I have a story for Hollywood. It’s a romantic comedy. But it’s actually real. It starts with a Croatian guy walking into a bar …
It was 2011. I was 21 years old. I arrived in Spain really late — maybe 10 o’clock at night. I had been playing for Schalke in Germany for the past four years, and Seville were all set to sign me the next morning. All I had to do was take my medical test and sign the papers.
My older brother Dejan was traveling with me, and when we got to the hotel, we had a late dinner with some people from the club. For whatever reason, I was a little bit nervous after dinner, and I knew I wouldn’t be able to sleep. So I said to my brother, “Let’s have a drink and then we’ll go to bed.”
Those words changed my life.
Because the woman who happened to be working at the hotel bar was … Wow. This is the part of the movie where everything goes into slow motion, you know? She was so beautiful.
I said to myself, O.K., Seville. Wow. I like this place.
But I couldn’t say anything to her other than “Hola,” because I didn’t know any Spanish. I spoke German, English, Italian, French and Serbo-Croatian, but no Spanish. It was terrible.
So my brother and I were just sitting there, having a chat, when someone from another big European club called my brother on the phone. They said that they had heard that we had arrived in Seville, and they wanted to send a plane to come pick us up so I could go and sign with them instead.
We didn’t have a formal agreement with Seville yet. It was a big step for me to move to Spain, and maybe a big risk. New country, new language. I didn’t know anyone there. The team who wanted to send the plane for me — let’s just say it might have been an easier adjustment.
So my brother said, “What do you want to do?”
I told him, “Well … I said ‘Yes’ to the president of Seville already, and my words are worth more than a signature.”
He said, “Alright, I’ll tell them.”
Then I pointed across the bar and I said, “You see our waitress? I am going to play here for Seville, and I am going to marry this woman.”
My brother was laughing. He said, “O.K., whatever you say.” He thought I was joking.
The waitress came back and asked if we were finished, and I said to my brother, “You know, I’m still a bit nervous. I don’t think I can sleep. Let’s have another drink.”
The next day, I signed my contract with Seville, and I lived in that hotel for three months while I searched for a house. So every single morning, I went to the hotel bar for a coffee and an orange Fanta so that I could see the beautiful waitress.
All I knew was that her name was Raquel. She didn’t speak any English, and I didn’t speak any Spanish. So every single day …
“Buenos días, Raquel. Un café y un Fanta naranja.”
I don’t know how to explain it. Sometimes, you meet someone and you just have a different feeling. Whenever I saw her, it was like a bomb went off inside me. Week after week, I slowly started to learn some Spanish words, and if I was struggling, I would use my hands a lot to try to explain what I was trying to say to her.
She thought that was funny. She was like, “Me … Jane. You … Tarzan.”
I was drinking so much coffee it was ridiculous.
I probably asked her out 20 or 30 times.
She never said no, but she always made an excuse that she had to work and then go to bed. After three months, I moved into my house, and I remember feeling really sad, because I thought maybe it was over. But I didn’t give up. I would still drive into town and go for a coffee at the hotel all the time.
If she wasn’t working, I’d walk straight back out the door and go to another place. If she was there, it made my day.
By then, my Spanish was getting better, so we could talk a little more. I forced myself to watch Spanish TV and listen to Spanish radio all the time. I think I’m lucky, because for whatever reason, people from the Balkans seem to have a talent for learning languages.
One day, Raquel finally explained why she wouldn’t go out with me. She said, “You’re a footballer. You could be moving to another country next year. Sorry, but no.”
You know, I’m not the biggest guy in the world, so I thought, Shit, maybe she sees me and she doesn’t think I’m going to be very good and Seville will sell me in the summer.
Part of my motivation when I went to training was to establish myself in the squad so that I would be around for awhile and this girl would finally have dinner with me. It literally took me seven months. I arrived on January 27. On August 20, I got a text: She’s in the bar with her sister having a drink! Not working!
See, at this point, pretty much everybody in the town knew my story, so someone was in the bar and they tipped me off with a text. I refuse to name my source 🙂
I called a friend and we drove right to the hotel, and I took a seat right next to Raquel, and I said, “O.K., you’re not working. You finally have time to come to dinner with me.”
She was surprised. She said she didn’t know, maybe …
I said, “No. I’m not leaving. I know you’re with your sister and everything, but we have to start today. Let’s go. We’ll all go.”
So we all went out together.
The next day, we met for lunch, and we have been together ever since. Six years together, with two beautiful daughters now. And it was the hardest thing I’ve done in my life. It was harder than winning the Champions League, and it took nearly as long.
UEFA via Getty Images
It was especially funny when I met her family for the first time. At that point, I was feeling pretty confident with my Spanish, but then you get around a big family and, my God … they were speaking so fast, and with the Seville accent, which is a little bit different.
Her dad was trying to make jokes with me, and I had no idea what the hell he was saying. I would just pretend I knew and laugh anyway. But he could tell I had no idea what was going on, so finally he said, “It doesn’t matter. Give me two or three months and you will understand everything.”
