Mateo Kovačić is a Croatian professional footballer who plays as a midfielder for English club Chelsea and the Croatia national team. Kovačić is usually deployed as a central midfielder or deep-lying playmaker, but he is considered to be a versatile midfielder, having played in different positions and adapted to playing either wide on the left or as an attacking midfielder. Kovačić began his professional career with Dinamo Zagreb at the age of 16, with whom he won two consecutive league titles, before joining Inter in 2013. After the 2014–15 season, he moved to Real Madrid, where he won the Champions League on three occasions. He joined Chelsea on one-year loan in 2018, winning Europa League in the process. A full Croatian international since 2013, Kovačić represented the nation at the 2014 FIFA World Cup, UEFA Euro 2016 and the 2018 FIFA World Cup, including a runner’s up finish in the latter tournament. He was nicknamed Il Professore (The Professor) by the Italian sports journalists.
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Kovačić appeared for the Croatian national team at various youth levels, debuting in May 2008 in an under-14 friendly match against Slovakia. Since 2011, he was a regular member of the Croatia under-19 and under-21 teams. In August 2012, Kovačić received his first competitive call-up for the Croatian senior team match against Switzerland, but did not play because of injury. Subsequently, he received a call up for 2014 FIFA World Cup qualification matches in March 2013. He made his senior debut in a qualification match against Serbia on 22 March 2013, playing as a central midfielder alongside Luka Modrić, instead of a regular team starter, Ognjen Vukojević. Four days later, he played against Wales at Liberty Stadium, coming on as a second-half substitute in a 1–2 win. His third match of the campaign came in June, when Croatia faced Scotland in Zagreb and suffered a frustrating defeat as they were unable to score despite a string of good chances. By the end of the qualifiers, Kovačić made two more competitive appearances for Croatia, as Croatia scraped into the FIFA World Cup play-offs having taken only one point from their last four qualifiers. Although he didn’t participate in the scoreless first leg of the play-off against Iceland in Reykjavík, Kovačić started the second and decisive leg between the two national teams in Zagreb, making an assist for the team’s second goal as they reached the 2014 FIFA World Cup finals 2–0 on aggregate. On 2 June 2014, Kovačić was confirmed as a member of Croatia’s 2014 FIFA World Cup squad. He was in Croatia’s starting team for the opening game of the tournament, a 3–1 defeat to World Cup hosts Brazil at the Arena Corinthians, São Paulo, where he played for his team for 60 minutes before being substituted. He went to play all the remaining games in the group stage, as Croatia was eliminated in a group stage. On 7 June 2015, he scored his first international goal in a 4–0 victory over Gibraltar, coming in his 20th appearance for the team. On 4 June 2018, Kovačić was selected in Croatia’s 23-man squad for the 2018 FIFA World Cup. On 22 June, Kovačić provided an assist to his teammate Ivan Rakitić as he scored Croatia’s third goal in a 3–0 win over Argentina in their second group stage match of the tournament. Croatia was beaten 4–2 by France in the final on 15 July. Kovačić appeared in Croatia’s Nations League matches against Spain away and England home, that ended up as 6–0 defeat and a goalless draw, respectively. He featured throughout Croatia’s successful Euro 2020 qualifying campaign, as they finished top of the group. In a 2–1 win over Wales in Osijek on 8 June 2019, he scored what would have been a goal for 2–0, however it was disallowed as Andrej Kramarić was in an offside position. In a return leg on 13 October, in the build-up to the Wales goal, Kovačić was controversially injured by Ben Davies as the match ended up as a 1–1 draw. During 2020–21 Nations League, Kovačić was heavily criticized for his inefficiency in the national team, especially after making an error that led to Dejan Kulusevski’s opening goal in Croatia’s crucial match against Sweden on 14 November 2020, that eventually finished as a 2–1 defeat. However, three days later, he scored a brace in a 3–2 defeat to Portugal, which eventually saved Croatia from relegation to League B as they achieved better goal difference than Sweden.
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Kovačić has been described as a great technician with excellent dribbling abilities. He is considered to be a versatile midfielder, having played in different midfield positions. He started off as an attacking midfielder at Dinamo Zagreb, but he transformed his game at Inter where he was deployed out wide and also as a central midfielder, functioning as a deep-lying playmaker, while being coached by Andrea Stramaccioni. One of his trademarks is dropping deep to receive the ball and then driving forward, often performing his slalom runs. Under the coach, Walter Mazzarri, he was often used in a more advanced position. Former manager Giovanni Trapattoni once claimed that Kovačić knows how to really reach the ball from deep and drive up the pitch like a ‘raging bull’. Proven by his pass completion percentages, Kovačić is known for distributing the ball up the pitch. 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 talent. Kovačić revealed that precisely Prosinečki is the player he admired the most while growing up. His compatriot, Zvonimir Boban, who played for Milan for over a decade, in an interview with Sky Italia in 2013 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.” Trapattoni described him as “a mixture of Kaká and Clarence Seedorf”, because of his style of play and technical characteristics. Long-time Inter captain Javier Zanetti stated that, with the exception of Ronaldo, who had arrived to Inter when he was 21, Kovačić was the most promising youngster he had seen in his 19 years at the club. Kovačić is a devout Roman Catholic and he attends church every Sunday. He speaks five languages; English, Croatian, German, Spanish and Italian. In 2017, he married his longtime girlfriend Izabel Andrijanić.