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Revisiting the Rumor: Mateo Kovačić and The Loan That Never Happened

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Mateo Kovačić was nearly a Roma player more times than we care to remember, and he's first up in a new series where we revisit failed transfers of the past.

Crystal Palace v Chelsea - Premier League Photo by Sebastian Frej/MB Media/Getty Images

Covering transfer rumors is a bit like working in a slaughterhouse. It's ugly, grimy, disgusting, and, depending on one's views, completely unethical and utterly inhumane. But with millions of mouths to feed, the transfer rumor mill isn't likely to cease operations anytime soon. Chiesa di Totti has existed in one form or another for almost 15 years now (our official 10th anniversary as CdT is next year!), and in that decade and a half, we've sifted through countless rumors.

So many, in fact, that’s it's almost impossible to catalog and categorize them. From rumors that make financial and tactical sense to complete flights of fancy, our transfer coverage has run the gamut. With the sport still facing enormous pandemic-induced uncertainty, and with this summer's rumor mill sputtering along thanks to Euro 2020 soaking up all the attention, I thought it might be interesting to look back at some bygone rumors and pick them apart: Who sourced them? Did they make sense? Why didn't the transfer go through? What's happened to the player since then?

There is certainly no shortage of candidates for this slice of revisionist history, but we're going to start with a player we've been discussing since at least 2015: Chelsea midfielder Mateo Kovačić.

The Player

NK Dinamo Zagreb v HNK Cibalia - Croatian Prva HNL Photo by Damir Sencar/EuroFootball/Getty Images

Like most footballing prodigies, Kovačić began his career before losing all his baby teeth, joining LASK Linz's youth academy in only 2000.. when he was only six-years-old. After learning the ropes as a child, Kovačić had offers from Inter Milan, Bayern Munich, Juventus, and Ajax but opted to sign with Dinamo Zagreb in his native Croatia, linking up with their youth academy in 2007 before making his senior-level debut in 2010 as a 16-year-old.

Kovačić would spend three years honing his craft with Zagreb before making an €11 million move to Inter Milan in January 2013, where he played for three seasons, compiling five goals and 10 assists in all competitions. Capable of playing a variety of midfield roles, Kovačić soon drew the interest of Real Madrid, who were more than happy to take advantage of Inter's FFP woes in the summer of 2015, nabbing the then 21-year-old for a reported €38 million when all was said and done.

Moving to Real Madrid is a daunting proposition for any young player, but Kovačić availed himself quite well during his first year in the Spanish capital, rattling off 34 appearances for Rafa Benitez in the 2015-2016 season. Those 34 appearances (all comps) seemed impressive on the surface, but they amounted to little more than 1,300 actual minutes on the pitch.

With stars like Luka Modric, Isco, James Rodriguez, and Toni Kroos ahead of him on the depth charts, Kovačić's future in Madrid seemed iffy, leading us to...

The Rumor

2016-17 La Liga - Real Madrid vs Las Palmas Photo by Power Sport Images/Getty Images

With his path to significant minutes blocked by his countryman Luka Modric, among others, Real Madrid had three choices: let him waste away on the bench, find a short-term loan and let him develop for a year, or cut their losses and sell him outright.

All of this brings us to June 15, 2016; a late spring day on which the Gazzetta dello Sport teased us with the prospect of Kovačić moving to Roma to replace the recently departed Miralem Pjanic. According to the Gazzetta's reporting that day, Kovačić was inches away from arriving in Rome on a one-year loan deal, with the Giallorossi holding a €25 million option to make the deal permanent, though Madrid would have retained buy-back rights in the event Roma were to sell Kovačić at a later date.

From our report that day:

This report has been picked up and/or corroborated by several other sources, both in Italy and abroad, but the framework of this speculated deal seems like an initial one-year loan with a rumored €25 million buy out. So, considering what Real paid for him just a year ago, we can safely assume the loan fee is at least €4 million, and considering his age and reputation, we can also safely assume Real will insert a buy back clause into this deal.

Pretty safe bet on Real’s part. They find a place for Kovacic to play and, at the very worst, they should be able to recoup the cost and if Kovacic comes good in Roma, then they’ve got the right of first refusal at an already agreed upon price. For Roma the benefit is simple; Kovacic is a salaciously talented player, one who is almost a carbon copy of Pjanic, albeit a far less polished copy.

Despite his lack of experience, the book on Kovacic has always been filled with effusive praise: for his touch, his dribbling ability and versatility. Kovacic can and has played virtually every midfield role and is as comfortable sitting deep as he is linking up with the strikers.

