another point.
“Normally you can put your hands over your eyes and know where the other players are. This is the most important thing. One touch, one touch. It’s like a machine. A machine that is repeating again and again. It’s Barcelona.”
It is a theme he expands upon: “Friends sometimes ask me – when you get the ball what are you thinking? But you do not have time to think. You have to do it. It’s not instinct, that’s not the right word, but it’s how you feel in this moment. You sense it. It’s trained but it’s trained inside you. It makes you faster in the moment.”
The midfielder is sitting in the warm November sun at a café in the heart of the club’s training ground at Sant Joan Despi. It is calm, apart from the buzz of the ground-staff, and their own machines, and the bark of Barca coach Luis Enrique when he spots Rakitic and hollers encouragement.
This Saturday the noise will be different. It is El Clasico, the biggest club match in world football, with Barca away to Real Madrid. “It is the game that for 90 minutes the whole world takes a seat and watches,” Rakitic says. “It’s what you want as a player, so enjoy it. And work it. And win it.” It is no ordinary game to play in, either. “It is not the same as playing against other teams,” Rakitic admits. “Simply because there are so many special players who are just waiting for one bad pass or something. So you have to be ready in every single moment, every single second.”
Rakitic is back in training and back in contention to face Real having overcome a calf injury. The Croatian dealt with his rapid recovery – typically quicker than expected - with the same strong-minded approach that brought him from Mohlin, on the Switzerland border, through Basle, Schalke, and Sevilla – where he became only the second foreigner to captain the club (the first being Diego Maradona) and led them to win the Europa League when he was man of the match in the final - before his move to Barcelona last year for 22million euros (£15.5m).
The 27-year-old midfielder was a key part of the team, the oil in that machine, that won the treble last season, scoring the brilliant opening goal, a sublimely co-ordinated team effort, in the triumphant Champions League Final.
It could have been different. Rakitic could, aged 16, have joined Chelsea. Or even Juventus – who Barca faced that June evening. But he turned both clubs down to stay with Basle and do it his way.
“It was important for me to do it step by step,” he explains. “First of all to arrive in the first-team in Switzerland because I had, at 16 years of age, a big offer to go to Chelsea. And another offer from Juventus and I decided to stay at home with my family. Then I first had to get into the Super League in Switzerland and after that the next step.
“At that time, when I was 15, 16, I decided it was important to have my family. It might not have been the best decision for everyone but it was the right one for me.
“Maybe when I decided to stay in Basle it might have been a bad decision but it was my decision. Or maybe I will go to Chelsea and my father would have said ‘no, stay at home’. It was important for me to say ‘the money is there but the money will come with time, also’. There was another player like me and he went and today he is playing in the fourth division in Switzerland.” Rakitic says his is a “special story”.
“Yesterday, to meet me, was my under-15 coach from FC Basle,” he says of another training ground visit. “We were talking and he said ‘do you remember when we started to train in Basle? You were 14. And now, today, you are here’. And I said ‘yes, I am here. And I am here because I love football’. I can talk 10 hours about football. From the moment I leave home, I talk about football.
“When I was injured and I told the guys working with me ‘if you want me to do something more this afternoon or tomorrow again then I am ready’. I will find 25 hours in the day if I have to. I live for football. And I know that one day this life will stop. And then I will have time for other things. Of course I have time for my family but, for everything else, now is football. It’s the focus, only football.”
So let us talk about football – about Lionel Messi, about replacing Xavi, the Barca captain and “the symbol of the club” and also, about why Rakitic closely follows West Ham United and wants the Hammers to win the Premier League this season.
“I really like the Premier League, I like it a lot,” Rakitic says. “Because of Slaven Bilic. He was my coach for six, seven years with Croatia [who Rakitic chose to represent over Switzerland] and he’s really enjoying it [in England].
“First of all he’s crazy for the Premier League and he likes West Ham a lot. And he likes rock and roll! He’s a big person, a big personality and I wish him all the best and I hope that West Ham win the Premier League.”
