SHARE
COPY LINK

WORLD CUP

Made in Switzerland, Croatia’s Rakitic on cusp of World Cup glory

Faced with a choice between Switzerland, where he was born, and Croatia, the homeland of his parents, Ivan Rakitic made a painstaking decision that will see the midfielder line up against France in Sunday's World Cup final.

Made in Switzerland, Croatia's Rakitic on cusp of World Cup glory
Photo: AFP

Swiss football is brimming with players of dual nationality such as former youth international Rakitic, whose loyalties are often divided between their adopted country and cherished homeland.

It even occurs in the same family, notably in the Xhaka household. Arsenal midfielder Granit plays for Switzerland while Taulant represents Albania, with the two on opposing sides at Euro 2016.

Rakitic was born in Rheinfelden, in the canton of Aargau, not far from Basel. He grew up in Mohlin, a small town of 11,000 people, where his father, fleeing the Yugoslav Wars, founded NK Pajde Mohlin in 1993, the club where Ivan started out.

He then joined FC Basel, before signing for Germany's Schalke aged just 19, all the while turning out for Switzerland's national teams at junior level.

“The potential was there, there was no discussion regarding the Swiss national teams. We fought for him to come,” former Switzerland Under-21 coach Bernard Challandes told AFP.

At the time, the rules were different and anyone who played an official match for a country at youth level could not switch nationalities as they can now.

“He has always been clear and explained that he hadn't yet made his decision, so we only picked him for friendlies,” explained Challandes, who was appointed coach of Kosovo earlier this year.

Rakitic eventually opted for Croatia, making his debut in September 2007. He has since taken part in three European Championships and two World Cups.

“I know where I came from. I grew up in Switzerland, I was proud to play for Switzerland at youth level,” Rakitic said recently in an interview with Swiss newspaper Le Temps.

“I've always said that I decided in favour of Croatia and not against Switzerland,” he said, adding that he first called Kobi Kuhn, the Swiss coach at the time, before contacting then Croatia boss Slaven Bilic.

A person described as “very calm, kind, easy-going and always happy”, the 30-year-old Rakitic, married to an Andalusian woman from his time at Sevilla, is “very poised and manages his career in a very intelligent way”, said Challandes.

“He's a player who has everything and nothing at the same time. He's not especially quick, not particularly strong physically, not a goalscorer.

“However, he does everything right, he's a kind of (Zinedine) Zidane who feels and sees everything before the others and is very strong technically.”

The Barcelona star, who scored in Croatia's 3-0 group-stage victory over Argentina, has been central in his country's run to the final even if he is unlikely to win many individual accolades.

“Since the start he's been what he is, an indispensable player but one who will never win the Ballon d'Or because he doesn't do bicycle kicks or other tricks,” said Challandes.

“He plays in a simple manner and people have sometimes struggled to see his importance. He plays his role wonderfully, he is one of the most important cogs.”

Rakitic and Real Madrid maestro Luka Modric will be crucial to their team's hopes of lifting the trophy in Moscow. However, fatigue could be a factor for Croatia after going to extra-time in three successive games.

“The key to the match is in the physical recovery,” said Challandes. “Are the Croats going to recover from their efforts, with a day's less rest?

“If it's the case, then the outcome may be determined by outstanding players such as Rakitic, Modric and (Ivan) Perisic but also (Kylian) Mbappe and (Antoine) Griezmann.”

READ ALSO: Liverpool sign Switzerland winger Shaqiri

FOOTBALL

Sweden beat Switzerland 1-0 to reach World Cup quarter-finals

Sweden reached the World Cup quarter-finals for the first time in 24 years after Emil Forsberg's deflected shot earned a scrappy 1-0 win over Switzerland on Tuesday.

Sweden beat Switzerland 1-0 to reach World Cup quarter-finals
Swiss defender Manuel Akanji reacts after the final whistle. Photo: AFP

This was far from a classic at the Saint Petersburg Stadium and if Colombia or England's players were watching on from Moscow, they could be forgiven for feeling bullish about their prospects in the last eight. 

Switzerland's Michael Lang was sent off in injury-time for a last-ditch push on Martin Olsson and referee Damir Skomina downgraded his penalty to a free-kick on the edge of the area. But the game was already up. 

Forsberg's second-half strike, which deflected off the unfortunate Manuel Akanji, means Sweden are through to the World Cup last eight for the first time since 1994 in the United States.

Their route to the quarters has not been easy and, what they have lost in the individual brilliance of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, they appear to have gained in grit, determination and collective spirit. 

Read also: Sweden v. Switzerland – 12 facts to help you tell them apart

Their next opponents would be foolish to take them lightly. 

The one blemish on the victory was a yellow card for defender Mikael Lustig, who will now be suspended for the quarter-final in Samara on Saturday. 

Both sides had been hampered by suspensions here too, with Switzerland more badly affected. They were without both Fabian Schaer and captain Stephan Lichtsteiner at the back, prompting Johan Djourou and Lang to come in. 

For Sweden, Gustav Svensson replaced Sebastian Larsson in midfield. 

After back-to-back penalty shoot-outs, Brazil versus Mexico and Belgium's pulsating comeback against Japan, there was always a danger this last-16 tie would struggle to deliver, even on low expectations. 

It was a contest that lacked quality, particularly in the final third, where both teams were often painfully imprecise.

Victor Lindelof slipped on the ball in the first 10 seconds and that set the tone for the first half, which was largely a collection of mishit passes, heavy touches and skewed shots. 

There were chances and Sweden had most of them. Marcus Berg blasted over when set free early on and then saw his finish blocked following a poor clearance by Swiss goalkeeper Yann Sommer. 

After a slow start, and Lustig's foul on Josip Drmic, Switzerland grew in confidence and should have scored when Blerim Dzemaili snatched at Steven Zuber's pull-back. 

At the other end, Albin Ekdal was even closer, and completely free, when he sidefooted Lustig's cross over. 

Rather than let loose, both teams tightened after the interval, and Forsberg's goal came out of the blue. With space on the edge of the box, his dummy did for Granit Xhaka before the shot was helped in by the outstretched foot of Akanji. 

Switzerland twice went close to grabbing an equaliser, as Djourou's header dribbled agonisingly across the goal-line and substitute Haris Seferovic drew a late save from close range. 

Olsson was pushed in the back by Lang with only Sommer to beat in injury-time, with Skomina initially awarding a penalty but changing his decision to a free-kick after he consulted the replay. Lang's red card stood and Sweden held on.