Alen Halilovic and his story is one of twists, turns and massive potential, unfulfilled.
To understand Halilovic and his life story, you first have to understand Croatian football and it’s web of complexities.
In life and in football, there are heroes and villains. In this case, the villain is one man, at the center of it all, Zdravko Mamic. Currently residing in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Mamic is yet to complete his sentencing after being charged with transfer fraud.
The Mamic family control all of the happenings in Croatia. Atleast in football terms, they have a huge influence on the ins and outs at Dinamo Zagreb as well as the Croatian national team.
Unsurprisingly, Mamic has had a huge influence on Halilovic’s career as well. From the very beginning until the recent present.
Early attention on Halilovic in Zagreb
Although born in Dubrovnik, Halilovic is not someone whom Croatians identify with the city itself. He grew up in the city of Zagreb.
Being the capital city, Zagreb is the largest city in Croatia. It is also a land of opportunity for footballers and people alike. Halilovic was no exception.
Aleksandar Holiga, Croatia’s leading sports journalist and chief editor at telesport.hr, has been keeping tabs on Halilovic’s developments since his early days at Zagreb.
‘It was quite different for him, than for anyone else. He was identified as a big project ever since he was 12 years old. They (Dinamo) always tried to make things easier for him. They always adapted teams around him, in order to pronounce his best sides and hide his weaknesses.’
For any youngster hoping to break through the ranks, this is an incredible amount of pressure. However, Dinamo tried to make things as comfortable as they could for him and his family, at least in the early stages.
‘He was quite to used to that ( Dinamo’s special treatment) from a very early age.’ Aleksandar recalls.
There were no qualms about the talent in the player, Halilovic displayed a great deal of potential. However, as is mostly the case in football, simply having talent is not enough. Halilovic would have to learn that the hard way later on in his life.
‘He always jumped levels and they weren’t doing him any favors with that. There was always talking him up. He was treated like a five-star talent as long as he can remember’, says Aleksandar.
Breaking records with Dinamo
At Dinamo, this isn’t an uncommon practice. For a club that has been domestic champion for the better part of the past two decades, they can afford to treat youngsters like Halilovic as projects and integrate them into the senior setup.
However, with Halilovic, there is a feeling that the club went in a wrong direction.
‘ In this case, they just went too far. He was far from ready when he started playing for them, he was just a kid’, reveals Aleksandar.
He was indeed just a kid. At the age of 16 he became the youngest debutante in the history of the Prva HNL or the Hrvatski Telekom Prva Liga. Additionally, his debut came against Dinamo’s biggest rivals in the “Eternal Derby” against Hajduk Split.
In Croatia, Hajduk and Dinamo are two of the biggest clubs. One is to the south and the other is to the North. However, one is seen in a much bigger light than the other.
Ivan Žeželj, a sports journalist from Croatian site index.hr throws some light on the differences in both regions.
‘In Croatia, if you’re good and if you want to succeed in football, you go to Zagreb’, says Ivan.
And Halilovic did that. He became Dinamo’s next big project and became the subject of immense pressure from the fans as well as media, at the time.
All of this attention at an early age certainly was not helping a precocious young talent like Halilovic.
Halilovic always wanted to be the best
‘Obviously, in those conditions, it was difficult for anyone to set him straight when he needed that. He always had a special treatment. Maybe he wasn’t used to working as hard as someone else. He was driven by his talent and always wanted to succeed. The real problems were psychological and he always expected to be the best and for others to adapt to him. I think it took a long time for him to realise that none of this was doing him any favours’, says Aleksandar.
Growing up in Zagreb, there was pressure on Halilovic to succeed all the time. It did not help when his club had begun hyping him since the age of 11. Although his mistakes and poor decisions were tolerated by the club and the public as well. There were even occasions where Dinamo made up stories to create avid interest in him.
Naturally, looking at the kind of player he was, early signs were that Dinamo had a gem on their hands. They wanted to do everything in their power to maximise his value and make a huge profit on him. Nevertheless, things never transpired as they had imagined them to.
