In the wake of winning his 50th international cap at the age of just 24, Mateo Kovacic talks us through his journey to the top of the professional game, which started as a young boy in Austria and continued when he was spotted by the biggest club in Croatia, which forced his family into a big decision. We also have him speaking in a video exclusive below about his development and the World Cup...
I was born and grew up in Linz in Austria. I have played football since I was three or four years old when I played with my friends from nursery. One friend of mine started playing when he was five and told his mother that I was good. His mother talked to my mother, and she took me to my first training session when I was five years old. I was younger than everybody.
I just remember I was very small, my shirt was too long and everything was super big! But I was good, and I learned fast because I started playing with kids of seven or eight years old. I always played with bigger guys and I learned really quickly to protect myself, and I got better and better every day.
I was really young, but I realised when I was five or six years old I was fast, and I had something the other children didn’t. I always played one against three in the kindergarten and I was quite good. Then, as the years passed, I realised I had talent, but my father always said that without work talent is nothing. So I worked hard every day to be where I am now.
The first team I played for was a small club in my village for one year. Then I moved to LASK Linz who are now in the First Division in Austria and doing very well. It’s a big club in Austria. I am still in contact with some of the people I played with at that time. I remember all my friends from then. They were a big part of my life.
My father used to film my games with a videocamera, and after we would watch them together. I still have some of those videos, and when I want to remember old times I watch them!
When I was 10 years old, I played a game for Linz against Dynamo Zagreb in Zagreb. They liked me, they got in contact, and for two years I went with them to tournaments and played with them. In the end they decided to bring my family back to Croatia. It was one of the happiest days in my life.
I felt of course a little bit sad because I was leaving my friends and school, but I knew I would find friends in Zagreb. I already had some friends there too, so for me it was really easy. My family were happy to move back to Croatia, but it was more difficult for them. They had great work in Austria, my sisters went to school there, so it was difficult to move the whole family, but it was our choice and in the end it was the perfect one. They sacrificed so much for me, and because of that I am thankful to them every day of my life.
I was 12 years old when I moved to Croatia to play for Dinamo Zagreb. We had an amazingly talented generation where I played. A lot of players I played with at the Dinamo Zagreb academy are now playing in huge clubs, people like Andrej Kramaric, Alen Halilovic and Sime Vrsalijko. Croatia is a country with really talented players, but we lack the will to work! We don’t work so much, but from Dinamo Zagreb many players did good and for me it’s one of the best schools in Europe.
I broke my leg when I was 14. That was a part of my career that was difficult. It was difficult for me, but not just me, also my family. They had moved and sacrificed everything, and then maybe it was over. It was a huge punch for us, but we believe in God and we knew I would come back for sure.
And I did. I came back very strong, and when I was 16 I went to the first team. That was my first step in professional football.
My senior debut for Dinamo Zagreb was really special. It was a long time ago now! I scored in this game. It was a day to remember. My father was the happiest person because he suffered a lot when I was injured, and this goal was for him. I think he is now the proudest dad in the world.