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Kovačić with Real Madrid in 2016
|Full name||Mateo Kovačić|
|Date of birth||6 May 1994|
|Place of birth||Linz, Austria|
|Height||1.78 m (5 ft 10 in)|
|* Senior club appearances and goals counted for the domestic league only and correct as of 17:10, 21 January 2018 (UTC).
‡ National team caps and goals correct as of 5 September 2017
Mateo Kovačić (Croatian pronunciation: [matěo kǒʋatʃitɕ, - kô-]; born 6 May 1994) is a Croatian professional footballer who plays as a midfielder for Spanish club Real Madrid and the Croatia national team. Kovačić is usually deployed as a central midfielder or deep-lying playmaker, but he is considered to be a versatile midfielder, having played in different positions and adapted to playing either wide on the left or as an attacking midfielder.
Kovačić began his professional career with Dinamo Zagreb at the age of 16, with whom he won two consecutive league titles, before joining Inter in 2013. After the 2014–15 season, he moved to Real Madrid, where he won his first Champions League with the squad in 2016. A full Croatian international since 2013, Kovačić represented the nation at the 2014 FIFA World Cup and UEFA Euro 2016. He is nicknamed Il Professore (The Professor).
Born in Linz, Austria, to Bosnian Croat parents who had moved there from Kotor Varoš in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kovačić began playing at an early age at the local LASK Linz's academy. In 2007, when Kovačić was 13, he was spotted by scouts from several prominent European clubs, including Ajax, Inter Milan, Juventus and Bayern Munich, but his family opted to move to Zagreb instead, where he joined Croatian giants Dinamo Zagreb. Kovačić suffered a serious injury in 2009 in which his leg was broken, but he returned to the pitch after a lengthy recovery on 31 May 2010, appearing in the last match of the Croatian under-17 academy league, a 5–0 win against RNK Split under-17s.
Kovačić started training with the club's senior squad under manager, Vahid Halilhodžić, four months later, on 6 October 2010, but continued to appear for the club in academy league matches during October. Later that month, it was reported by the local sports daily, Sportske novosti, that Arsenal's chief scout, Steve Rowley, had arrived in Zagreb to watch him perform in under-17 matches against Cibalia and NK Zagreb.
Kovačić eventually had his professional league debut in the 2010–11 Prva HNL away match against Hrvatski Dragovoljac on 20 November 2010, in which he scored Dinamo's fourth goal in their 6–0 win. This made him the youngest goalscorer in the history of the league, at the age of 16 years and 198 days, breaking the record set only a week earlier by Dino Špehar who had scored for NK Osijek at the age of 16 years and 278 days on 13 November 2010. In his first senior season with Dinamo Zagreb he managed to appear in 7 matches, making a contribution in winning the league title.
In the 2011–12 season, Kovačić rapidly established himself as a first team regular. He played mainly in the position of left midfielder in 4–2–3–1 system. In the beginning of the season, he helped the team reach the Group Stage of the season's Champions League for the first time in 12 years. Being only 17 years old, he appeared in the starting lineup of Dinamo's first group match against Real Madrid. He finished his first European season with Dinamo by scoring a goal against Olympique Lyonnais in the last game of the Group Stage in Zagreb and thus became the second youngest ever scorer in the Champions League. In the domestic league, he was a regular starter, appearing in 25 league matches and scoring five goals in the process. During a league match against NK Lučko, he became the youngest player to wear the captain's armband in Dinamo's history, taking the captaincy from Leandro Cufre. It was another successful season for him in domestic competitions as he appeared in 32 domestic league and cup matches during that season, helping Dinamo to win their seventh consecutive league title. He also scored in the Croatian Cup final against NK Osijek on Maksimir Stadium. In December 2011, he was named Croatian Football Hope of the Year.
In the beginning of 2012–13 season, he suffered a metatarsal bone injury that caused him to miss several games on the club's qualifying road to another Champions League. He returned just in time to play in Dinamo's first Champions League game against FC Porto. Kovačić played in all six Dinamo Zagreb's matches in the 2012–13 UEFA Champions League Group Stage, against Porto, Paris Saint-Germain, and Dynamo Kyiv. He continued to impress with his mature performances at a young age during the first half of the season. In October 2012, he was nominated for Golden Boy, an award given by sports journalists to a young player from Europe perceived to have been the most impressive during a season. During the season's winter break, Dinamo's board threw away the speculations about Kovačić leaving the club in the near future by saying they are building a new team around him and another rising star, Alen Halilović. On 30 January 2013, however, the media, surprisingly, revealed that Kovačić was sold to Inter Milan of Serie A. During his time with Dinamo, Kovačić won two domestic league titles and two Croatian Cup titles, appearing in a total of 73 official matches, including 12 appearances in the Champions League.