“For me, of course I like La Liga, but you cannot say that here in Spain everything is better than in England,” Rakitic says, although the way he describes the Premier League is telling: “In England everyone is really physically strong. They can play three games and then they are ready to play the fourth. If you are a Spanish team and you give away a corner against an English team then you have to be ready. They are all maybe 1.85m, 1.90m (tall) and maybe 90 kilos.” Not quite tiki-taka, then.
It was, evidently, a big move to join Barcelona. But not one Rakitic was over-awed by. “It’s special to be part of this club but I arrived here to enjoy it,” he says. “I just went in and said ‘here I am’ and ‘I work will’.
“The last year in Sevilla was really important for me – as a player but also as a person. It was important to be the first non-Spanish captain since Maradona. It was important to get that respect and that made it easier here.
I have been a captain since I was eight years old. But it’s a little bit different when you are playing with your friends to being captain of one of the biggest clubs in Spain!” At Barca, although it was unspoken, Rakitic was effectively signed to replace the ageing Xavi, who then left the club at the end of last season with a brilliant send-off.
“Of course I knew that in my position there was maybe the two best players in the world (Xavi and Andres Iniesta) so it was not so easy to start,” Rakitic admits. “But if you have the possibility to play in the best team in the world, at this club, then you have to enjoy it.
“To replace Xavi is impossible. I want to give what I can give. I want to be Ivan Rakitic. Not Xavi or Iniesta. They have other qualities. I want to give what I can do.
“We are speaking about Xavi and he is the symbol of the club. He has been for 20 years. Not only for what he did on the pitch, where he was unbelievable, but for the dressing room, how he spoke and what he means to the club. He was our leader. He was the man. And now he is not here. So, of course, it has changed. But it was maybe the best moment because he left with every title, all the titles. Maybe it was the perfect moment.” Last season’s treble – Champions League, La Liga, Copa del Rey – was an incredible achievement even by Barca’s standards. So what is the motivation for this campaign? “The special motivation is, first of all, to win every game,” Rakitic says.
“But, after this, something special will be if we can repeat the Champions League and to become the first team in history to retain it. After that the reality is that the rivalry with Real Madrid is so big that the fans don’t want you to win 99 games out of 100 and then lose the last.
“They want to win every game and this motivation is a big pressure but I see it as a positive pressure - to win every game. You like that. And every team wants to beat us. They want to say ‘yes, we won against Barca’. So they have that motivation. And we have that motivation to say ‘no, we will win again’. It gives you a special feeling.” But, for Barca, it is not just about winning. It is about the manner of the victory. “Yes, here, yes,” Rakitic agrees. “There is also that pressure of not only winning a game but how you win. Normally it has to be a special way and we have players who can do that, who can give that. A normal game if you win 1-0 then at every other club that is perfect – ‘three points more. Let’s go home’.
“Here, inside the club, of course, we are happy with a 1-0 win but the fans, people, want more and we are working to give them something special.
For this Barcelona is different from every other big club. To give this special moment, maybe, there is only Barcelona. That is the difference.” That hit a high point in Berlin’s Olympic Stadium. “Last season, after the Champions League Final, it was a real shame that it was the end of the season,” Rakitic explains. “We wanted more games. We wanted to play the next day, tomorrow again, because we were feeling so strong. And this is because of the work we do here every day on the training ground.
“Friends ask me to pick the best 11 players but sometimes the best 11 players are not the best team. So it’s something that you have to work together. And for this you have to train. You can lose some games but you feel good on the pitch, you are feeling the ball.
“And, at Barca, they never change the idea. They kept this way and this is maybe why we have control of games in a different way not only with pressure but to control with the ball and dominate with the rhythm.” Rakitic is not the only Barca player to have recovered from injury for the Clasico: Messi is back after damaging a knee in September. “To speak about Messi is to speak about football. He’s everything,” Rakitic says. “Of course we missed Leo because there is only one like him. He’s our best player, the best in the world. We know he’s our most important player but this team and the team-work, this machine, is really important.”