COMMENTThe first time Florentino Perez clapped eyes on Mateo Kovacic it was for the player’s unveiling at Santiago Bernabeu after completing a €29m transfer from Inter to Real Madrid. And since then he has cut the figure of a man who doesn’t really belong.
Rafael Benitez, Real Madrid coach at the start of the season, decided he would need an extra midfielder and duly drew up a list of targets to present to his president. On the list, if not in first place, was Kovacic. Perez offered €29m and Inter – constrained by Financial Fair Play – sold up.
Related Euro 2016 Team Guide: Croatia need big guns to fire for success Halilovic left out of final Croatia squad Kovacic may well have played 25 times for Real Madrid in his first – and probably only – season at Santiago Bernabeu but the numbers don’t tell the whole story. While Benitez was indeed a fan and used him all across the midfield as a replacement for his first-team players, Kovacic has been on the fringes since Zinedine Zidane took over.
It was sadly appropriate that Kovacic was red-carded in the game which did for Benitez. A 2-2 draw at Valencia cost Rafa his job in January with Kovacic getting sent off. It seemed to represent the unravelling of the Benitez regime.
Zidane has a clearly-defined midfield template – Casemiro, Toni Kroos and Kovacic’s Croatian compatriot Luka Modric – and the 22-year-old rarely got a look in for the starting XI. By the time Real claimed their 11th Champions League title – at Kovacic’s former home stadium in San Siro – he was nowhere to be found; out of the 18 and very probably now out of the club altogether.
Kovacic is expected to complete a move back to Italy at some stage this summer with Juventus – despite their pursuit of Miralem Pjanic – and AC Milan ready to compete for his signature. The player himself has discarded the possibility of a return to Inter – so long as Roberto Mancini remains in charge there.
Not much is known about their problems but Kovacic described their relationship as “strange” this week. Should a deal fail to materialise before the end of the European Championship, then Kovacic has a chance to put himself in the shop window with his national side.
However, he is going to have to force his way into Ante Cacic’s plans first. He is not always guaranteed to start for his country. Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic are non-negotiable picks in centre midfield while Kovacic’s former Inter team-mate Marcelo Brozovic is also certain to be selected.
With two wide men in Ivan Perisic and Marco Pjaca likely to start either side of a single centre forward, there would appear to be no room in the line up for Kovacic.
The fact that he has failed to make the grade at the Bernabeu counts against him. His development has been stunted by the move to Spain. As a teenager, he was deemed to be among Europe’s best when he swapped Dinamo Zagreb for Inter but his career has stalled even if he gets to call Real Madrid home.
What Kovacic needs is the opportunity to put it right and and demonstrate what he still has to offer. Maybe then, his next club president might be tempted to say hello before the unveiling.