‘I was so happy to go back I was crying’ – Mateo Kovacic on his love of Croatia

Despite his upbringing in Austria, Mateo Kovacic is a proud Croatian and could feature for his country against England at Euro 2020 today. Here, in his own words, he recalls his early years, his return to his homeland and a moment that put everything in perspective…

My family have been the most important factor in my career and my life. Without them, I wouldn’t be what I am today. They sacrificed so much for me, and because of that I am thankful to them every day of my life.

I was born in Linz, in Austria, where I played football and went to school until I was 12 – just a normal life. Linz is a nice, quiet place and I was in a neighbourhood where there were only Austrian people, so I learned very quickly to speak German.

Sport was in my family. My mother was a good athlete, she was a volleyball player, and my father played basketball, but just for fun.

They have always been amazing to me, because they never pressured me and always supported me. When I was a boy, my father used to film my games with a video camera, and after we would watch them together.

We never really analysed them or anything, he never put me under any pressure, but we would just watch them for a bit of fun. I still have some of those videos, and when I want to remember old times I watch them!

My parents also raised me with the church in my life, they raised me to thank God for what we have. I never pray to win, though, I always pray just to say thank you, because I am thankful to God and my family for all I have.

I was a Croatian boy, born in Austria, and when I was 12, I played a tournament in Croatia. Afterwards, I heard Dinamo Zagreb were really interested in me. I was really happy because Dinamo represented a lot to me, and after two or three months they made their offer. In the end, they wanted me so badly my whole family moved to Croatia.

I remember when my father told me, ‘Son, we are going back,’ I was crying, I was so happy. In the end, it was the best decision of my career.

Long before we moved to Croatia, my parents and my grandparents had built a house there, where we would always go for our vacations. They bought the land and just started to build, but we never thought we would move there because my sisters and I went to school in Austria and the schools were good there. In the end, the love for Zagreb and Croatia was too big, so we moved back and we lived in this house, where my grandfather and grandmother are still living.

When I got the opportunity to play for Dinamo, it was amazing. At the beginning, as I played my first games, it was incredible, I was so happy. But I had a big issue after two years there, when I broke my leg at the age of 14. It ended up being one of the most important times in my life – not just my football career, but my life.

I learned a lot during that year. It sounds stupid to say this, but in some ways it was the best thing that could have happened because it changed so much for me. I did my rehabilitation in a place where there were a lot of badly injured children – some of them without legs, some of them with paralysis – receiving physiotherapy and help with their movement.

When I was in the room with these kids, I realised I was lucky, my injury was nothing, that there were many worse cases than mine. I saw it was just a broken leg in my case, it would get better and I would be able to walk again. I was happy to know just that, and I prayed to God that I could come back to the football pitch as well.

I also met my wife that year, and we have now been together for over 10 years, and I met friends who have been with me my whole life since then, and are still with me now. So, in the end, this one year, when I broke my leg, gave me many moments of happiness, because my wife, my family and my friends are the most important things to me. I grew up a lot in that difficult period, and in the end I came back to football perfectly.

I’ve been lucky to live in some great cities because of football. Since leaving Zagreb, I’ve lived in Milan, Madrid and now London. I love to take a walk with my wife sometimes because we’ve always lived in the centre of every city and I think you can enjoy the city this way, but I prefer to be at home with my family than to be out too much.

I’ve been lucky enough to learn a lot of languages as well – Croatian, German, Spanish, Italian and English – and to learn about football in all of these places has been very good for me. This sport has given me a lot.

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