The bones of Alen Halilovic’s story are all too familiar: a wonderkid tipped for greatness who has not lived up to the expectations placed upon him. But delve deeper into the career of Reading’s third summer arrival, and it becomes clear that it is not that simple.
Halilovic was born in Dubrovnik, Croatia and joined Dinamo Zagreb’s academy at an early age. Coaches instantly singled him out as a star of the future, and comparisons were quickly drawn with Lionel Messi, as well as Luka Modric, the club’s greatest-ever export.
In September 2012, Halilovic made his Dinamo debut in the fiery ‘Eternal Derby’ against Hajduk Split. In doing so, he earned the title of the club’s youngest-ever player at just 16 years and 101 days old, and less than two weeks later he became their youngest-ever goalscorer. By the end of October, the midfielder had made his Champions League debut as a late substitute against Paris Saint-Germain, making him the second-youngest player in the competition’s history.
At the end of his breakthrough campaign, Halilovic made his debut for the Croatian senior team in a friendly against Portugal. It was another record for the 16-year-old - his country’s youngest-ever full international. However in hindsight, all of this was too much too soon for someone who was still just a child.
“There was pressure on him even before he got promoted into the Dinamo Zagreb first team,” says Karlo Lerga, a Croatian youth football expert. “He went straight from the U17s to the first team, skipping the U19s. He was really talented, extremely talented, but for the sake of development, you can’t skip steps like that.”
“There is no doubt that Halilović was an exciting talent but at the same time, he was overhyped and this inevitably made things incredibly difficult for him,” Croatian sports journalist Domagoj Kostanjšak echoes. “He kept skipping levels from the beginning of his career and his Dinamo debut arguably came too soon.
“Players that young should be given time, care and proper management, but he had to be the perfect player at the age of 16, which was bizarre. The truth is he was pampered to and treated like a future superstar to the point the club went above and beyond to cater to his needs, both on and off the pitch. But that kind of thing came with a cost - he had to become the new Messi, anything less than that would be seen as a failure.”
Halilovic made 62 appearances in two seasons for Zagreb, scoring eight times, and was consistently linked with a move to one of Europe’s top leagues. Tottenham Hotspur appeared to be leading the race for the teenager in the 2013/14 season, reportedly offering a transfer fee higher than his Dinamo release clause.
However, in what would soon become a trend in Halilovic’s career, his father got involved in the negotiations and blocked the move to White Hart Lane. Sejad Halilovic was a former Bosnia and Herzegovina international, and it’s fair to say he took full control of Alen’s career early on. Halilovic senior did not like Tottenham’s intentions to originally place his son in the academy and wanted guarantees in his contract over a certain number of first team appearances. The deal collapsed.
When Barcelona came in with an offer for Halilovic it was impossible to refuse. Sejad moved his whole family to Spain and even made sure that his other two sons, Dino and Damir, were signed to Barca’s youth teams. Yet despite his father’s wishes, Alen was placed in the Barcelona B squad and only made one first-team appearance all season, which came in the Copa del Ray. Tensions increased further when Sejad began intruding in the coaching of his son.
“At Barca it all went wrong because his father was interfering with his career,” says Lovre Nikolac, who runs @CroatiaFooty on Twitter. “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.”
“Inevitably, this created a rift as they were essentially going against the core of the club,” Kostanjšak says, describing Halilovic’s father’s decision to take his son away from training at La Masia. “At the same time, some of his weaknesses came to light too. After all, he was way beyond his actual level and out of his depth. Things were over before they even started.”
This was a Barcelona team that boasted the holy midfield trinity of Xavi, Andres Iniesta and Sergio Busquets. Ivan Rakitic signed the same summer as Halilovic and fellow young talents Rafinha and Sergi Roberto were making strides of their own. The chances of the teenage Croatian getting game time in the first team were always going to be incredibly slim.
“Barca’s midfield was stacked, he moved too early and couldn’t show his true potential,” Lerga says. “He needed to adapt to a new country, language and league, which is all very hard at his age, a lot of youngsters from Croatia make the same mistake.”
With Barcelona keen to send Halilovic out on loan to gain first-team experience, his father caused problems once again. Sejad felt his son should go somewhere where he would have the opportunity to play European football and tried to block a move to newly promoted La Liga outfit Sporting Gijon. Nonetheless, the midfielder moved to Asturias and had his best goalscoring season outside of Croatia to date, netting five times and helping the club to survive relegation.
