Lothar Matthaus, Ronaldo, Sandro Mazzola. These are just some of the names to wear the No.10 shirt at Inter over the years. But now there is a new wearer of the jersey, an 19 year-old Croatian by the name of Mateo Kovacic.
Signing from Dinamo Zagreb in January 2013, Mateo Kovacic arrived at Inter with a growing reputation within the game. At just 18 years-old, he was already being hunted by Europe’s elite, and this was the motivation for Inter to splash out a reported €11m on the midfielder. Of course, such a high fee for one so young is bound to spark debate and the transfer policy of Massimo Moratti once again came into question.
Mateo Kovacic was born in Linz, Austria and began playing football at a very early age for his local team. At just 13 years-old, Kovacic was already spotted by European scouts, including Juventus and Ajax, but ultimately made the move to Dinamo Zagreb, where the interest was only going to continue for the teenager.
It was the 2011/2012 campaign where the youngster established himself as a first team player at Dinamo. At just 17, he helped the club reach the group stages of the UEFA Champions League for the first time in 12 years, scoring his first European goal in the process against Lyon. And it was to be a great season overall for Kovacic, going on to secure the domestic league title and being named the Croatian Football Hope of the Year; an award won previously by the likes of Dario Simic, Ivica Olic and Luka Modric. The future looked bright and appreciation of his technique on the ball and ability to seek out a pass started to flood in.
The start of the 2012/2013 season was a frustration one for the midfielder. An injury to his foot meant Kovacic would spend time on the sidelines whilst his teammates qualified for yet another Champions League. However, a return just in time for the first group game meant Kovacic would play all six of Dinamo’s group games, notching up yet more praise and displaying maturity and awareness beyond his years.
This string of impressive midfield performances for the Croatians was bound to conclude with approaches for his signature, but the club’s board strongly deflected any rumours of a move away. Kovacic was a Dinamo player, and one for their future it seemed. So, imagine the surprise when it was revealed Kovacic was sold to Inter in January 2013 for €11m. Kovacic’s time at Dinamo was up; leaving with two domestic league titles and two Croatian Cups, and his name joining the likes of Luka Modric, Vedran Corluka and Eduardo on a list of outstanding talents produced by the Zagreb outfit.
On arriving at Inter, Kovacic was instantly given the No.10 shirt as previously worn by the recently departed Wesley Sneijder; a clear sign of trust and expectation by manager Andrea Stramaccioni. And a debut was not far away, just three days in fact until his Serie A substitute appearance against Siena. The youngster’s European experiences also continued in the Europa League against CFR Cluj; a match noted for his outstanding performance and set up of a goal, ending with the San Siro crowd’s generous standing ovation for him as he was subbed near the end of the match.
Inter fans were now seeing what the hype was about, and Mateo Kovacic featured in all the remaining games of the season for the Milan giants, including the elimination from the Europa League by Tottenham, another match where his passing ability and creative force was clear to see, resulting in more plaudits after the game. Although Inter finished in a lowly ninth position in Serie A, their campaign had a number of flaws before the arrival of the midfielder, and his displays would be one of the few positives to come out of an awful season, which ultimately ended the managerial reign of Andrea Stramaccioni-the man who brought the young Croatian to the San Siro.
It appears, for Inter, that a rebuild is needed for the upcoming season. Too many poor displays and results in the last campaign mean they have no Champions League football this year, so concentration on all things domestic is crucial. New boss Walter Mazzarri has brought in youth and energy to the Inter squad so far and the presence of the now 19- year-old midfielder could be a vital one; with his range of passing, creativity and vision, players like Fredy Guarin, Rodrigo Palacio and Mauro Icardi can only flourish.
At 19, Inter have a player who it seems is only going to get better and that initial outlay could be one of the best pieces of business the Milan giants have competed in recent times. Ex-Milan player and Croatian legend Zvonimir Boban recently said, “He has the potential to become better than me.” With an evaluation like this, who can argue that Inter have a future great on their hands?
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