I think this is the special character of the people from Seville. They have a really open spirit and receive everyone like family. It was funny because my wife doesn’t care about football at all, so I thought maybe her family was the same. But they’re big Seville supporters. My wife’s grandfather had already passed away when I met her, but her father told me that when he went into the hospital during his final days, the nurses took off his clothes and put him in a hospital gown, but when they tried to take off his watch, he refused.
It was his special Seville watch.
He said, “No, this stays with me. To the very end. If I go, I go with my club.”
I think people don’t really understand how much footballers are affected by the people in their lives. When we’re interviewed, people always ask about managers and tactics and training, but they almost never ask about what’s going on off the pitch. And to me, that’s just as important to your career. In the span of six years, I moved from Switzerland to Germany to Spain, and it was a really intense and lonely experience at times. I was a pretty good player at Basel and Schalke, but I always felt like I was missing something.
When I met my wife, I felt as though I really had something to play for, and my career went to another level after that. We had a lot of special years in Seville. In 2013, I was named the first foreign captain of the club since Maradona. That was such a special honor for me, especially because of how much the club meant to my wife’s grandfather.
It was also a very proud moment for me because of my history. My parents are from Croatia, but they immigrated to Switzerland just before the start of the Bosnian War because they could feel the danger coming. I grew up in Switzerland idolizing Robert Prosinečki. He was a hero for Croatians, and he played for Real Madrid, Barcelona and Seville when I was a kid. I was lucky to have a very normal life with my friends in Switzerland and be untouched by the war. But for a long time, it was impossible for my family to go back to Croatia. I think the first time we went back was when I was seven years old, just to see my grandparents. So for me, going to school in Switzerland surrounded by Swiss friends, my Croatian identity was tied to Prosinečki and the national team.
My mother likes to tell a story. When I started going to school, I came home after the third or fourth day and I said, “Mom, I don’t want to go anymore. I just want to play. How many years do I have to do this?”
And she said, “Nine years.”
And so I said, “Nine years? O.K., I’ll go for nine years, but not one day more.”
And that’s pretty much how it happened. At 17, I went to play football professionally for Basel. My dream was very clear. I wanted to be Robert Prosinečki. So to be able to go play in Spain like he did, and to actually be named Seville’s captain, it was just incredible.
When Barcelona wanted to sign me in 2014, it was quite an interesting experience, because my wife’s family obviously wanted me to stay. But they also knew that you only have one opportunity to move to the biggest club in the world. So in the end, they supported whatever I decided. It was a pretty difficult decision for us — much more difficult than you might expect. But the club said that they were satisfied with the fee that Barcelona were willing to pay, and they supported the move. It made me very happy to leave on good terms, because my whole life changed at Seville.
My wife’s father was like, “O.K., good luck, but when you guys play against Seville … Well, I’m sorry.”
It is every boy’s dream to play for Barcelona. I remember when I arrived for the presentation, I walked into the dressing room, and they had my boots waiting for me at my locker, and I got goosebumps looking at the boots. I was thinking, These are not just boots. These are my Barcelona boots.
As a footballer, of course you want to win games and titles. But to be a part of this club is something different. Full respect to all the other big clubs, but at Barcelona, I think there is a special feeling with the people of the city, and with people all over the world.
As a playmaker, I am blessed to play with the greatest attackers in the world. With Messi, for example, the whole world sees his brilliance in the games. But you have to multiply that by 20 or 50 for what he’s doing in the training sessions. It is a joy for me, just as a fan of pure football, to be able to play with him every day. But it’s not just him — it was Neymar and Xavi, and now Suárez, Iniesta, Piqué. There is a rhythm to the way we try to play — it’s like a big machine. When you hit the button, all the pieces inside already know what to do. It’s one thing to see it on TV, or to play against Barcelona, and it’s another thing to experience it for yourself. If you don’t enjoy football in Barcelona, then you don’t enjoy football.
For me, every single day is still a pleasure if I’m playing football. I left Switzerland 10 years ago to pursue my dream abroad, and I’m very lucky that I ended up here in Barcelona. I hope to wear the shirt for many more years.
I think that when I arrived here, some of the players were a bit surprised by how well I spoke Spanish (with a Seville accent), and that was very helpful for me in adapting to the dressing room culture. I have my wife to thank for that. She is the reason I was able to grow from Tarzan, to the captain of Seville, to a champion at Barcelona.
Our older daughter is four years old now, and she’s starting to understand just how seriously people take football in Barcelona. We’re trying to predict whether she’s going to be obsessed with football like me, or not care about it at all, like her mother. Right now, she’s kind of in the middle.
If I’m at home watching football on TV and somebody scores, she gets really mad. She says, “No! You have to score the goal!”
It doesn’t even matter if it’s Messi or Suárez. No. It’s not good enough. It has to be Daddy who scores. He can’t assist, he has to score. So I’m doing my best. Maybe I will try to talk to Leo about this 🙂