The spotlight has been shining on Ivan Rakitic with uncommon intensity in the last few days. Barcelona play Sevilla in the European Super Cup tonight and as a former Sevilla captain – who also married the first woman in Seville to serve him a cup of coffee – he has replaced Lionel Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez as the centre of attention.
“It’s a story that I could sell to Hollywood,” he says of his first meeting with wife Raquel Mauri. “It was my first night in the club hotel in Seville and I couldn’t sleep because I knew the following day I had the medical and the contract signing so I went to the hotel bar for a coffee with my brother.
“The woman who is now my wife was serving. There were still four days left of the transfer market. Another team called and were prepared to provide a private plane for me to go and sign for them. I said to my brother: ‘No, I’ve given my word to the Sevilla president. I’m going to sign the contract tomorrow and I’m going to marry that waitress’.”
He was as good as his word, although it took three months of wooing before she agreed even to go out with him. “I would go to the bar every single day,” he says. “Always ordering a coffee and an orange Fanta because it was all I knew how to ask for in Spanish.”
The couple married in 2013 and renewed vows this summer before a honeymoon in the Maldives, although Rakitic spent much of it in the hotel gym preparing for the new season. “I took her somewhere she could have a good time so that I could train. I want to take full advantage of this opportunity that we have.”
The “opportunity” he refers to is the chance to win six trophies inside a year, something Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona achieved in 2009. Trophy four can be won tonight but who will the in-laws be supporting?
“Her family are very Sevillista,” he says telling the story of how her grandfather died with his Sevilla watch on, refusing to let nurses take it off him in hospital. “They are all big Sevilla fans but they are even bigger Rakitic fans,” he says.
Barcelona supporters have fallen for him as well. He scored the opening goal in last season’s Champions League final to cap an impressive first season servicing what he calls “the best forward line in the world.”
Just don’t try telling him having such quality ahead of him makes his job easier. “Because they are so strong in one-on-one situations in the other team’s area we have to play high up the pitch,” he says. “We have to win the ball back 20 metres from goal as opposed to 50 metres, so that when they receive it they have maybe just one or two players between them and the goal, instead of five. But it’s fine. If we have to run 5,000 or 10,000 metres for them then we’ll do it. It’s worth it.”
Rakitic is proving his worth too. The son of Croatian parents who left the former Yugoslavia before the Balkan conflict started, he grew up in Switzerland learning four languages and eventually signing for FC Basel. He rejected Chelsea at 16 because he thought it would set his career back, and he then chose to play for Croatia despite receiving death threats from Swiss fanatics.
“I let my heart decide,” he says. “A part of me feels very Swiss. Whenever I’m following sport I back the Swiss competitor or the Swiss team. I follow Swiss sports such as curling. I love Roger Federer.
“Some Swiss supporters reacted badly. They threatened to kill me, they called at my home.”
Amazingly, he tries to understand their behaviour, adding: “They wanted me to play for them so much and that was their way of showing it. I try to look at it that way.”
He is established now. Settled in Spain and even the prospect of playing in Xavi’s position cannot faze him. “It never felt like a weight,” he says of stepping into his boots last season.
“I wanted to make the most of my time with the greatest midfielder we have; working with him, learning from him.
“I don’t think there’ll be anyone like Xavi again, but I also wanted to be me. With respect to him and to Andres Iniesta, I’m Ivan Rakitic. I wanted to come here and learn but also to put my stamp on things.”