Mateo Kovacic was originally born in Austria, but he moved to Croatia in his childhood and joined the Dinamo Zagreb youth academy despite interest from bigger clubs across Europe. The midfielder battled through a potentially career-ending leg injury to eventually make his first-team debut at 16 – a game in which he also became the youngest ever goalscorer in the top Croatian league. His breakthrough season for Dinamo ended in an impressive domestic league-and-cup double.
Over the next two seasons Kovacic firmly established himself as an emerging talent. He helped Dinamo reach the group stage of the UEFA Champions League in 2011/12, starting in a 1-0 home defeat by Real Madrid when still only 17 years old. It was no surprise when interest in him grew and, in January 2013, after winning consecutive domestic doubles with Dinamo, he moved to Inter Milan for €15m.
In two and a half years with the Italian giants, the young Croatia international endured mixed fortunes. He had been mostly used on the left side of an attacking midfield three at Dinamo, but under one-time Inter head coach Walter Mazzarri he was employed in a more central, box-to-box role that affected both his and the team’s form. He nevertheless secured a move to Real in the summer of 2015, with Inter and their then-manager Roberto Mancini forced into a sale to satisfy financial fair play rules.
Despite being used in a number of roles at Real by Rafa Benitez, Kovacic’s opportunities in the first team became less frequent after the arrival of Zinedine Zidane as head coach. This was less about the inherent qualities of a player still in his early 20s, however, and more about Zidane’s preference for a consistent starting XI featuring indispensable figures such as Toni Kroos, Luka Modric and, of course, Cristiano Ronaldo. Kovacic sought a move away from the Bernabeu, joining Chelsea, then managed by Maurizio Sarri, on a one-year loan deal, before his recent permanent transfer for £40m.