Tactical Insights

Alen Halilovic, 10 years since Barca move: Regrets, Fabregas advice, ‘happiness’ at Sittard

In May 2014, 17-year-old Alen Halilovic transferred from Dinamo Zagreb to Barcelona for €2.2million (£1.9m; $2.4m).

He had broken nearly every record going at his boyhood club: the youngest player to feature in the eternal derby against Hajduk Split at just 16 years and 101 days, the youngest to score for the club and the youngest to play in the Champions League.

Diminutive, with a slaloming dribbling style and hair that bobbed off his shoulders as he jinked past defenders, the script wrote itself. From the age of 14, he was known as either ‘the next Luka Modric’ or ‘the Croatian Lionel Messi’.

Fast forward to 2023 and Halilovic was back in Croatia. Not, as many would have forecast, to partake in the national team’s homecoming following consecutive second and third-place finishes at the World Cup; his 10th and most recent cap came in a 2019 friendly.

It is nearly 10 years since Halilovic joined Barcelona (Pressefoto Ulmerullstein bild via Getty Images)

Instead, his return was a bid to kickstart his career. But, after managing only five starts for Rijeka, he was released.

Having played 129 senior games as a teenager, Halilovic only made 123 over the next seven years — 60 of them starts — while moving between eight clubs and six countries.

The 27-year-old knew he had to do something to break the cycle in a career that seemed destined never to deliver on its early promise.

“That was a tough time. At Rijeka, I contracted pneumonia and couldn’t play for two months. I was in bed for a full month and lost 5kg,” Halilovic tells The Athletic.

“When I returned, they expected me to be at my best but the club was in a mess and I left. Now I see it as the best decision I made — and being mature enough to take a break from football as every time I made a mistake or failed at a club, it was not easy mentally.”

After months without football, Halilovic received an invitation from Cesc Fabregas’ agent Darren Dein to train with his Serie B side Como at their picturesque base overlooking the lake and the Alps.

“He is the guy who gave me really good advice and said he could still see my potential,” says Halilovic, who is this season beginning to fulfil his potential at Eredivisie side Fortuna Sittard.

Halilovic after signing for Hamburg in July 2016 (Markus Scholz/picture alliance via Getty Images)

“He told me to continue and don’t stop. Everything is in front of you, so be positive and it will come. Don’t overthink or listen to other people, focus on yourself.

“I took that time to really see myself and decide where I wanted to go next. I didn’t want to rush, so these months helped me make a good decision. Even now I still talk to him.”

It is the timeless setting that attracts the rich and famous to Lake Como but Halilovic’s name had faded from football royalty. This was a form of football rehab for him to reset his career.

“I had a big offer from Saudi Arabia this summer because I have a good name and have been at big clubs. They wanted to give me big money but I said ‘no’ as I still think, if I’m healthy, I can reach something big. That’s why I chose to come here and start…” Halilovic hesitates as he looks for the right words. “Not from zero but from a new beginning.”

Sittard appears to have been the perfect match and he has started all 17 league games, with his side sitting in the middle of the table.

“First of all, I’m happy,” says Halilovic. “A lot of managers have used me as a winger because they remember me between 16 and 20. I always thought midfield was where I belonged.

“I had a friend who knew some people from Fortuna. He said they were looking for a No 8 and the Eredivisie was a good league for my style. I told the coach: ‘If you put me there, I promise you will get the best Alen Halilovic’ and this is what is happening.

“I’m creating a lot of chances for my team-mates. Finally, something good is coming.”

It has been a tumultuous road to this point.

He started his career in Dinamo Zagreb’s academy at age six as his father was an ex-professional now coaching at the club. An agent who has run an international youth tournament for decades has no doubts stating that Halilovic remains the best player he has ever seen at age 15.

“I was just a kid who wanted to enjoy football but, at some point, people started to point the finger at me. ‘Look at what Alen is doing’, ‘Alen didn’t score’. People didn’t realise I was just a kid who was 16 or 17.

Halilovic playing for Reading during the 2021-22 season (Kieran Cleeves/PA Images via Getty Images)

“It never changed me as I was never someone who read a lot of newspapers. But even if I was playing similarly to other players, the media and some team-mates weren’t happy as they always expected more. Some expected me to be Modric — but it wasn’t possible.

“In today’s football, it is a bit different as there are a lot of young players that age playing but back then there were only two or three. It needs to be a process to get a player to count at the highest level.”

So why move to one of the biggest clubs in the world at 17? “I believed in myself but they also had a plan for me. That was the mistake I made: I didn’t follow the plan,” says Halilovic.

Tottenham wanted to buy me but Barcelona was for my style. They were about possession and the ball at your feet. The first year I was to play Barca B, then they would loan me to La Liga and in the third year they would decide.”

There have been suggestions that his father held too much power in choosing which club to join. “That is totally not true,” he says.

“My dad did not put any pressure on me. At that time, he thought it was the best step for me as at 16 and only playing the Croatian league, England was too tough. Tottenham didn’t want me in the first team but they didn’t have a clear plan.

“The first two years were perfect at Barca but I expected I would get a chance at the first team in the third. Then I realised Luis Enrique did not see me there.”

Halilovic had played 29 times for Barca B in his debut season, scoring four times, and even made his senior bow in the Copa del Rey when he came on for Adama Traore. The next season he played 37 times for Sporting Gijon, where he scored and assisted five goals apiece.

Halilovic faces his idol Messi while playing for Sporting Gijon in 2016 (Urbanandsport/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

“I was supposed to stay one more year as I was doing really well. I expected to go to Euros with the national team but didn’t get selected and Barca decided I had to go out on loan again, so I was a little frustrated with everything. I did not want to go out again, so I said ‘F*** it, I go from here’.”

Halilovic moved to Bundesliga side Hamburg in the summer of 2016. It was the first big misstep.

“When you are young, you think you don’t have time and I had to be ahead of (Andres) Iniesta and Xavi (at Barca). Looking now, I just needed to be patient. Train and wait. It will come.

“I learned a lot even just training with the first team and got to play with (Lionel) Messi, who was my idol. He is not from this world so I expected it, but (Sergio) Busquets really surprised me. He is the best player I have ever trained with.”

The move to Germany did not even last six months, due to head coach and sporting director changes. He was loaned back to Spain with Las Palmas, but his good form was interrupted by an ankle tendon injury that saw him miss several months.

He had still impressed enough for AC Milan to sign him permanently on a free transfer in 2018. He was only 22 but a change of ownership saw them invest heavily in players, which left him on the shelf once more.

He was then loaned out to Standard Liege in Belgium followed by Heerenveen in Holland. Next came moves to Birmingham City and then Reading in the Championship, both on free transfers. Two hamstring injuries put him out of the game for close to a year in England.

“I was always telling people that I needed a good pre-season because for years I never had one. At Milan, I would do pre-season with them but then they wouldn’t count on me. I’d go to a team at the end of the window and they expected me to be on the same fitness level — but it’s not possible.”

After years of drifting, did Halilovic have fears that his talents had expired or that inactivity had permanently erased some of his magic?

“Never. I always believed in myself. I’m 27, so I have 10 more years of football and I’m motivated to show that I can be at the top level.”


Derby Days, Croatia: The Eternal Derby

(Photo: ANP via Getty Images)

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