Alen Halilovic's Tragic Journey From The 'Balkan Messi' To Being Released By Two Championship Clubs
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On May 2 2014, Barcelona officially announced the signing of the hottest talent in world football. Beneath a mop of blond hair was the beaming smile of a 17-year-old who was living his dream. Alen Halilovic, also referred to as the 'Balkan Messi', was ready to take the world by storm.
Halilovic started his career with Dinamo Zagreb and from an early age he was tipped for greatness. It is here he was compared to Messi in addition to Luka Modric, who is the Croatian outfit's biggest success story. Similar to Modric in stature and looks, we mentioned the blond mop above, it seemed Halilovic's career was on an upward trajectory.
Many believed the midfielder would be fast-tracked to the first team after a spell with Barcelona B in the Segunda Division.
He'd go on to make his debut for the Catalan giants in January 2015, when he replaced Adama Traore during a 4-0 victory over Elche in the Copa del Rey. That would be his sole competitive appearance for Barcelona.
Halilovic's father, Sejad, was a professional footballer and took a great interest in his son's career. This would eventually create a rift between the player and Barcelona, as his entourage pushed for more first-team opportunities.
"At Barca it all went wrong because his father was interfering with his career," Lovre Nikolac, who runs the @CroatiaFooty Twitter account, told The Tilehurst End: "He hired him a personal football coach which didn’t sit right with Barcelona at all. His father was pretty vocal in saying that his son had the talent to play for the first team."
A lack of opportunities saw Halilovic move to Sporting Gijon on loan, something his father objected to at first.
He believed his son could force his way into the Barcelona team and if not given the opportunity, he could make his name at a top European club. It is worth remembering at the time, Barcelona had just won the Champions League with Sergio Busquets, Andres Iniesta and an outgoing Xavi in the middle of the park.
In contrast, Gijon had just been promoted from La Liga Segunda and were favourites to go straight back down.
He took the move and it ended up being the best of his career, with Halilovic scoring five goals to helped Gijon survive. That was the best goalscoring season of his career outside of Croatia.
It caught the attention of a number of clubs and Halilovic looked set to join Valencia.
Sejad would get involved once again and demand a 50 per cent commission on the transfer, something Valencia refused to do.
Hamburg would manage to negotiate a deal, but had a buyback clause inserted to his contract.
Halilovic's status as a wonderkid was still in tact and manager Bruno Labbadia wanted to make him the focal point of a forward thinking, attacking team. It started promisingly and Halilovic scored on his debut, but cracks started to show. Labbadia was dismissed after a dismal start to the campaign and all plans were scrapped in a bid to avoid relegation from the Bundesliga.
Markus Gisdol brought a more defensive style of play and sacrificed Halilovic, who made seven appearances before deciding enough was enough. He sealed an 18 month loan move back to Spain with Las Palmas and the minnows had the option to make it permanent.
Did they do that? Halilovic getting sent off in the first game of the 17/18 season should tell you all you need to know. A knee injury derailed any momentum he had, and it ended up being the story of his career. A promising start that could never be sustained.
At this point, Halilovic was just desperate to get consistent minutes under his belt and played anywhere on the pitch. He admitted to AS in 2017: "I love the style of football they play here - a team which likes to play with a lot of possession could work well for me. I don't mind where I play - either just behind the centre-forward or out wide.
"I played on the wing at Hamburg and through the middle at Barca; I feel comfortable in either position. I just love playing football and I will play wherever the coach wants me to."
Surprisingly, AC Milan were next to take a punt on Halilovic and snapped him up on a free transfer in 2018. Still a fallen giant at the time with a scattergun approach to transfers, many wondered how he would get on at the San Siro. Spoiler alert, but he never played a competitive game for Milan. Sound familiar?
From there he had underwhelming loan spells with Belgium's Standard Liege and Eredivise stalwarts Heerenveen.
Milan terminated his contract in 2020 and up to this point, Halilovic had managed to stay in the top-flight with five different teams in six different countries since leaving Zagreb. That was about to change.
The coronavirus pandemic meant teams were desperate to save money and that would give Halilovic a smaller pool of clubs to pick from. Most were happy to keep their squads thinner in a football calendar that was becoming more and more congested. It was Championship stalwarts Birmingham City who lured Halilovic to England on a one-year deal.
Stop us if you've heard this before, but he once again suffered from his manager playing a conservative style. Aitor Karanka did not manage to get the most out of Halilovic and he scored once in 17 league appearances.
That was not the end of his career in England however and he chose to move to Reading, where he once again scored once in 11 appearances. Most of those came under Veljko Paunovic before he was replaced by Paul Ince.
It is quite clear Ince preferred other attackers to Halilovic and before his departure in May, Halilovic posted a cutting, nine-word statement to his social media pages.
Thanks 🤘🏻,but i was not injured…all the best 🔵⚪️ @TalkReading— Alen Halilović (@AlenHalilovic) May 20, 2022
A Reading fan channel praised his performances for the club and his response was: "Thanks, but I was not injured... all the best."
On July 6, Halilovic officially returned to Croatia with Rijeka, who finished fourth last season. Things have come full circle.
Still only 26, a career renaissance is not completely out of the question. Rijeka won the HNL title in 2017 and defeated AC Milan in the Europa League later that year. With the right manager, Halilovic might be able to find the form that made him a hot commodity eight years ago.