The 28-year-old is going into his third finals having finally established himself as a key member of coach Zlatko Dalic’s team after proving his credentials as a top-level performer at Chelsea in the Premier League.
Success has not always been so easy for the Dinamo Zagreb teenage prodigy who joined Inter Milan aged 18 and moved to Real Madrid two years later where he failed to leave his mark.
Kovacic has had his ups and downs for Croatia too.
After featuring early in their unexpectedly long run in Russia four years ago, Kovacic was an unused substitute when Croatia knocked England out in the semi-finals and did not come on in the final either when they lost 4-2 to France.
At club level, Kovacic has four Champions League winners’ medals, three of them from his time at Real. But he had not played a minute in a final of Europe’s most prestigious club competition until he came on as a substitute for Chelsea in their 1-0 win over Manchester City in Porto in 2021.
Now he has a grip on his place in the national team, starting all of their qualifiers for Qatar apart from two when he was injured and one when he was suspended, and he was an ever-present in their strong Nations League campaign this year.
Kovacic looks likely to form part of a midfield trio including Inter’s Marcelo Brozovic and the player he once idolised as a child, Luka Modric - almost a decade his senior but still a creative genius for Croatia and Real Madrid.
Kovacic, who was born to Croatian parents in Austria, has talked about how he began to understand football better when he was about 10 years old and started watching Modric play.
Modric has been quick to repay the compliments, telling Spanish newspaper Marca this year: “I think Mateo Kovacic could be my heir, at least he is the player with the most talent.”
Often overshadowed by the attacking talents of Modric, Kovacic seldom basks in the limelight. But his contribution in terms of ball recovery, setting up counter-attacks and his energy are likely to be central to Croatia’s campaign.
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