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Alen Halilović: Croatia’s Forgotten Wonderkid

Football fans love to watch young players bursting onto the scene. With their whole careers still ahead of them, these precocious teenage talents seem to have the world at their feet, but for every success story, there are plenty of players who fail to live up to their early potential. For every Kylian Mbappé, there’s an Alen Halilović.

Born in the seaport city of Dubrovnik in 1996, Halilović demonstrated innate footballing abilities from an early age and was swiftly snapped up by Dinamo Zagreb. He made his senior debut for the side at the age of 16 and broke multiple records, becoming the club’s youngest debutant and the Croatian league’s youngest goalscorer.

He also made a Champions League appearance that same year, as well as earning his first cap for the Croatian national team. It was a whirlwind year for the teenage playmaker, and it didn’t take long for Halilović to catch the eye of Europe’s big boys. Smartly, he stuck around for another season with Dinamo and played very well, scoring 6 goals in 41 appearances.

Linked again with a bunch of high-profile clubs, Halilović agreed on a move to Spanish giants Barcelona. Nobody was expecting the young Croatian to dive straight into the first eleven, but it was believed that a season or two as part of the Barcelona B side would work wonders, with Barcelona’s world class coaches set to guide Halilović along a seemingly predestined path to becoming the next big thing.

Sadly, it didn’t quite work out like that. Halilović did play a full season with Barcelona B, scoring 4 times in 30 games, and even made a single, solitary appearance for the senior side, but he wasn’t progressing the way he had been expected to. The impatient, controlling attitude of his father, Sejad Halilović, wasn’t helping matters, ultimately resulting in a loan to Sporting Gijón.

It was at Gijón that Halilović started to get back on track and play some of the finest football of his career so far. His silky dribbling skills and tireless work rate were on display for all to see as he helped the side battle against relegation, earning a lot of love from the fans and finishing the year with five goals and five assists across all competitions.

Unfortunately, these exploits proved to be something of a false dawn for the diminutive midfielder. Barcelona weren’t interested in giving him a shot and happily signed off on a €5.5 million doomed move to Hamburger SV. Halilović actually scored on his debut in Germany but fell out of favour after that, returning to Spain on loan with Las Palmas. He showed a few glimpses of greatness once more but struggled to consistently put together good performances, scoring twice in 39 games.

And so we come to the latest and perhaps most surprising move of Alen Halilović’s career so far: signed as a free transfer by AC Milan in the summer of 2018. He’s only played a few minutes for the club so far, and pessimists would have to argue that the 22-year-old might have made another error in joining such a big club with so much competition for places.

Halilović’s story mirrors that of another teenage sensation who slipped off the radar: Martin Odegaard. The pair both broke records and made huge moves at very young ages, but failed to follow up on their early promise and now find themselves trying to piece together careers damaged by bad decisions.

Like Odegaard, Halilović is still young and has time to turn it around, but needs to start playing high level football on a recurring basis and may end up needing yet another loan move to do so. His story should serve as a lesson to other young players out there; it’s important to aim high, but moving too far, too fast, rarely results in a happy ending.

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