Having just lost Pjanic to Juventus two days prior, this rumor was music to our ears. With a rumored €25 million buy-out and Real holding buyback and/or first refusal rights, the terms of this rumored deal may have been a bit convoluted, but Kovačić was worth the risk. If he hit the ground running and excelled under Luciano Spalletti's tutelage, €25 million would have been a small price to pay a midfielder as talented, as young, and as dynamic as Kovačić.

What Actually Happened?

Real Madrid v Leganes - Copa del Rey, Quarter Final Second Leg Photo by Power Sport Images/Getty Images

Well, rather than finding a temporary home for Kovačić, Real Madrid decided to hang onto the then 22-year-old midfielder. Instead of patrolling the Stadio Olimpico pitch alongside Daniele De Rossi, Kovačić turned in arguably the finest of his three seasons at the Bernabeau, scoring one goal and providing three assists in 27 La Liga appearances. Although, again, that number is somewhat deceiving as he only spent approximately 1,600 minutes on the pitch for Real during the 2016-2017 season, who were now managed by the legendary Zinedine Zidane.

Despite that promising performance, Kovačić slipped even further down Zizou's pecking order the following year, logging only 994 La Liga minutes during the 2017-2018 season, leading to further speculation about his future with the club. (He did have a fairly significant knee injury this year, to be fair).

Speaking to Spanish outlet Marca that summer, Kovačić didn't pull any punches:

I think that in Real Madrid all the players are important, the problem is that for a young player it is difficult to have continuity and without that continuity I will never be able to show my potential, when I do not play, I am not happy. these three years in Madrid, with some incredible teammates, winning trophies ... But I have not been completely happy because my contribution to all that has not been the maximum and it’s something I want to change.

I’ve been in Madrid for three years and I have not played too much and that’s something that has affected my status in the national team. It’s something that does not make me happy, that’s why it’s best to change teams, Real Madrid is an extraordinary team full of great players and maybe now I’m too young to contribute one hundred percent.

Source: Marca

Naturally, this put a host of teams on notice that summer, including Roma, who were quickly linked with yet another ill-fated Kovačić transfer. Rather than taking Kovačić on a ramshackle loan, Roma had a bit more leverage this time around. With Los Blancos reportedly keen on taking Alisson Becker off Roma's hands, Monchi was poised to land Kovačić while still landing a handsome sum for Roma's handsome keeper.

This deal made an incredible amount of sense, so much so that we couldn't help but fill in the blanks for Monchi:

Now, given Madrid’s Alisson obsession and the fact that they’re loathe to pay €75 to €80 million for him, could Monchi swing a €35 to €40 million + Kovacic deal for Alisson...

In all honesty, this deal makes too much sense not too happen. Roma get’s a stud and direct replacement for Radja Nainggolan, while also pocketing €30 to €40 million in cash, which they can then flip on Alex Meret or Alphonse Areola or even a defender should Manolas leave, Alisson gets his Madrid wish and Kovacic gets the opportunity to become a star.

As Michael Scott would say, this is a win-win-win.

Unfortunately, our best-laid plans were quickly obliterated. Kovačić would still get his wish, though, moving to Chelsea on a one-year loan in August of 2018 in a deal that eventually poured €45 million into Madrid’s coffers.

Where Is He Now and What Might Have Been?

Manchester City v Chelsea FC - UEFA Champions League Final Photo by Chris Lee - Chelsea FC/Chelsea FC via Getty Images

Kovačić still hasn't become a regular 90 minute per week player, but with 90 Premiership appearances over the past three seasons, he's become a valuable part of Chelsea's midfield, plying his trade under managers as varied as Maurizio Sarri, Frank Lampard, and Thomas Tuchel. He hasn't developed into the world-conquering midfielder many envisioned a decade ago, but he's become a passing machine at Stamford bridge, and at only 26-years-old, he still has a long career ahead of him.

Still, it's hard not to wonder what might have been. Whether he arrived in Roma in 2016 or in 2018, Kovačić would have the ideal replacement for Pjanic and would have provided a boost to a midfield that featured an aging Daniele De Rossi, the oft-injured Kevin Strootman, and the combustible Radja Nainggolan.

With Kovačić sitting in the middle of the park, perhaps Roma would have passed on signing disappointments like Gerson, Clement Grenier, or Ante Coric, while his presence would have given the club more leeway with players like Bryan Cristante, Javier Pastore, and even Lorenzo Pellegrini.

If you operate by the maxim that you can never have enough midfielders, Kovačić and his bag of skills would have been a tremendous addition to Roma's roster, giving the club more flexibility on the pitch and the transfer market.

Signed through 2024, Kovačić's feature figures to remain rooted in London, but you know how it goes with these super clubs: they can never leave well enough alone, so don't be shocked if his Elvis-like grin graces our cover page again.