Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s eight-game winning run came to an end at home to Burnley in January when Sean Dyche’s side raced into a shock 2-0 lead by half-time, the first side to do that at Old Trafford since Sevilla in Rio Ferdinand’s 2013 testimonial. It was merely a friendly against Sevilla’s reserve team since the first team had played a Europa League qualifier the previous evening – a qualifier for a competition they would win. The occasion was also Ivan Rakitić’s only visit to Old Trafford.“I wanted to play that night at Old Trafford but I wasn’t allowed to,” the Croatian explains ruefully to GQ overlooking an indoor handball pitch at Barça’s ever-expanding training ground. “I’d seen the stadium in Euro ’96 when a generation of players did Croatia proud. We played Germany there and Germany was expecting a little team. They just beat us 2-1 and then the whole world knew about Croatian football.”The Swiss-born-and-raised Croatian who lives in Catalonia is speaking in English, the fourth of the six languages he speaks. He’s in his fifth season at Camp Nou and he’s more important than ever – no Barça player has played as many games this season.
He knows his role is supporting and creating chances for Messi: “We’re lucky to have the biggest player in world football here in our club.” But Rakitić is a world-class footballer, who scored the only goal when Barça won 1-0 at the Bernabéu against Real Madrid a month ago, the fourth consecutive season since his arrival that they have won away at the club which has dominated the Champions League. His influence led to José Mourinho declaring, “I’ve wanted to say this for a long, long time: Ivan Rakitić is one of the most underrated players in the world.” And José had more to say about his lack of recognition and his qualities. “Normally, we speak about the big names. For me, Rakitić needs to improve his Instagram and his social media because, in this moment, this is very important and he is not very good on that. He is good on the pitch.“He’s a fantastic player at every level. He does defensive work on the right-hand side to compensate Messi; he runs miles. In ball possession, he’s fantastic, he’s simple and he’s effective.”“That was amazing to hear,” Rakitić says ahead training. “When I heard it I said that even my dad wouldn’t say that. He’s one of the biggest coaches in the world and it gave me so much confidence and motivation. I want to see Mourinho back in football soon.” Rakitić has started all eight of his side’s Champions League games this season – five wins and three draws. Barça are the first club to reach 12 successive Champions League quarterfinals. Only Tottenham Hotspur have taken a point at Camp Nou.
“We saw how good they were and we know English clubs are strong at the moment,” he says. “Man United is having good results and to score three goals in Paris was incredible. You have to respect Manchester for this comeback, for the organisation and fight in the team with so many young players.”He’s right, but he’s being diplomatic too ahead of the massively anticipated quarterfinal against United. He knows that anything he says could be twisted ahead of the match. “I have a lot of respect for the British people and the passion which they have for football, the full stadiums,” he adds. If the atmosphere at Old Trafford next Wednesday for the first leg is half as good as it was when Barcelona last visited (1-0, Scholes, bang!) in 2008, then it’ll be a cracker.Rakitić is 31, a bargain at €18 million from Sevilla. In Daniel Alves and Rakitić Barça have done very well out of Sevilla and the latest stellar signing from there is central defender Clément Lenglet. Rakitić is contracted until 2021 and, despite rumours of Barça looking to cash in on a player as they seek to reduce their massive wage bill which takes up an unsustainable 73 per cent of their revenue, he doesn’t want to leave. Rakitić loves being at the club and living in the city with his Andalusian wife, Raquel, and their two young daughters. He met Raquel when he moved to Sevilla and she served him breakfast in the hotel each morning. He knew straightaway that he wanted to be with her, but she batted his interest away saying that she was at work. One day, he saw her in a café and said, “Well, you’re not at work now.”Raquel’s family are big Sevilla fans. His wife’s father insisted on wearing a Sevilla watch when he was buried and Rakitić still picks out Sevilla’s sun-bleached Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán stadium as the one he most likes to play in. But how could he turn Barça down?
