Ivan Rakitić: Vigor and Verve
His eyes were as wide as a dying squid’s. He was young and terrified and out of his depth.
He had come on as a substitute and almost immediately abandoned his position. I seem to remember him drifting in from the left, clogging up the midfield with his endless, senseless, fruitless running.
Over and over again, he’d meander into the space designated for more illustrious footballers on the left corner of the opposing box. His passes were purposeless or negative. His runs were energetic, but inert. He shot too quickly, too often, and too high.
It was the first time I had seen Ivan Rakitić play, and I wasn’t impressed.
After the match, I turned to my wife and casually told her what I thought of this new kid. And to my surprise, she violently disagreed.
Rakitić’s incompetence was so self-evident that I hadn’t expected an argument. And yet here we were, stuck in a footballing Rashoman moment, open-mouthed and indignant in our mutual disbelief of each other’s misperception.
The Rakitić she had watched was smooth and calm, gifted and hard-working. She marveled at his confidence, his silky skills on the ball, his movement off it, his deft passing, his awareness of space and the unfolding narrative of the match.
The fact that he always seemed to be arriving into a bubble of defender-less void — a happenstance I attributed in equal parts to luck and shambolic opposition — was evidence, she said, of a keen footballing intelligence.
Where I saw him getting in Luka Modrić’s way, she saw him overloading a weak defense. Where I saw aimless passes, she saw good vision and poor reception. Where I saw wandering, she saw cunning. Where I saw pointless shooting, she saw an eye for goal. Where I saw fear, she saw joy.
We reached an uneasy conclusion, one in which each of us quietly and respectfully assumed the other was a moron.
I was wrong
I have since learned to give my wife’s footballing opinion the respect and deference it deserves. But at the time, I was young and stupid and slightly more self-absorbed than at present.
Six years later, a wiser and humbler version of myself is watching Rakitić push his team through an improbable slugfest against Barcelona, a fight they will ultimately lose thanks only to a blown call and a last-gasp winner conjured out of thin air by no less a deity than Lionel Messi himself.
The kid I thought would never get another call-up for Croatia is now Sevilla’s undisputed captain; the spiritual, physical, and statistical leader of one of Spain’s most resurgent teams.
His confidence is supreme, but he is not arrogant. His is an ego-less confidence, born out of a humble faith in the greatness of his ability. And that ability — ability I once doubted — is apparent in every one of his many strokes of the ball.
The first thing you notice is his energy. Rakitić is all over the place.
He is the furthest player forward one moment, only to be seen picking up the ball from his own keeper the next. In one characteristic passage of play during the Barcelona match, he forces a turnover on the left, plays a through ball from the center, and picks up possession again on the right.
He’ll slide into the defense when his own full-back pursues a marker two steps too far upfield. Then he’ll wander left when he notices the loaded midfield shift rightward. Before it has a chance to redistribute itself, he’s already mounting a cross-field run through traffic, rippling chaos across the opposing defense.
In this match, wherein Barcelona dominate 66% of the possession, Rakitić still manages 75 touches, four tackles, three clearances, an assist (two if you count Cala’s brainlessly disallowed header), and a goal. He’s always wherever the action is. Like a fluttering speck of man-shaped dust on the television camera’s lens, he simply never leaves the frame.
But his genius isn’t just in his hustle.
In a one-dimensional footballing universe, where players are easily arrayed along a spectrum between “talented” and “industrious”, Rakitić is the quantum particle of footballers, dwelling comfortably at both ends. He’s quality and quantity, all at once.
He appeases the beer-swilling, hairy-chested, epithets-shouting, Anglo-Saxon half of me that lusts for blood and guts, relentless pressing, manly aerial prowess, and getting fearlessly stuck in. But paradoxically, he also satiates my espresso-sipping, book-reading, sophisticated, continental side.
On a Croatia side synonymous with style, he seems at first glance to be a poor fit. But on closer inspection, it’s clear that his physicality merely distracts from the fact that he is one of the most technically gifted footballers in the squad.
His dead ball deliveries — and he takes every free kick and corner, right or left, for Sevilla because he is precisely that good — are the perfect combination of muted elegance and brutal lethality; indefensible yet tastefully dressed surface-to-air missiles.
The passes he makes are not always the obvious choice, but after the pass has been made, it becomes clear it was the best choice. And he does not pass with undue flair or drama. If there is such a thing as a workaday backheel or chip, it’s because Rakitić’s understated passing defines them as such. Virtuoso utilitarianism at its best.
His movement, too, is a blend of the practical and the aesthetic. He runs a lot, sure, but his movement off the ball is subtle, intelligent, tactical. He knows when to stay put. He knows when to drift. He knows when to run. He seems to smell space, while others merely see it.
The mere vision of Rakitić as he propels himself across the turf — his floppy hair and narrowed eyes and jerky, cartoonish gait — conjures up images of footballers from another time: Graceful and muscular, sure, but also refreshingly human.
Rakitić’s effortless blending of muscle and brain has made him into the ultimate chameleon. He fits — without stylistic modification — into Spanish football, just as he fit into Germany, just as he’ll likely fit into Italy or England or wherever else he decides to ply his elegant trade.
Football managers will often claim, as a compliment to some player, that they wished they had ten other such players. The intention is figurative, of course, because a team consisting of eleven Lionel Messis would have a terrible defensive record and a team of Thiago Silvas would struggle to create a single chance.
But in Rakitić’s case, I’m not so sure that’s true. His role at Sevilla is so amorphous that he usually does play attacker, defender, playmaker, and tackler in any given match. An all-Rakitić XI would fare pretty well.
In fact, he may be as close to the prototypical “all-around footballer” as I’ve seen, the well-balanced cocktail of the sporting world.
More than that, though, Ivan Rakitić is a humbling, constant reminder that I don’t know shit, that opinions change, and that my wife is always, always right.