Every footballer’s path to the professional game is different, and Mateo Kovacic is no exception. Here, in his own words, our Croatian midfielder tells the story of his early days in the game, including the adversity he had to overcome and a meeting with an icon of the game who would become a great friend…
My beginnings were very cheerful and playful. From a young age, my only goal was to play football. When I was four to five years old, my mum took me to my first training session and then everyone told her that I was still too young and that I shouldn’t start playing yet, but in the end they let me play because we were very persistent.
I was really young, but I realized 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 realized 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.
I played with boys who were two or three years older than me. It just all revolved around football and around my family, who were my biggest support. I remember when I moved from LASK to Dinamo Zagreb. I was very young, only 12 years old. I started playing for Dinamo and thanks to football I made many friends.
It is normal in football and life to have both good and bad moments. When I was 14, I broke my leg and certainly my family suffered a lot because of it. My dad left his job in Austria, where we lived well, and moved to Croatia.
It was also a risk, but he had faith that I could achieve great things at Dinamo and in the end he was right. My dad has always been my biggest support, as have my whole family. They sacrificed a lot for me and I tried to repay them in another way, to give my best, to be a good son to them and to always have a great relationship with my family. I never missed anything, and like you said, in some crucial moments, family members become even more connected to each other, so a lot of good things happened to us in those bad moments as well.
One of those was meeting Luka Modric. I’ve been watching Luka’s matches since I was about ten, that’s when I started to understand football better. I had the opportunity to meet him twice. The first time I was nine or ten years old, and the second time I was about 14 years old, when Tottenham Hotspur signed him.
That’s when they said that it would be nice to take a picture with him because one day he will be my teammate, and that came true. We really get along wonderfully and we will continue to be that way throughout our lives. I am glad to have met such a phenomenal person. Not only when it comes to what kind of player he is, we all know that, but as a person he is great, he is very calm and I really appreciate him. He is always down-to-earth, never conceited, he is an example to all us younger players and his career needs to be an example to us.
After I broke my leg, 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 tear when I was injured, and this goal was for him. I think he is now the proudest dad in the world.
I have always loved football, and loved playing it. I believed in myself. I would also like to say thank you to Dinamo, they gave me the opportunity. It wasn’t easy to deal with a 16-year-old boy because I wasn’t tactically nor mentally ready for that level, and they forgave my bad sides and pushed me to become better. Nor for me, I did everything I could. I probably wasn’t 100 per cent ready at that time, but Dinamo believed in me and it paid off in the end for both me and them.