Over the years, a number of up-and-coming players have been (prematurely) labelled the ‘next Lionel Messi’.
The list includes Bojan Krkic, Ryo Miyaichi, Marko Marin and Pietro Pellegri among others – as well as the name Alen Halilovic.
Usually, these youngsters have been compared to the mesmeric Argentine after one magical performance, only to fall away into the wonderful world of the footballing wilderness.
But for Halilovic, it was different.
This was a player who made his debut for Dinamo Zagreb in the ‘Eternal Derby’ between against Hajduk Split, becoming the club’s youngest ever debutant. After, he was compared to Messi – but he was immediately keen to play down such remarks, insisting his goal was simply to show the head coach that he could ‘count on him.’
Having just turned 16, Halilovic showed maturity beyond his years to not get carried away by the comparisons. Soon he was breaking more records, as he became Croatia’s youngest ever national team debutant, featuring against Portugal – alongside Ivan Rakitic and Luka Modric – before his 17th birthday.
In the blink of an eye, he’d became the poster boy of Croatian football – the future.
No, he wasn’t anywhere near the finished article at such a young age, but his obvious talent was clear for all to see. In fact, before he had even made his professional debut, he was attracting attention from European giants. Interest in him, of course, continued to grow, with Arsenal, Tottenham, Juventus, Inter and Real Madrid among those keeping a close eye on him.
It was Tottenham who were leading the race, but the deal ultimately fell through. Indeed, Dinamo were hoping to continue their trend of profiting from their young prospects, but this didn’t prove to be the case as they agreed to allow Halilovic to leave for Barcelona in 2014 for an initial, and rather paltry, £1.8m.
After making 40 appearances in all competitions for Dinamo in the 2013/14 season, he made the switch to Camp Nou. Starting out in Barcelona’s B team, it was a completely different way of life for Halilovic. He went on to make 29 league appearances for the B team in 2014/15, while he also made his senior debut in the Copa del Rey.
It was meant to be a season of adjusting to a new way of life. But problems arose throughout the campaign as Halilovic’s family hired a personal coach for him, which left Barça far from pleased as the coach had differing ideas to the club about to how to help him develop.
The following summer saw yet more interference.
Barça were keen for Halilovic to head out on loan for the 2015/16 season in order to play first team football in La Liga. Sporting Gijon were the club that La Blaugrana had in mind, but Alen’s father didn’t agree as he claimed that his son should be competing in Europe.
Nonetheless, the teenager sealed his loan switch to Gijon – and he shone that season, helping them avoid relegation. His ability to glide effortlessly with the ball at his feet, in addition to his tireless amounts running, was displayed for everyone to see – with his performances ensuring he became a fan favourite.
But a change in transfer strategy saw Barça ready to part ways with Halilovic. La Blaugrana were hoping he would stay in Spain in order to monitor his development, while they were also looking to insert a buyback clause into any deal.
Valencia were said to be closing in on his signature after the youngster himself agreed to the transfer – only for the deal to fall through after his father demanded commission worth 50& (€2.5m) of Alen’s transfer fee.
The demands of both the player and his father saw numerous clubs pull out of the deal and, as a result, while Hamburg didn’t pay the commission, they were one of the few clubs willing to make a concrete offer. Halilovic accepted.
He made a bright start to life in Germany, scoring on his debut – but this didn’t last long. After the departure of Bruno Labbadia, Halilovic was given fewer opportunities to impress – with the new boss said to be uncomfortable about the constant presence of the midfielder’s bodyguards.
After falling completely out of favour, the Croatian joined Las Palmas on an 18-month loan in January 2017. It was a chance to shine, a chance to reboot his career and remind people why he was once considered the ‘Croatian Lionel Messi’.
While there were the occasional moments of quality that had fans jumping out their seats, it was all too inconsistent. Las Palmas didn’t take up their option to buy the player. Similarly, Barcelona, who included a buyback clause in his sale, were not willing to bring him back – with Goal reporting that the Catalan giants were fearful that his family’s influence was having a negative impact on his career.
For a player who was struggling to impress, a move to a team like Milan perhaps wouldn’t have been the wisest move. But that’s what came in the summer of 2018, joining the fallen giants on a free transfer.
Both parties were at fault. Halilovic should quite simply never have joined, while for Milan, they had bought in a player who was looking to prove a point – but they refused to give him the chance to play. Halilovic played a grand total of zero minutes in Serie A before being shipped off to Standard Liege on loan, who had an option to buy.
But after 14 appearances for the club, his loan was cut short. Now on loan with SC Heerenveen, the 23-year-old is at least playing football more regularly as he looks to get his career back on track.
Perhaps it was a case of too much, too young for the Croatian, but it is clear that the interference of those around him hampered his progress. Equally, poor decision making with regards to transfers also contributed to his fall.
Once considered the potential heir to Lionel Messi’s throne, Alen Halilovic is now considered one of football’s great journeyman.
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