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LONDON: Jose Mourinho once called Ivan Rakitic, who joined struggling Saudi Pro League giants Al-Shabab in January, “fantastic” and “one of the most underrated players in the world.”
The rich praise from The Special One underscores what a significant coup Al-Shabab achieved in luring the former Croatia and Barcelona midfielder from La Liga side Sevilla.
Like Mourinho, Rakitic, 36, is a serial winner, having claimed 16 major honors in his illustrious career.
But he arrived in Saudi Arabia to find the six-time Pro League champions in dire need of revitalization, after the dismissal of two managers during a tumultuous campaign.
Despite Al-Shabab’s 11th place in the league, Rakitic, in an exclusive interview with Arab News, expressed supreme optimism about inspiring a resurgence.
“(During) our first training session after the break, the first thing the coach (Vitor Pereira) said to me was: ‘Ivan, you’re so happy all the time’,” a beaming Rakitic said over Zoom. “I told him: ‘Why not? It’s one life. We don’t have another one.’
“I’m the happiest guy in the world playing football.”
Rakitic’s relentless positivity and ferocious competitive spirit, honed alongside luminaries such as Lionel Messi and Luka Modric for club and country, will surely galvanize Al-Shabab.
“The most important part, as I (said) when I arrived, is bringing a winning mentality. I just told the guys: ‘Sorry if sometimes I get angry, but I want to win everything all the time. If you’re traveling and playing something on the iPad, I will try to win. If you play short games in a training session, if I have to kick you, sorry, I have to kick you because I want to win this game’.”
His great admirer, Mourinho, would heartily approve of such pugnacity in the quest for success.
The admiration is mutual. Rakitic revealed he hugged Mourinho at the Anthony Joshua-Francis Ngannou fight in March. He would be delighted to see the Portuguese maestro move to the Kingdom — an increasingly likely prospect.
Mourinho was heavily linked with Al-Shabab’s managerial vacancy in January following his dismissal from AS Roma. He has said he will “definitely” work in Saudi Arabia.
“I’ve been really proud of my career, but if I could have the opportunity to work with Jose Mourinho, it (would be) an amazing step in my career,” Rakitic, who has moved to Saudi Arabia with his wife Raquel and daughters Althea (10) and Adara (8), said. “My respect for him is truly amazing. I think that we are very similar.
“We want to win everything. We want to be at the top in all that we do.
“He’s one of the best coaches in the history of football. Hopefully, in the future, we can have this opportunity to work together or to be closer to each other.”
Rakitic had not anticipated following world-renowned footballers, including his former Barcelona teammate Neymar, in taking the well-trodden path to the Pro League.
After earning legendary status through 323 appearances in two separate stints, he had intended to remain at his second home, Sevilla.
“If somebody (said to) me three or four months ago that I will be here in Riyadh and have an interview with you, I would say you were crazy. This is not possible,” said Rakitic, who won the Europa League twice with Sevilla and 13 trophies — including the 2015 Champions League (he scored in the 3-1 win over Juventus in the final) — in a glittering spell with Barcelona between 2014 and 2020.
“Everything changed when I had my first meeting with (Al-Shabab) President Mohammed (Al-Munajam). To hear about his vision, what he wanted to create with Al-Shabab, where he wanted to reach in this league, was amazing.”
After becoming president in September, Al-Munajam promised a bountiful new era for the third most successful Saudi Pro League team.
Sacking Rakitic’s fellow Croat Igor Biscan as manager in December was certainly not part of his master plan.
Biscan’s wretched reign, yielding only three wins in 11 matches, was at least longer than Dutchman Marcel Keizer’s 40-day tenure between July and September.
Portugal’s Pereira, who won two league titles with Porto in an impressive managerial career that has included successful spells in Greece and China, has the task of reviving Al-Shabab’s fortunes.
Three wins in seven matches (before Saturday’s trip to Al-Tai) after the winter break may not have represented the renaissance he desired.
But Rakitic, who scored with a scorching strike from outside the box on his debut in the 1-0 win at Damac, is convinced that brighter days are ahead.
With him marshaling the midfield, the redoubtable former Wolves player Romain Saiss at center-back, and the ex-Atletico Madrid winger Yannick Carrasco providing attacking guile, that appears eminently possible.
“We would like to be close to the PIF teams (Al-Ittihad, Al-Ahli, Al-Nassr and Al-Hilal, who are majority-owned by the Saudi Public Investment Fund), but I think now first of all we have to think about going step by step. Every game is like a final for us.
“We have to be higher in the table. This is really clear.
“(We have) amazing players and an amazing new coach. We have to (achieve) big results together working really hard, and then finish as high as possible.”
Al-Nassr superstar Cristiano Ronaldo said that the Pro League could rival the top leagues globally and was already superior to France’s Ligue 1.
Rakitic, who reached the 2018 World Cup final with Croatia, said it was “maybe too fast” to make such a judgment — but he has witnessed the huge growth potential.
He said that “many talented players” in the Kingdom could benefit from playing for “big teams in big leagues” in Europe.
Rakitic’s Al-Shabab contract runs until only the summer of 2025.
However, he is sure “my president will come soon to me to try to give me a new contract.”
Until then, he is determined to savor every day in the Kingdom.
He is excited about the country’s Vision 2030 project, which he endorsed by choosing Al-Shabab’s squad number 30.
His adviser told Arab News that Rakitic was eager to immerse himself in Saudi Arabia’s culture and values after reading extensively about them when traveling to the Kingdom.
He said that Rakitic, “a very, very cool guy,” preferred to go to traditional restaurants than fancy ones to sample the true flavor of the country. Rakitic, who wore the national dress for Saudi Founding Day on Feb. 22, has also enjoyed visiting the historic town of Diriyah. Born in Switzerland to Croatian parents and with 106 caps for his adopted country before his international retirement in 2020, Rakitic speaks effusively about his new home.
“I really want to recommend to everybody to visit because it’s an amazing country with amazing people. To have this opportunity, hopefully when we get much older, to say: ‘Look, they reached (Vision 2030) but everything started with me. I was there to give a hand and (achieved) something amazing.’
“That’s why I am so happy (here).”