A boy born to Croatian parents who grew up in Switzerland and dreamed of playing for Barcelona: Ivan Rakitic has realised that dream and many more in his football career so far.
Widely acknowledged as a world-class player today, if it had not been for four of his hardest-working years in his career at Schalke, it likely would not have been so smooth.
"As a little kid, I dreamed of scoring a goal past the great Oliver Kahn," Rakitic said after his first outing against Bayern Munich with the Royal Blues in September 2007. That dream had come true in only his fifth Bundesliga match and it was the only goal he has ever scored against the Bavarians - at the time his second strike in the Bundesliga for a club he had joined from Basel that summer.
A kid with a dream
"My mother likes to tell a story," Rakitic writes in his story on The Players' Tribune website. "When I started going to school, I came home after the third or fourth day and I said, 'Mum, I don't want to go anymore. I just want to play. How many years do I have to do this?' And she said, 'Nine years.' And so I said, 'Nine years? O.K., I’ll go for nine years, but not one day more.'"
And that’s how it began for Rakitic. On the day he turned 17, the Croatian-born dynamo joined Swiss club Basel on a professional contract. Forty-nine matches and a Swiss Cup winners' medal later and Rakitic was on his way to Gelsenkirchen, joining a Royal Blues squad with the club on the rise, at just 19. With youth products such as Mesut Özil and Manuel Neuer already established in the first-team, Rakitic forced his way into a young and exciting squad that would go on to finish third in his first Bundesliga season.
Three goals and 10 assists in that maiden Bundesliga campaign in 2007/08 was a remarkable return for the teenager, but his second season proved to be more complicated. Three managerial changes had him in and out of the starting line-up consistently, and Schalke plummeted to eighth as a result. The attacking midfielder played from the left, right or even centrally during his first two seasons at the club, but then came the season and a half that took Rakitic to a new level, in a slightly different position.
The Magath revolution
Speaking about one of his first games against Barcelona having signed for Sevilla, Rakitic said "In the first half, I found it hard to get involved while playing as the No.10 because Barca take the air out of their opponents." He continued: "During the break we then agreed that I drop back into a holding midfield role to organise the game from deep and stabilise our defence. Against [Andres] Iniesta I needed to get aggressive, which worked quite well, although it's frustrating with his movements and feints. One or two years ago it would not have gone so well. Felix Magath helped me a lot to discover this new quality within me."
Indeed, the man who made a real impact on Rakitic during his time in Germany was German coach Magath, who saw a defensive quality in the Croatian that no-one else had. It took its time to come to fruition, though, since Magath was not immediately convinced and he only played one match over the full 90 minutes in the first half of the 2009/10 season.
However, from the second match of the new year, Rakitic played every single second of a highly successful half of the season which saw Schalke lose only four in 17 games. Rakitic played 12 of those matches from a deeper midfield role.
The worry at first was that Rakitic would not be able to contribute to goals from deep, but in Magath’s 4-2-2-2 formation, the future Champions League winner operated as a box-to-box midfielder from a deep starting position. When going forward, Rakitic would become the central figure of a five-man attack, and he scored six of his seven league goals that season from this new position - one the Croatian acknowledged suited him after the 2010 World Cup.
"I saw how enormously important a compact midfield is," Rakitic said, speaking to SPOX in 2010. "The holding midfield role in football today is perhaps the most important position because there are both defensive and attacking responsibilities. I decided to play a similarly important role for Schalke."
The Spanish dream becomes reality
Playing alongside the likes of Neuer, Raul, Benedikt Höwedes and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar towards the end of his time with Schalke, Rakitic showed his class on a weekly basis. Sixteen league matches in the 2010/11 season was all that Sevilla needed to be convinced to sign the future La Liga star. Schalke would go on to lift the DFB Cup in that same season, with Rakitic collecting a winner’s medal as he scored in the extra-time quarter-final win over Nuremberg.
Instagram picture: together with Eintracht Frankfurt's Ante Rebic - 'brother, kick the ball long'
That quarter-final proved to be his final game in the Royal Blue colours of Schalke, but to this day, Rakitic watches any game he can from the Veltins-Arena and always closely follows the results of the side which first made his dream a reality.
Now, at Barcelona, with Xavi and Iniesta a part of history, Rakitic is tasked with being the midfield general alongside players such as Sergio Busquets and Paulinho. But neither the Spain nor the Brazil international boast the versatility of Rakitic, which was first developed, tried and tested under Magath, in Gelsenkirchen, in the Bundesliga.