Being compared to Lionel Messi was once regarded as a privilege for budding young footballers. But as in the case of Barcelona flop Alen Halilovic shows, the weight of the pressure can prove to be too heavy to withstand.
Halilovic made the headlines when he made his professional debut in Croatia’s ‘Eternal Derby’ with Dinamo Zagreb at the tender age of just 16 years and 101 days in September 2012, and won his first Croatia cap before his 17th birthday. Glowing reports in his home nation had seen the teenager dubbed the ‘new Messi’ due to his close dribbling style and diminutive frame, with Europe’s heavyweights circling.
But in 2014, Barcelona beat several clubs to agree a £ 2million deal for the 18-year-old attacking midfielder, with Halilovic penning a five-year deal. As is customary for young players at the Camp Nou, the youngster linked up with their B team, and his La Liga move certainly fit the trajectory that had been mapped out for him as he trained alongside Messi.
He arrived with high expectations after being hailed by former Real Madrid striker Davor Suker. “Halilovic is a star,” Suker said in 2014. “He reminds me of Messi. He is young, but we can trust him and he handles the ball very well. ” However, his transition to life in Spain was not as easy as first hoped.
It would take six months for the Croatian starlet to make his debut in the Copa del Rey against Elche and, recognizing his struggle, his family hired a personal coach for the youngster to help him adapt. That only antagonized Barca, who felt they had provided him with the tools to succeed, and he was soon demoted back to Barcelona B.
Eventually, he was farmed out on loan to Sporting Gijon for the 2015-16 season, where he scored five goals in 37 appearances. Despite his decent spell with the Spanish outfit, his father was unhappy with seeing his son play for a club with a smaller reputation, as reported by Mundo Deportivo.
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Having fallen out of favor, it was no surprise that he left to join Hamburg in a £ 4.75m deal in 2016, with Barca retaining a 5 8.5m buy-back clause. Once again, his impact was minimal and he made just seven appearances for the German outfit before being sent out on loan to Las Palmas for 18 months.
And as Barca decided not to take up the option to re-sign him, his hopes of emulating Messi at the Camp Nou had quickly evaporated. Indeed, just two years into his four-year deal with Hamburg, Halilovic was allowed to join AC Milan on a free transfer in 2018.
The move took many by surprise given its decline, but the Italians simply resorted to Standard Liege and Dutch side Heerenveen. But neither side seemed to want to keep him, nor did his parent club Milan, and Halilovic saw his deal terminated in October 2020.
Birmingham decided to take a chance on him a month later, handing the 10-cap Croatia international a lifeline and he scored just once for the Blues in 17 appearances, before moving onto Reading after earning a one-year contract.
However, he left on a sour note in May after hitting out at manager Paul Ince, claiming on Twitter that he “was not injured” in contradiction to the manager’s comments. His failure to settle at one club has since become an unfortunate recurring theme and after leaving Reading, Halilovic is looking for another club.
Like many youngsters who join Europe’s elite in their developing years, the move to Barca arrived too early in Halilovic’s career and his potential went unfulfilled. On his 26th birthday, he can only hope that wherever his next move takes him, it will help resurrect a career that once promised so much.