“I’ve had four-and-a-half years at Barcelona, which have been so good,” he says of a time in which he’s won the Champions League in his first season, four league titles and four Copa del Reys. “I’m part of the biggest team in the world and that makes me very proud. I love football. A lot. It’s never a moment to say that I’m bored. There is a lot of repetition in football, in training and travel, but I still love it. If that love goes, then it’s better to stop and walk away. It still feel amazing to be able to play football every day and if you love something then you tend to be better at it. I would never describe football as a job because it doesn’t feel like a job. But I also know that there’s a responsibility to play here, that people are looking at you every minute and that they want to know what you are doing. That can be like, ‘Wow’, but you don’t have to change. You can still enjoy what you do and be the guy that started out in football with a big dream.”Rakitić maintains that money and fame haven’t changed him. “As a player, you have to be the same guy who started out in Switzerland,” he says. “And I am. Every player is different but I try to treat everyone the same. On a day-to-day basis I come across other footballers and club staff and I try to treat all the same, from the security guard to Lionel Messi.” Barça haven’t gone beyond the last eight since 2015, the year they beat Juventus in the Berlin final with Rakitić scoring the opening goal. “In all my languages there are no words to describe this moment,” he recalls. “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. We haven’t been able to do it again in the Champions League but I have great faith in these players for this season.”He had similar faith in Croatia in the 2018 World Cup finals. “Reaching the final was so unexpected. 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. It was a wonderful one-and-a-half months in Russia – and for Russia. The people who organised that tournament deserve a lot of credit.”Croatia won all three of their group games, against Argentina, Nigeria and Iceland, scoring seven and conceding only once. Then they beat Denmark and hosts Russia on penalties in the knockout stages. Rakitić took and scored the fifth penalty in both games to confirm victory.What was going through his head as he prepared to take those penalties, especially the one to knock Russia out in Russia? “I was thinking about my kids and my wife,” he replies. “The pressure was a lot, so I didn’t need to add pressure to myself. I thought, ‘What are they doing now?’ My young children, aged five and three, have no pressure, so I just imagined them and what they are doing. And I imagined them being happy, which meant I was happy.”
England were next. Extra time, not penalties were needed. “I’m sorry,” he says, smiling at an Englishman who was present in Moscow that night for the World Cup semifinal. Rakitić studied architecture in Switzerland at local world-class architects Herzog de Meuron (“They designed a lot of football stadiums around the world, including the one in Basel. Maybe in the future we can do something together”) before deciding on a career in football. It was the right choice as he played with FC Basel, Schalke 04, Sevilla and now Barça, four clubs with exceptionally strong identities. How important is it for a club to have a strong identity when winning seems to matter more than anything?“I’m sure all teams would like to have 20 players who come from their own city, or here at Barcelona 20 players from the Masia, but that’s almost impossible. They had a generation here where Piqué, Messi, Xavi, Iniesta, Valdes and Busquets all came through around a similar time. But that doesn’t happen often, so players have to be bought in order for the team to compete with the best.”Manchester United’s identity became submerged in the post Sir Alex Ferguson years. Under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, it could be coming back. Rakitić has long watched United and reels off names of great players from the Nineties and noughties. He remembers a time “when English football seemed like Manchester United and 19 others, mainly because of Alex Ferguson, the greatest coach maybe in the history of football”.He feels that English clubs are resurgent and powerful and yet it’s Barça who are clear favourites against United, a side he’s watched a lot. “You have to know your best side,” he said. “And the new Man United manager seems to know that. If you have to fight a bit more or play counterattacking then you do what is best. “A lot of teams would like to play like Barcelona and have possession. But if you have possession and you lose the game finally, then it’s for nothing and I would not be happy.” Rakitić is happy to be going back hopefully to actually play at Old Trafford for the first time, even if it’s later in his career than he’d hoped. What does the future hold? “I’ve got a lot of football left,” he says as he’s called for training.How much? Ryan Giggs played until he was 40. “Hopefully I can play until I’m 41 then. I feel perfect right now.”
Manchester United vs Barcelona is on BT Sport 2 on Wednesday 10 April.
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