On 31 January 2013, Kovačić agreed to a transfer to Inter Milan. It was revealed that the deal was worth €15 million in total, with €11 million paid immediately and €4 million when and if Inter qualifies for the UEFA Champions League. Upon his arrival, Kovačić was given the number 10 shirt, previously worn by Wesley Sneijder.
Kovačić made his debut for Inter three days later, on 3 February, coming on as a half-time substitute in a Serie A match against Siena. On 14 February, Kovačić made his European debut before the home crowd at San Siro in Europa League match against CFR Cluj. He provided the winning assist for Rodrigo Palacio, who made it 2–0 for Inter, impressing the crowd with his performance, and was given standing ovations while being substituted off in the 89th minute. He also played full 90 minutes in the 3–0 away win against CFR Cluj, as Inter proceeded to the next round of the 2012–13 UEFA Europa League.
Kovačić made his first domestic league start for Inter in the next round of Serie A in a 1–4 away loss against Fiorentina. In the Europa League Round of 16, Inter was drawn to play against Tottenham Hotspur. After a 3–0 loss in London, Inter needed a 4–0 win in Milan to proceed to the next round. The game ended in a 4–1 win for Inter after the match went into extra-time, with Kovačić playing as a starter. He impressed with his composure and playmaking ability, once again receiving ovations by the fans. Inter coach, Andrea Stramaccioni, hailed his performances on several occasions, describing him as a "star for the future."
On 30 March, Kovačić was a starter in his first Derby d'Italia against Juventus at San Siro. The derby ended in a 1–2 win for Juventus, with Kovačić starting the action that resulted in Rodrigo Palacio's 1–1 equalizer. Kovačić was a starter in Inter's next Serie A match, a 0–2 away win against Sampdoria, as well as in their surprising 3–4 loss to Atalanta at San Siro, where he provided an assist for Ricky Álvarez's goal. By the end of the second half of the season, he was a starter in all of the club's Serie A fixtures, as Inter finished in disappointing ninth place on the Serie A table. In May, he was given the "Gentleman Revelation of the Year" award, awarded by Inter fans.
Kovačić missed most of the pre-season training with the squad due to series of small injuries, and made his comeback just few days before the first official match of the new season, a Coppa Italia match against Cittadella at Stadio Giuseppe Meazza. During the pre-season interviews, new Inter coach, Walter Mazzarri, alluded that Kovačić will be given a new role on the pitch, a role similar to that of Marek Hamšík had in Napoli. During the first half of the season, Kovačić played regularly although struggling with adjusting to the new tactical role. Kovačić made his first assist of the season in the match against AS Livorno, when he delivered an assist for Yuto Nagatomo. Unlike the previous season under the coach Stramaccioni, Kovačić was not a regular starter during the 2013–14 season. In 32 league matches that he played for Inter in Serie A, he was in the starting line-up not more than 14 times, having a chance to play the whole 90 minutes on just eight occasions. He got the chance to restore his confidence towards the end of the season, as he was Mazzarri's first choice in the midfield in the last six matches. On 10 May, at Javier Zanetti's last competitive match at the Stadio Giuseppe Meazza, Kovačić made three assists in 4–1 victory over Lazio.
After being subjected to persistent transfer speculation over the summer, in September 2014, Kovačić was offered a contract extension until 2019. He started the season in strong fashion, scoring a hat-trick in the second leg of Europa League play-off round against Stjarnan on 28 August. He scored his first league goal for Inter and assisted twice in a 7–0 win over Sassuolo on 14 September 2014. He scored the club's only goal in a 1–1 away draw with Palermo. He also scored the opening goal in a 2–0 win against Chievo and scored a wonder goal in a 2–2 drawn against Lazio. On 6 January 2015, he was sent off in a 1–1 draw with Juventus for a foul on Stephan Lichtsteiner. Three days later, Kovačić renewed his contract with Inter until June 2019.
On 16 August 2015, Inter manager Roberto Mancini confirmed that the club was forced to sell Kovačić to Real Madrid due to Financial Fair Play regulations. Speaking during a press conference after a friendly against Greek club AEK Athens, Mancini stated, "There are rules that have to be respected. I don't think anyone wanted this to happen but we have the Financial Fair Play regulations to follow. We're all sorry about it: myself, the president, the management and the players themselves." Real Madrid also confirmed the transfer two days later, announcing that Kovačić had signed a six-year deal with the club. The transfer fee was €29 million, according to the financial filing of Inter Milan, in the section Management Report (Italian: Relazione sulla Gestione). On 19 August, Kovačić was unveiled as a new player by Real Madrid at the Santiago Bernabéu, where it was revealed he would wear the number 16 shirt for the club. Kovačić became the fifth Croatian player, after Robert Prosinečki, Davor Šuker, Robert Jarni and Luka Modrić, to join Real Madrid.