Mamic and co.’s influence on Halilovic
‘As he was approaching the age of 18, he already had a some games under his belt and even played for the national team. Even though he wasn’t a starter for Dinamo. Such was the influence of people at Dinamo, Mamic and his criminal clique, in particular’, explains Aleksandar.
To escalate things even further, Mamic and his team even fabricated a story that Halilovic would play for Bosnia if he didn’t play for Croatia.
In Croatian football, the Mamic family controls almost everything when it comes to the national team and the operations at Dinamo, in particular.
As compared to other players breaking through around the world, the situation in Dinamo is very different.
‘In Croatia, you come to Dinamo Zagreb, you sign some kind of strange contract with Mamic’s brothers and his family and you sign up some percent of income of your life to them and they ensure you will be sold to a big club’, explains Ivan.
A strange circumstance behind the scenes of Halilovic’s career, but it did not distract him from expressing himself on the pitch, he just wanted to play football.
Comparisons with Messi
‘ He was really immature which wasn’t really surprising for a kid who was 17 at the time. He has stayed a little immature even now. Usually when you have these players who are incredibly talented, who are always talked up by the media, at least in these parts, they tend to act unprofessional or maybe lead an unsporting life, but that wasn’t him. He was more or less a model professional and he didn’t have any issues with that.’
‘In his mind, he was always pampered by his agents and people around him, that he was going to be the best in the world or that he was the next Messi. What he had in his mind was a distorted reality’, explains Aleksandar.
The comparisons with Messi are understandable to a certain degree. Much like the Argentine legend, Halilovic is a player with a low center of gravity and someone who, on his day, looks like a magical player.
Unfortunately though, for him, those moments came were few and far between.
Mesmerising against Rijeka
One of those few delightful moments for Halilovic came against HNK Rijeka in a league fixture.The stage was set at the old Kantrida Stadion in Rijeka and Dinamo were 2-0 down going into the second half.
Close to the hour mark, Halilovic struck his first, in Messi-esque fashion, to say the least. Dinamo found a gap in between the lines via a delightful ball from Marcelo Brozovic.
Striker Duje Cop dragged the center-backs away to create space for Halilovic. The youngster then took the ball in his stride and then slotted the ball past Ivan Vargic low into the bottom right corner with his left foot.
There was a lot that looked like Messi in that goal. Rijeka were stunned but he wasn’t done. The second goal was even better. As he found space in between the central defenders after a good pass from Junior Fernandes, he struck the ball with great power with his left foot, leaving the goalkeeper gasping to save it.
Such was the talent of Halilovic, one moment, he could look like the greatest talent, other times, not so much.
It was this talent that Barcelona wanted to bet on and with one year remaining on his contract with Dinamo, Halilovic decided to make his dream move to Catalunya.
Playing with Messi is a fantasy for many and Halilovic was no exception. After all, all his life, he had been compared to the Barcelona legend. Although this seemed like a dream come true, in Croatia, the media saw it differently.
A distorted reality for Halilovic
‘When he moved to Barcelona, we already considered him past his prime in a way. He was playing for a while and you could see that he has certain limits. The potential that everybody was talking about is not as infinite as people were led to believe, half a year or a year ago. By playing, he was also showcasing his weaknesses’, reveals Aleksandar.
From the outside, Halilovic’s time at Dinamo gave a lot of football fans a lot of exciting compilations on Youtube and so forth. However, the reality was quite different.
‘When I was at the club one time,’ Aleksandar recalls, ‘I spoke to the director of football ( Zoran Mamic) at the time along with some foreign journalists. They were inquiring about Halilovic and asking “what kind of a player is he? Is he the next Luka Modric?”. Mamic says ” I am aware that this is something that shouldn’t be said, but he is kind of a Messi type”.’
This is precisely the kind of pressure that harmed the growth of Halilovic’s career early on and this is something that never changed.
Ivan reveals, ‘ There is a big problem. Alen said in one of his inteviews at Herenveen – “When I was sixteen, I couldn’t play bad, because I always must be perfect,” and I think that broke him’.
When the transfer to Barcelona eventually went through, there was an expectation that Dinamo were receiving a big fee for him. However, the actual fee turned out to be a meagre sum of just €2.2 million.
