Croatia's Mateo Kovacic needs to leave Real Madrid to get career back on track
Croatia midfielder Mateo Kovacic is watching most of the World Cup from the same position he experienced a lot of the 2017-18 club campaign with Real Madrid: the bench.
Kovacic has won three Champions League titles and the 2017 La Liga trophy during his time at the Bernabeu, but there still remains the feeling that his career has stalled.
The midfielder played 36 games across all competitions during 2017-18 for Madrid, however he completed the 90 minutes just four times in La Liga and started just three matches in the Champions League.
Long tipped for a starring role with his country, the 24-year-old Kovacic should really have established himself in the Croatia team by this point. However short substitute appearances in both pre-tournament friendlies against Brazil and Senegal led him to accept that a lack of playing time at Madrid was now a big issue.
"I believe I'll play more [next season], whether in Real or somewhere else," Kovacic said. "Now is the time for me to play. Offers? I am under contract with Real and I wish not to comment on other clubs."
Kovacic was just 21 when he was hailed as "the new Andre Pirlo," before leaving Inter Milan to move to Madrid in a €30 million summer move in 2015.
The idea was that he could become the new Luka Modric and learn the ropes under his fellow countryman. Many in Croatia predicted a similar succession with the national team, including long-serving right-back Darjo Srna.
But at Russia 2018, despite the country getting to the quarterfinals, Kovacic has been left out of the XI time and again. Modric and Barca's Ivan Rakitic are understandably automatic choices; the third central midfielder preferred by national coach Zlatko Dalic is Inter Milan player Marcelo Brozovic. Although Kovacic has played a part in every game, he has just 151 minutes under his belt.
He did start game three against Iceland when coach Dalic made wholesale changes as qualification was already ensured. And he came on late in normal time against Denmark in the round of 16, improving his team's possession play, but fell awkwardly and hurt a shoulder in extra-time. That injury makes him a doubt for Saturday evening's quarterfinal against Russia in Sochi, although Brozovic was always likely to come back into the starting XI anyway.
Unable to break through for club or country, frustration at his lack of game time led Kovacic to tell Marca from Russia that he understood the competition for places at the Bernabeu made things difficult, so maybe a move was best.
"I would like to play more at Madrid because I love football and being out on the pitch," he said. "I know that in Madrid it is difficult to be a starter, especially as I arrived very young. I understand the situation, but I believe that the best for me is to go to another club where I will have the chance to play regularly as a starter. I think I can get that opportunity, and it's what I want now."
Despite a contract which runs until 2021, and a €300m release clause, the likes of Juventua, Roma, Inter, Manchester United and Tottenham have been linked as possible buyers this summer, with Schalke and Manchester City are also rumoured to be interested. And Madrid are only likely to ask for at least double the €30m they paid three years ago.
"We haven't thought about leaving Real or interest from other clubs," agent Nikky Vuksan told the Croatian press last season. "But, the summer is long and who knows what can happen after the World Cup. Also, it is a compliment to Mateo that every summer there are rumours about how the biggest clubs want him, even though he is not in Real's XI."
The Premier League looks a possibility for a player who speaks very good English, as well as German, Croatian, Italian, and deals with reporters in the Bernabeu mixed-zone in Spanish. But a move is key to kickstarting his career again.
An intelligent guy, Kovacic is well aware of his own worth and importance -- and understandably feels that at pretty much any other club in the world he could establish himself as a regular starter in midfield. Despite frustration so far in Russia, he should get that chance soon.