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Alen Halilović’s Star Turn

alen-halilovicby Mike Walker

In many ways Alen Halilović’s story is one made for a movie or novel—a tale of a boy who came from a family that is nearly football royalty, with a father (Sejad Halilović) who was a star player and coach plus a younger brother (Dino Halilović) who is already a promising player as well. As the story must go, Alen did not just arise to the respectable level of play one would hope for given his family heritage, but became Dinamo Zagreb’s youngest player ever and the Croatian First League’s youngest scorer in its history. He is also the second-youngest player in history to UEFA Champions League to play in a Champions League match when he was subbed in for Mateo Kovačić in a match against Paris Saint-Germain on 24 October 2012. Alen is, expectedly, also on the Croatian National Team and has performed superbly there, too.  All of this at age sixteen. Not only exceptional, but nearly unheard of in the world of professional football. Indeed, when I first started following his career as part of Dinamo, I assumed he was nineteen or twenty. Not only do you not see kids this young play for a top-flight club very often, you certainly don’t see them play with such skill, talent, and maturity.

Alen’s story is also one of how football in Europe is changing right now, and at a pretty rapid pace. The largest of the mega-clubs like Real Madrid, Manchester United, FC Barcelona, and Chelsea can spend staggering amounts of cash on even a single player if they feel the man has the talent they desire: Real Madrid of course just did this when they bought Gareth Bale from Tottenham Hotspur this year. The other thing that has changed is where such players may emerge from in the first place: Bale is Welsh, like  the great Ryan Giggs before him, and comes from the longstanding and proud tradition of football in the British Isles, but increasingly, even the top Premier League clubs are seeking out foreign talent. As recently as the early 2000s, such talent was coming from Spain, Brazil, and Africa but now we’re seeing more Eastern European players and the open concept that any nation with a good national side—and more importantly, a strong national league—can generate top-notch talent. Croatia has already demonstrated its rightful place in the arena of top football nations when it provided Real Madrid with one of its greatest players in recent history, Luka Modrić. That Alen is considered by many “the next Luka” is in good part because of his nationality, to be sure, but there are also ample aspects of their playing styles and even their looks that factor into this. The immediate question this all raises is, how much of the exceptional traits we see in both players is endemic to Croatian training and the current Croatian system? Sure, most every European nation is getting some top-notch players fielded, at least in their own national leagues, but what we see in Modrić and even more so in the stellar young Halilović is something very special.

At 16 Halilović became the youngest ever player to score in the Croatian league

At 16 Halilović became the youngest ever player to score in the Croatian league

Alen Halilovićs father, Sejad, had played professional football in Bosnia prior to becoming one of the coaches of Dinamo’s youth side and clearly a lot of Alen’s and his younger brother Dino’s advantages allowing for their quick climb in soccer skills was from having not only the genes of their father, but also his personal training which started very early in their lives. There is no doubt of Alen’s immense ability, but if you really want to see jaw-dropping skill, watch a clip of one of Dino’s matches. As Dino trains in Dinamo Zagreb’s Youth Academy —just as brother Alen did before him —he will benefit from not only the playing and coaching style of Dinamo, but also become comfortable with playing at the highest of competitive levels and in arenas like the fabled Stadion Maksimir of Dinamo. It is that type of confidence that probably set him and the rest of his team apart when Dinamo’s Under-15 boys’ side went to a recent Nike Premier Cup in Manchester, England this summer and the Dinamo boys played with what can only be described as a most professional variant of assurance. When faced with teams that should have had every advantage—Inter-Milan comes to mind— Dinamo still bested them and in the end, won the Premier Cup. That type of confidence, which you can witness in Dino’s play, brings to mind Alen’s amazing debut for Dinamo in 2012 when he was subbed in the final ten minutes in a match against arch-rivals Hajduk Split. Talent cannot be taught, but skills can be learned and confidence—perhaps the most elusive substance of all that is crucial for a young player to become a truly great footballer—can be gained when a team trains in a manner that encourages a very actual and tangible bond, and we do find that with Dinamo. Indeed, the sense of community and team that Dinamo fosters with its schoolboy side is something we find in most of the better Eastern European clubs, probably because for a long time they were smaller, poorer, and lacked the sense of rapid tooth-and-claw climb to the top you saw with the Manchester United and Ajax sort of clubs out there. However, they had heart. Football was everything for many kids during the Communist era—at least everything they cared about on a day-to-day basis—and that stuck in the collective psychology of these clubs, Dinamo certainly included.

But as much as Dinamo shaped Alen into the player he is today, can Dinamo hold him? This summer, we thought we had the answer and felt it was a certain “no”. For some time, it appeared all but certain that Alen was going to Tottenham Hotspur and quite possible the transfer deal would not only include a large sum of money but also the transfer of young Dino to the Spurs’ schoolboy side. The deal, though seemingly certain with claims that Alen and his father had signed all the papers and all was set to go, fell through at the last moment. The reason given was that Sejad, Alen’s father, worried that Alen would see little if any play on the Spurs’ first team and would probably be loaned out to another club for at least the forthcoming year. (There is even the claim, noted by  Lewis Doe at Here is the City that Sejad demanded a condition of transfer would be that the Spurs would have to allow Alen no less than 45 minutes of play in every match—a condition that I cannot imagine even being made for the likes of an Oscar or Christian Eriksen, honestly.) Bayern Munich also expressed a high degree of interest in Alen, though a transfer to the German side would have been even more puzzling given the apparent concern over Alen getting much or any time in play: if his father felt the Spurs wouldn’t provide it, even less chance it seems he’d find time on pitch from Bayern given their current line-up. Someone however, possibly Sejad himself, has worked the football media quite well in seeing that all these rumors of trades signed, sealed, and delivered got out to the press which trade or no trade, has put Alen in the first paragraphs of the transfer gossip page (yes, there is in some publications such a page!) of the leading football magazines and websites. Not bad publicity for a player this young and somewhat (prior to Tottenham’s interest) unknown outside of Croatia. Whether fair or unfair, the fastest way for a less-known European side to get known in the UK is for them to send a star player to a Premier League team. Just ask the Czechs about how that works out. In this case, rumors alone may have seen the job was done.

Alen is the target of many clubs in Europe

Alen is the target of many clubs in Europe

Now, as of 31 October 2013, there is a story at the leading Russian newspaper Izvestia that PFC CSKA Moscow is keenly interested in Alen and willing to pay whatever he’ll cost them, plus, willing to provide more time on-field than he would be apt to  find elsewhere. If Alen and his father consider the amount of first team play he can garner the primary factor in a transfer, an offer of this nature from CSKA would make sense—if in fact, the offer is true and will work out under the liberal conditions that Izvestia seems to believe it would. That said, if Alen only were to stay put at Dinamo, he probably could have things pan out however he wants, given his star power and his father’s pull with the club. The young Halilović after all has only been on Dinamo’s first team for a little over a year.

Where-ever Alen should go in the end though, there is no doubting his talent and what he has to offer as an attacking midfielder. Some may say it’s too early to call someone the “next Modriæ” or the “next Messi” but at the early age of now seventeen, the truth is Alen is playing like someone at least five years his senior in experience and still with every advantage of the vitality of his youth. That unique quality about him may in fact be enough to get him on a leading team with ample time on pitch—without his dad even having to get them to spec it in his contract.

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