Rakitic slips into top gear

Marcotti's man Top clubs shied away from Ivan Rakitic, citing his lack of speed and not appreciating his quickness of mind.

Speed is something you cannot teach someone. And, if you do not have it, you have a problem. That is the age-old cliche among football coaches. Speed scares the best of defences. You can work on technique and tactics and strength and whatever other attribute you care to mention. But speed? No. If you're too slow, that is it, you can't play.

Ivan Rakitic has heard this argument for years. And, for years, he has delighted in proving the naysayers wrong. Because he knows that there are different types of speed. You can be fleet of foot, but slow of mind. And you can have all the speed to rival that of sprint king Usain Bolt, but, without ability, you will not accomplish very much. Rakitic has two out of the three. And that is good enough not just to have a good career, but a great one.

As a youngster coming through Swiss giants Basle's youth academy, there was no question about him turning professional. He played with poise and confidence: head always up, chest out, seemingly always with bags of time and always wanting the ball. Coupled with that was the ability to deliver the ball accurately just about anywhere on the pitch; a range of passing which truly was a sight to behold. The only thing that was missing? Pace.

And that is probably why, even after becoming a regular at Basle by the tender age of 18, the likes of European giants Real Madrid, Ajax and Inter Milan - all of whom had been tracking him for several seasons - let their interest wane. In the 2006/07 season he scored 11 goals in the Swiss league, playing largely as a second striker. He was generating plenty of hype, but, in some ways, he was a victim of his own success.

Yes, he could score goals in the Swiss league, but could he do it against quicker, more athletic opposition? The scoring, while impressive, ended up obscuring his other qualities, above all the passing, creativity and quickness of mind. And so, in the summer of 2007, with his suitors too uncertain to make a decisive move, it was Bundesliga club Schalke 04 who swooped. Rakitic had grown tired of words, he wanted action and the German club were ready to put their faith in him.

It was around the same time that he took another bold step in his blossoming career, picking Croatia, the birthplace of his parents, over Switzerland, the nation of his birth and the one he had represented at Under 17, U19 and U21 level. The decision came after a long conversation with Slaven Bilic, the Croatia coach, and was not without controversy. His family reportedly received death threats and he was treated as an ingrate who had turned his back on the country which had taken him in. For his part, Rakitic observed that his father, who toiled long and hard working in Switzerland for 25 years, was still devoid of a Swiss passport, a sign that, perhaps, double standards were at work.

The Schalke coach, Mirko Slomka, the man who persuaded the club to bite the bullet and take a chance on the young Rakitic while other clubs stalled, knew upon seeing his new charge that he would need to carve out a new roll for him to flourish. Rakitic was not a striker and, in the Bundesliga, he would struggle to find space in that role. But, play him a little further back, give him a few extra yards, and he could do wonderful things. Which is precisely what happened.

Ten yards further back, he did not have to worry about receiving the ball in space, he could get it to his feet. With his size and strength, even if his area of the pitch was congested, he could create the space he needed. In fact, as Slomka soon learned, the more cluttered the area around Rakitic, the more comfortable he seemed, spotting opportunities and pathways where others saw none. Plus, and this was no small thing, Rakitic simply saw much more of the ball in the middle of the park. With his ability to unlock opposing defences, it was almost a crime the ball in the middle of the park and had the ability to unlock opposing defences.

In his first season, he established himself as a first-team regular and spearheaded Schalke's run to the Champions League quarter-final, including a sterling performance against none other than Chelsea, in which he was easily the best player on the pitch. Injuries slowed him down somewhat last year, but this season he is once again firing on all cylinders. Schalke, despite the club's heavy debts, are challenging at the top of the Bundesliga. And, amazingly, the man at the heart of it is still just 21-years-old.

No, Rakitic will not get away from opponents. But then, he does not need to. Nobody who can see what he sees or make the ball do what he does needs to worry about a simple thing like pace. sports@thenational.ae