Kovačić with Internazionale in 2013
|Date of birth||6 May 1994|
|Place of birth||Linz, Austria|
|Height||1.81 m (5 ft 11 1⁄2 in)|
|* Senior club appearances and goals counted for the domestic league only and correct as of 8 December 2013.
† Appearances (Goals).
Mateo Kovačić (born 6 May 1994) is a Croatian footballer who plays as a midfielder for Serie A team Internazionale and the Croatian national team. He is usually deployed as a deep-lying playmaker or regista for Inter Milan, but he is considered to be a versatile midfielder, having played in different positions and can adapt to playing either wide on the left or as a trequartista if required. He started his professional career with Dinamo Zagreb at the age of 16, with whom he won 2 consecutive league titles, before joining Inter in 2013.
Born in Linz, Austria, to Bosnian Croat parents who had moved there in 1991 from Kotor Varoš, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kovačić began playing at an early age at the local LASK Linz's academy. In 2007, when Kovačić was 13, the talented midfielder was spotted by scouts from several prominent European clubs, including VfB Stuttgart, AFC Ajax, 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. In the senior squad, Kovačić was given the number 8 shirt, a number that was once worn by one of the biggest Dinamo legends, Robert Prosinečki.
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 the Italian 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. It was revealed that the deal was worth €15 million in total, with €13 million paid immediately and €2 million when and if Inter qualifies for the UEFA Champions League. Italian reports also claimed that Real Madrid, Manchester City, and Chelsea were interested in Kovačić, but he finally joined the Nerazzurri. 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. Although he was announced in the starting 11 for the next Serie A match against Chievo, he missed the game due to a minor muscle injury. On 14 February, Kovačić made his European debut before the home crowd at San Siro in Europa League match against CFR Cluj. He provided a beautiful winning assist for Rodrigo Palacio, who made it 2–0 for Inter. He impressed 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. After the match, coach Andrea Stramaccioni hailed his passing ability, calling it "incredible". 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. After the defeat from Juve, Inter needed to get back on track as they were chasing the UEFA Champions League spot. Kovačić was a starter in their 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 season, he was a starter in all of the club's Serie A fixtures, as Inter finished a disappointing ninth in the Serie A table. During his first half-season with the club, Kovačić made total of 18 appearances in all competitions. In May, he was given the "Gentleman Revelation of the Year" award, an award given by Inter fans.
Kovačić appeared for the Croatian national team at various youth levels, debuting in May 2008 in an under-15 friendly match against Slovakia. As of 2011, he is a regular member of the Croatia under-19 and under-21 team. In August 2012, Kovačić received his first call-up for the Croatian senior team match against Switzerland, but did not play because of injury. He received his first competitive call up for 2014 FIFA World Cup qualification matches against Serbia and Wales in March 2013. He made his senior debut in a derby match against Serbia on 22 March 2013, playing as a defensive midfielder alongside Luka Modrić, instead of a regular team starter, Ognjen Vukojević. In a post-match interview, his teammate, Niko Kranjčar, praised his performance and called him “a professor of football." Four days later, he played against Wales at Liberty Stadium, coming on as a second half substitute in a 1–2 win.
Style of play
Kovačić has been described as a great technician with good dribbling abilities. 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 huge talent. Kovačić revealed that precisely Prosinečki is the player he admired the most. His compatriot, Zvonimir Boban, who played for Milan for over a decade, in an interview with Sky Italia 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." Former Inter coach Andrea Stramaccioni has hailed his performances on several occasions, describing him as a "star for the future."
- As of 8 December 2013
- Dinamo Zagreb
- Croatian Football Hope of the Year (2011)
- Gentleman Revelation of the Year (2013)
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