“I feel like the most privileged man in football for everything it has given me,” Ivan Rakitic told FIFA.com.
For getting the opportunity to form a remarkable midfield partnership with Luka Modric and compose behind Lionel Messi. For earning an honour previously bestowed only on the enshrined Diego Maradona. For captaining Sevilla to UEFA Europa League glory. For scoring the opener for Barcelona in a triumphant UEFA Champions League final. For helping Croatia reach the FIFA World Cup™ Final. Oh, and for scoring himself a wife – an achievement that proved way more difficult than anything he achieved on a football pitch.
We caught up with Rakitic to discuss all of that, his return to Sevilla and recent decision to retire from international football.
FIFA.com: Ivan you recently moved back to Sevilla. What’s the passion for football like in Seville?
Ivan Rakitic: Really amazing, it’s probably the craziest city in Spain for football passion. The people really, really love football. We have Sevilla and Betis, two huge rivals, both in the Primera Division. The two stadiums are only five minutes apart. The whole city is really crazy about football and it’s a really special atmosphere.
Seville is special to you on a family level too…
(laughs) It’s an amazing story. The first day I arrived in Seville it was late. I had a medical the next morning, many things to sort out. I was nervous so I asked my brother to come for a drink with me. There was a girl working at the bar. As soon as I saw her I knew I wanted to marry her. There was a big European club ringing my brother, trying to send a plane to pick me up from Seville to sign for them, but I said, ‘I’ve already given my word to Sevilla – I’m going to sign for this club and I’m going to marry that girl.’ That was easy for me – I was sure she had to be my wife. But it was so difficult to get her to go out with me, because she rejected me a lot. I had to work really hard – I always try to work hard on the pitch, but this was much, much harder (laughs) – but after seven months she finally agreed to go to lunch. Now we’ve been together nine-and-a-half years.
During your first spell at the club, you become the first foreigner to captain Sevilla since Diego Maradona. How proud of that were you?
Even now to hear that – to be the first foreign captain in so long and the next one after Maradona – it’s still really amazing. There are moments in your career when words can’t really explain how you feel – that was one. I was so, so proud. The captain is always a Spanish guy and often a guy directly from Seville. To have this honour, to have the confidence of the people at the club and the coach, it meant so much, I was really thankful. I hope they enjoyed my time as captain too, because I live for football, I live for my team, and it was a special year with the Europa League triumph.
Jesus Navas is now captain, but with your experience, your achievements, do you see your role as being a leader?
Yes, but I’m also a new guy in the team and I want to take small steps just like all the other new players. I have so much respect for Jesus. We played together in my first three-and-a-half years at the club, and it was really special to be back with him again. Jesus and all the other players know I’m ready to help them – it doesn’t matter if I’m captain or not, they can always come to talk to me. Helping them and giving them confidence is really important to me.
Two-nil down, then down to ten men. Can you tell us about that 3-2 win over Krasnodar in the Champions League?
(laughs) It was a really crazy game. Everybody will remember it for a very long time. It shows what is possible in a football game, what can happen if you fight until the last minute. I think, even when we were 2-0 down in the first half, we played a great game. If you don’t keep 100 per cent concentration all the time, you can concede goals. In the dressing room at half-time, even though we were down to ten men, the coach [Julen Lopetegui] said we had to work, we had to fight and that the chances would come. Even then, we didn’t want a point, we wanted to win. Even though we only had ten men, we were clearly the better team, we fought until the last minute and all the guys fighting together made it possible to get the win.
Sevilla have won the UEFA Europa League six times, but have never been past the Champions League quarter-finals. How much of a goal is that for you?
It’s a really important target for us. I think the team and club have taken really big steps over the last ten, 15 years. It’s pretty amazing to see that Sevilla have won the Europa League six times. We’re obviously really proud and happy to have won these titles, but we want to take the next steps in the Champions League. It would be amazing to get past the quarter-finals and I think this team is really able to achieve something special in the Champions League. But first we must focus on our next three games in the group, which will be really hard. To be on seven points from three games, we’re really happy and we’re really happy with the way we played in those games. But we still have work to do in the group and then we can hopefully make history for the club.
In 2014, how did it feel to be joining Barcelona, a club that had Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Neymar, Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi?
Not too bad! (laughs) No, seriously, to be part of the biggest team in the world was indescribable. I will feel part of this big family for the rest of my life. I knew I was going to play with those players, I was really excited, but when I walked into the dressing room and saw them… it hit me, I was in awe. It was so enjoyable to play football with those players, and to have them as lifelong friends means so much to be. I’m really close to Andres, we speak a lot. I’m so, so thankful for those six years and I will never forget them.