Despite glimpses of potential reemerging, Barcelona chose to sell Halilovic in the summer of 2016, agreeing a deal with Valencia for the 20-year-old. However the move collapsed because of, you guessed it, Halilovic’s father. Sejad, already enraged by Barca’s decision to let his son go, demanded a commission worth 50% of the transfer fee, which would have netted him around €2.5m. Needless to say that Valencia pulled out of the transfer, while many other clubs were put off by the unusual condition.
It was Hamburg who managed to come to an agreement for Halilovic’s signature, minus the dad tax, for €5.5m, with Barcelona’s insertion of a €10m buy-back clause indicating they still believed in the youngster’s potential.
As ever with the Croatian, there was the early reminder of his quality. He scored on his Hamburg debut in the German Cup and featured in the first four Bundesliga games of the season. However, the club switched managers in September 2016, sacking Bruno Labbadia and appointing the more defensive-minded Markus Gisdol.
That wasn’t good news for Halilovic, while there was also disruption behind the scenes. The midfielder’s family employed bodyguards to escort him everywhere he went, including the dressing room on matchdays. Unsurprisingly this didn’t go down too well with Gisdol, who played him just twice before shipping him back to La Liga to Las Palmas on loan in January.
Since then, Halilovic has floated around Europe, with each club believing they would be the ones to profit from his talent. After 18 months on loan at Las Palmas, eyebrows were raised when AC Milan signed him on a free transfer in 2018, but he never made a Serie A appearance and spent time out on loan in Belgium with Standard Liege and the Netherlands with Heerenveen.
After the midfielder’s contract at the San Siro was cancelled in October 2020, he was club-less for a month before joining Birmingham City, scoring once in 17 Championship appearances last season.
“He showed flashes of promise without backing that up with a consistent run of form,” Blues fan Gab Sutton says. “I remember watching his debut impact at Bristol City from the bench. He came on when it was goalless and changed that game, we won 1-0 through a Harlee Dean header. We thought we had someone special.
“After that game, though, Halilovic seemed to struggle for opportunities under Aitor Karanka and possibly suffered from the defensive style of play his boss employed.”
Halilovic decided not to stay at St. Andrew’s at the end of last season, taking the summer to assess his options before joining Reading at the end of August. A player who was once touted as a global superstar now has a very different reputation - as an underwhelming journeyman. Speaking at the start of August, the 25-year-old claimed he had offers to go back to Croatia or even move to Dubai and China, but that he liked playing in England - an attitude he reaffirmed in his first interview as a Reading player.
Croatia reached the World Cup final in 2018, but Halilovic was not even in the 23-man squad. It would have seemed impossible four years earlier that the country’s greatest-ever performance in a major tournament would have been achieved without one of their greatest-ever prospects.
Halilovic has made just one appearance for his nation in the last five years - a half-hour cameo in a friendly against Tunisia in 2019 - and seems unlikely to add to his 10 caps any time soon.
“It is tough to say whether he’ll ever play for Croatia again,” says Kostanjšak. “It depends on so many factors. As a player, he’s not such hot property anymore and it’s obvious his talent is not as limitless as people - and he himself - were led to believe.
“It also depends on the manager. We don’t know who takes over after Zlatko Dalić and what kind of a coach we’ll have in the near future. On the other hand, Croatia are going through a big generational transition and could perhaps use someone like Halilović. If he regains some of his true self, that is. There’s a chance but a slim one for the time being.”
There are mixed feelings on Halilovic in his homeland. The talent he showed as a teenager will never be forgotten, and Croatians will always look out for him for that reason, but the notion of wasted potential is hard to ignore.
“Obviously there are some youngsters who thrive in the pressure of being compared with the best but for Halilović, it was the thing that ultimately destroyed him,” Kostanjšak says. “He never got the chance to be a kid. The thought of Messi was always on his mind. He was supposed to be a star right here and right now.
“For all the comparisons with Modric and Messi and despite the damage they have done to him, they were also not entirely unwarranted. Halilović is a player in such a mould, albeit not nearly on the same level. He’s got a low centre of gravity and good ball control. His vision used to be great and so was his passing - crisp and accurate.
“But those moments of magic come and go and sadly prove to be far too few and far between to be reliable and a true part of his player profile. At his best, I believe he’s still a good player, creative, technical and with an eye for goal, but unfortunately he’s rarely been at his best as of late.”
“No matter how good a youngster is, you don’t know how they cope which such comparisons to the best,” Nikolac adds. “Some can cope, some can’t. He couldn’t and it just ruined his career. Because when you don’t live up to the ‘Croatian Messi’ tag then you’re basically a nobody.
“I hope he does well at Reading, he really needs a string of good performances. I just hope his father doesn’t intervene with anything!”