Disappointment and frustrations in Barcelona
After the move to Barcelona, things weren’t as smooth as Halilovic had expected them to be. Tensions were heightened even further because of the influence of his father, Sejad Halilovic, who had a say in the negotiations for his son.
His father was always trying to do things differently for him. Even going as far as hiring a separate private coach for Halilovic when he was at Barcelona B. This did not go down well with the Barcelona administration, whose relationship with Halilovic’s father suffered as time went by.
‘Ever since the Barcelona switch, I see that nobody cares about the player, about his needs, about him in general. Because you don’t transfer a 16-year-old kid to Barcelona’, explains Ivan.
Months before the Barcelona move, Dinamo had agreed a transfer deal with Tottenham Hotspur from the Premier League for two players, Tin Jedvaj and Halilovic himself.
Nevertheless, the transfer did not happen, a deal worth well over €10 million. Once again, external influence prevented him from making a move.
‘ The transfer to Tottenham was already agreed upon. He was supposed to go along with Jedvaj. In the end, it was his father who wanted a position in the academy along with some other perks, which they didn’t want, so he talked him out of it’, reveals Aleksandar.
Halilovic’s heart was set on a move to Barcelona and that is what he got in the end.
Dinamo’s management was very displeased with the Halilovic family because of their refusal. There was a huge war of words between both parties and relations soured between the family and the club.
Hamburg, Milan and beyond
Halilovic would spend his second year in Spain in the North once again, this time with Sporting Gijon. He did reasonably well and helped the club stave off relegation that year.
Unsurprisingly, upon his return to Barcelona, he was not a part of manager Luis Enrique‘s plans. A move to Hamburger SV came next for Halilovic, which was a transfer that was quite surprising to many. It was another big club and another big city, and responsibilities he wasn’t prepared to shoulder.
After a fairly decent loan spell with Las Palmas back in Spain, Halilovic’s career once again sprung another surprise as he joined AC Milan on a free transfer in the summer of 2018.
‘ No one knows, obviously he has some good agents, who can make these transfers. In Croatia, newspaper and media, it was a very surprising move for everyone’, recalls Ivan.
At the time, The Rossoneri were being managed by Gennaro Gattuso and Halilovic wasn’t always considered to be the greatest when it came to training. The marriage between Halilovic and Milan was a strange one all things considered.
More importantly though, Halilovic’s career up until that point underlined the sheer mismanagement in his career. A player whose career had become consumed in the vacuum of media pressure and expectation and a world influenced by too many factors outside his control.
After a cancelled loan deal from Standard Liege, Halilovic moved on loan to the Netherlands to play for SC Heerenveen.
Comparisons with Ødegaard
Another young talent quite similar to Halilovic also donned the colors of De Superfriezen Fean on a loan spell, Martin Ødegaard. However, the Norwegian’s career is a fine example of how a young player’s life should be handled.
Both Odegaard and Halilovic were tipped to be football’s next great superstars. However, while one has gone on to establish himself as one of Europe’s brightest, the other may not get close to doing so ever again.
As for his career with Croatia, Halilovic has been capped at all levels of the youth ranks. Making his debut at the age of 16, he became Croatia’s youngest debutante of all time.
Door to the national side still remains open
He hasn’t made many appearances for the senior side over the years. Nonetheless, the door to the national side still remains open for Halilovic.
‘ This is mainly because of two things – The federation and the coach is still under influence from the Mamic family and they (Mamic family) are still hoping to get some bonuses from some clauses’, explains Aleksandar.
‘ The other thing is also that..’ he further explains, ‘this national team manager is the kind of coach who would always look first amongst those who have already played for the team. At the same time, it is also difficult to rule anything out. So I guess he is being considered.’
Halilovic is 24 now and is fast approaching his prime years as an attacker. However, what remains to be seen is whether he will redeem himself in the eyes of every Croatian football fan.
The opportunity will always remain for a special talent like him. However, as he found out with such extremes in his career, it is not enough to be talented.There needs to be a dedication and willingness to go the extra mile.
Ultimately, Halilovic’s fall from grace is a massive lesson for anyone trying to break through amongst the Elite.