A big milestone for Ivan Rakitić when he runs out on Manuel Martínez Valero stadium in Elche on Tuesday night for Croatia’s UEFA Nations League opener against Spain.
Rakitić joins a small club of players who have played for Croatia 100 times and it seems fitting that he achieves the milestone in Spain where he has enjoyed the best moments of his career.
The 30-year-old midfielder will become the 8th member of Croatia’s 100-cap club on Tuesday, joining Darijo Srna (134), Luka Modrić (114), Stipe Pletikosa (114), Josip Šimunić (105), Ivica Olić (104), Vedran Ćorluka (103) and Dario Šimić (100).
It is not the first 100-cap club Rakitić will be in having already played over 100 games for Sevilla (117) and his current club Barcelona (135), but reaching for his country is special.
Born in Rheinfelsen, Switzerland after his family moved there in 1991 from Croatia, Rakitić first represented the country of his birth at youth level before a visit from Slaven Bilić changed his path.
“To be honest, there was a time when I thought I’d never play for anybody else but Switzerland. I never thought it was a possibility. I came up playing for Switzerland. That was my team. But 10 years ago Slaven Bilić and the president of the Croatian football federation came to watch me play in Basel. We met afterwards to talk,” Rakitić said in a piece he penned for The Players Tribune.
After sitting on the decision of taking up Bilić’s offer to play for Croatia, Rakitić finally chose his father’s homeland over Switzerland, bringing ‘tears’ to his father’s eyes.
“I was really proud to wear the Switzerland shirt for five years when I was playing with the youth teams. But the biggest part of my heart belongs to Croatia. It always has. I think about my dad and that moment a lot when I step onto the field for Croatia. I know my father would like to be where I am, standing in my boots. I know so many Croatians would like to, as well. To be able to play for your country and defend your colours … there are no words to describe it.”
On 8 September 2007, Rakitić would make his debut for his chosen country, coming on in the number 7 shirt in the 61st minute for Niko Kranjčar in Croatia’s 2-0 win against Estonia in a Euro 2008 qualifier in Zagreb.
Rakitić would not have to wait long for his first goal in a Croatia shirt. Four days later on 12 September 2007, Rakitić scored his first goal in a 6-0 away win over Andorra in just his second match.
Over the next 11 years, Rakitić cemented himself as one of the best midfielders to ever wear a Croatian shirt, representing Croatia at Euro 2008, Euro 2012, 2014 World Cup, Euro 2016 and the recent 2018 World Cup in Russia where he helped take Croatia to the final.
There have been a lot of special moments in the 99 matches he has played for Croatia, but his recent heroics in Russia where he slotted back-to-back winning penalties against Denmark and Russia will be standout in the hearts of fans forever.
“The people from Croatia are special. They have this … character about them. When I’m out there with my team in front of our supporters, it’s almost like … you never want the game to end. It’s like, I don’t know, like … I just want to give everyone a big hug or something. You never want to leave. You want to play every day with them. You want to be there every day,” Rakitić said.