Mateo Kovacic’s footballing journey has taken him to many of Europe’s finest cities, and our midfielder has been speaking about two in particular that carry extra resonance for him.
Kovacic was born in Austria in 1994 to Bosnian Croat parents who had escaped the horrors of the Yugoslav Wars earlier in the nineties. He was raised in Linz, and Austria is still the home of his parents and sisters, but when he was 12 years old the young Mateo moved to Zagreb to join the city’s main team Dinamo.
‘My parents moved with me in the beginning because I was still young,’ Kovacic recounts.
‘Dinamo Zagreb had interest in me and my father and my mother decided it was a good step for my career and for our family as well, because we loved our country and wanted one day to come back.
‘In Zagreb I met my friends who I still have and my wife. It was an amazing time and I had the luck of having a few years in Zagreb. Coming to my hometown is a nice part of my life.
‘I never had pressure from my family that I needed to succeed, just to have fun and be professional as much as I can,’ he adds.
‘I broke my leg when I was 14 and I learned you have to suffer to gain in the end. Luckily I became a professional football player and my dreams came true.’
The Dinamo academy has produced many of Croatia’s finest exports over the past few decades. The rollcall is impressive: Luka Modric, Robert Prosinecki, Dejan Lovren, Josko Gvardiol, Zvonomir Boban, and plenty more. Kovacic is in esteemed company.
That list is a key reason why, since independence, the Croatian national team have punched above their weight. Before Kovacic’s time they came third at the 1998 World Cup, and more recently, with our no.8 heavily involved, they finished as runners-up in 2018 and then picked up another bronze in Qatar last year.
‘We are quite talented in sports,’ says Kovacic. Something of an understatement for a country of fewer than four million people!
‘Croatia is a country that loves sports, especially football. You could see after the World Cup in 2018 and 2022 how the people welcomed us.
‘We are talented but we have the character to fight and to show where we come from. Even though we are a small country we can achieve big things. We feel like one.’
Kovacic’s domestic career continued at two European footballing powerhouses, Inter and Real, located in two of the continent’s most fashionable cities, Milan and Madrid.
Then, in 2018, came the move to another club and another city that ticked both of those boxes: London’s most central team, Chelsea. It has clearly paid off.
‘I am five years here already, time flies, and I have been at Chelsea the longest of all the clubs. I feel really, really at home. There is nothing to not love in London. My family enjoys it, which makes it easier for me. The food is okay, maybe not like Italy or Spain! But London is amazing.
‘My son goes to nursery here in London, he enjoys it, the people are so nice. I can only say good things about London and England. We feel really great here.
‘I had the luck to be in great countries, great cities, new cultures, meeting amazing people,’ Kovacic concludes.
‘I am blessed I could experience so many nice countries. I learned many lessons, but most of all just to respect all people. How they treated me I can just be thankful, and I tried to treat them the same way they treated me. Just be polite as much as I can, which is not always easy, but be myself.
‘When I see where I have been it’s really amazing. I’m just thankful for the people I have met. It’s been a nice journey.’