How did it feel to score four minutes into the Champions League final in 2015? How was that day in Berlin?
Boom! Amazing. Your emotions in that moment are. . it’s crazy, crazy, crazy. You work your whole life for that moment and for it to come off, and to win this big title, it’s just a feeling that will never be destroyed.
You always seemed to play well in El Clásico. What was the fixture like to play in?
I think it’s the biggest game in the world. To have played in a lot of El Clásicos, to have been on the winning side a lot, to have scored a lot of goals, to have been the match-winner in some of them, it’s an amazing feeling that will stay with me forever. Every game was very different, very special. I have so many amazing memories from these games. To have been part of the history of El Clásico, I feel really proud.
How would you describe your time at Barcelona?
Six years, 311 games – the foreigner with the fourth-most games after Messi, Dani Alves and Mascherano – 13 titles. I think I can say that I’m part of the history of the club. I got so much out of those six years. I will have Barcelona – the club, the city, the people – in my heart for the rest of my life. My family got bigger there – my youngest daughter was born in Barcelona. I’m really proud of my time there and will always cherish it.
What do you think of Lionel Messi as a player?
One hundred per cent football. It doesn’t matter who you are, you just have to watch and enjoy this guy. He’s on another level. With all respect to the other greats, there’s only one number one – it’s Leo. To play 311 games next to him, it was a dream. I enjoyed it so, so much. I just want to say this: ‘Thank you for everything, Leo, because you’ll never know how much it meant to me to play next to you.’
Moving on to international football, what is your favourite memory from Russia 2018?
It’s impossible to pick out only one memory because every day in Russia – and every day when we were preparing for the World Cup – was really, really special. The atmosphere between us all, the friendship, was just amazing. To work together, every day, for one-and-a-half months, that’s when you can really feel it. We worked really hard, we gave it our best and though the Final was a hard loss, on the other side It was our biggest win: we were able to get love for Croatia from the whole world. That was really amazing. To receive so many messages from all over the world, I’m sure 90 per cent of the world was behind us in the Final. That loss, of course I’ll never forget it because we were so close to winning the biggest title you can even win in your football career, but I’m really proud of what we did together. It’s the biggest achievement in Croatian football history.
And for a nation of only four million…
Four million Croatians, for me, are better than 100 million of another nationality. You should have seen it when we arrived in Zagreb – it was unbelievable. To see all those people – it was crazy, crazy. I remember when we arrived at the airport they told us we’d get an open-top bus to the centre of Zagreb. They told us it would take an hour, maybe an hour-and-a-half at most. It took us seven hours! It was absolutely packed. To feel that love from all these people in Croatia was one of the best moments of my life. We will never, ever forget it.
What did you think of the Final against France?
I think we were the better team for 60 minutes, but that’s football. The first goal wasn’t a foul. The second goal, if he hadn’t have given it I don’t think you could have complained. Sometimes in football you can be the best team but lose. But we respect France a lot, congrats to them, they deserved it. But I think we gave a good performance.
Can you tell us about your recent decision to retire from international duty?
It was maybe the hardest moment of my career to step back. But I think you sometimes have to realise the moment has arrived. After more than 13 years and over 100 games, with this COVID and my return to Seville, I thought it was really important to be 100-per-cent concentrated on my club and also dedicate more time to my family. And also, Croatia has a lot of young and talented players, and I think they deserve their chance. It was the perfect moment.
How would you describe your international career?
Absolutely amazing. When I started out at 19 years old, I never imagined I would play in the biggest game in the history of football, make over 100 appearances, enjoy European Championships, World Cups. The feeling of wearing the Croatian shirt and hearing the Croatian people tell me they appreciate me, it was really, really amazing. I’m really, really proud of it all.
Finally, what do you think of Luka Modric?
The best thing that ever happened to Croatia. For me he’s like a big brother. Thirteen years together for the national team, a lot of fights in El Clásico (laughs). But, seriously, to have two Croatian guys in the biggest game in club football, it was just incredible for our country. I was so, so happy and proud every time he won an award, because as well as it being for him it was for the whole of Croatia. I was really emotional when he won The [Best] FIFA [Men’s Player] award. He’s the perfect representative for Croatia all over the world. He makes me really proud to be Croatian.