Four days after his presentation, he made his debut as a 70th-minute substitute for Isco as Real Madrid began the La Liga season with a goalless draw at promoted Sporting de Gijón. He scored his first goal in an 8–0 home win Malmö FF on 8 December 2015. On 3 January 2016, Kovačić received a straight red card in a 2–2 draw at Valencia for a foul on João Cancelo. Until the end of his first season with Los Blancos, he made a total of 34 appearances. In the opening months of the season, he was used quite regularly by then Real Madrid boss Rafael Benítez, playing in almost every midfield position there is – sometimes central, sometimes wide, sometimes further forward. Since Zinedine Zidane replaced Benítez in early January, however, the midfielder's appearances have become increasingly infrequent. With the Frenchman preferring to use a very defined XI whenever possible instead of the more specific-lineups-for-specific-opponents approach employed by his predecessor, there has been little room for Kovačić. He made eight appearances and score one goal on Real Madrid's route to the 2015–16 UEFA Champions League title.
Kovačić appeared for the Croatian national team at various youth levels, debuting in May 2008 in an under-14 friendly match against Slovakia. Since 2011, he was a regular member of the Croatia under-19 and under-21 teams. In August 2012, Kovačić received his first competitive call-up for the Croatian senior team match against Switzerland, but did not play because of injury. Subsequently, he received a call up for 2014 FIFA World Cup qualification matches in March 2013. He made his senior debut in a qualification match against Serbia on 22 March 2013, playing as a central midfielder alongside Luka Modrić, instead of a regular team starter, Ognjen Vukojević. Four days later, he played against Wales at Liberty Stadium, coming on as a second-half substitute in a 1–2 win. His third match of the campaign came in June, when Croatia faced Scotland in Zagreb and suffered a frustrating defeat as they were unable to score despite a string of good chances. By the end of the qualifiers, Kovačić made two more competitive appearances for Croatia, as Croatia scraped into the FIFA World Cup play-offs having taken only one point from their last four qualifiers. Although he didn't participate in the scoreless first leg of the play-off against Iceland in Reykjavík, Kovačić started the second and decisive leg between the two national teams in Zagreb, making an assist for the team's second goal as they reached the 2014 FIFA World Cup finals 2–0 on aggregate.
On 2 June 2014, Kovačić was confirmed as a member of Croatia's 2014 FIFA World Cup squad. He was in Croatia's starting team for the opening game of the tournament, a 3–1 defeat to World Cup hosts Brazil at the Arena Corinthians, São Paulo, where he played for his team for 60 minutes before being substituted. He went to play all the remaining games in the group stage, as Croatia was eliminated in a group stage. On 7 June 2015, he scored his first international goal, coming in his 20th appearance for the team.
Kovačić has been described as a great technician with excellent dribbling abilities. He is considered to be a versatile midfielder, having played in different midfield positions. He started off as an attacking midfielder at Dinamo Zagreb, but he transformed his game at Inter where he was deployed out wide and also as a central midfielder, functioning as a deep-lying playmaker, while being coached by Andrea Stramaccioni. One of his trademarks is dropping deep to receive the ball and then driving forward, often performing his slalom runs. Under the coach, Walter Mazzarri, he was often used in a more advanced position. Former manager Giovanni Trapattoni once claimed that Kovačić knows how to really reach the ball from deep and drive up the pitch like a 'raging bull'. Proven by his pass completion percentages, Kovačić is known for distributing the ball up the pitch.
The Croatia under-17 manager, Martin Novoselac, reportedly said of Kovačić, "I haven't seen a youngster with so much talent since the days of Robert Prosinečki," referring to his fast development and talent. Kovačić revealed that precisely Prosinečki is the player he admired the most while growing up. His compatriot, Zvonimir Boban, who played for Milan for over a decade, in an interview with Sky Italia (in 2013) said, "He has talents that could make him even better than me, he is an incredibly serious professional for someone his age. Kovačić is a complete player. He is not a born regista but he is playing there now. He is a complete talent that can still grow — he has incredible potential." Trapattoni described him as "a mixture of Kaká and Clarence Seedorf", because of his style of play and technical characteristics. Long-time Inter captain Javier Zanetti stated that, with the exception of Ronaldo, who had arrived to Inter when he was 21, Kovačić was the most promising youngster he had seen in his 19 years at the club.
|Croatia national team|
|1.||7 June 2015||Stadion Anđelko Herjavec, Varaždin, Croatia||Gibraltar||2–0||4–0||Friendly|
Kovačić is fluent in five languages: English, Croatian, German, Spanish and Italian.
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