Barcelona’s Ivan Rakitic talks playing future, Neymar rumors, World Cup run with Croatia, how to defend Messi and more

MIAMI — Ivan Rakitic is used to continuity. He’s only played for four different clubs since turning pro in 2005 and is entering his sixth season at Barcelona, his longest spell at any club. He knows how hard it is to stay with one team for so long, which is why this offseason has been a bit difficult with all the transfer speculation.

Rakitic sat down with CBS Sports for a one-on-one interview before Wednesday’s friendly match between Barcelona and Napoli at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami to talk about the his playing future, the summer additions, playing against Messi, Croatia’s improbable World Cup final run and much more.

The following Q&A is lightly edited for clarity and flow.

Not as an eventful of a summer as the last one? What’s it like to have a calmer summer this time around?

It’s different. It’s something new for us, but you have more time to enjoy it with your family. You’re always happy to start playing again. We’ve had a good preseason and we’re happy to be back here in Miami.

Can you take us back to the previous summer and share some memorable memories from that run in Russia?

It was a lot.

It probably all felt like a blur, right?

It’s really difficult to explain this World Cup for us. We never expected to be there. No one expected us to be there. So it was really special for us. We enjoyed it a lot. I think after some time after the World Cup, we realized we accomplished the hardest part of the World Cup, which is not to become world champions, but to have the rest of the world fall in love with you. I’m sure in the last game against France we had people from all over the world with us. This is what made it special for all of us.

Is that something that you’ll never forget?

It was really special to be in Croatia with 4.5 million people in this big final, and to do it in that way was incredible.

What was it like when you returned to Croatia to receive a hero’s welcome? 

When we arrived, they told us that it would take 1 1/2 hours to get to the place where the fans were waiting for us. It wasn’t 1 1/2 hours; it wound up being seven hours because everything was full. I’m sure people told us that there were between 500,000-600,000 people at the parade, but I’m for sure it was more. 

The most emotional part was seeing the people crying, which was amazing. I saw all these people thank me for doing this for Croatia because they lost all these lovely people during the war and everything just so they can be in our country. To make them so proud was just amazing.

Do you every once and a while bring up that Argentina game to Lionel Messi?

First of all, it’s an honor to play against Leo. Doesn’t matter if it’s Argentina or with Barca. For us, it was the second game and it was really important because we had a difficult game against Nigeria and the second game would determine our path to the group. I told the other guys before the game that we need to enjoy the moment. Of course, we are playing against Leo, for me the biggest player in the history of football, but we have to enjoy and try to make sure he doesn’t enjoy the game. Because if he’s in an especially good mood, it’ll be really hard to play against him.

And I’m sure you helped tactically somehow.

The day before the game, we spoke after dinner for maybe half-an-hour on what we had to do. The most important thing for me was to speak to [Marcelo] Brosovic and Luka [Modric], who knows how to play against Messi, like me. If Leo is not enjoying the game, he starts to go back to receive the ball. For us the most important part was that when he received the ball, we had eight or nine players standing in his way. It’s difficult for him to start building the attack from 40 or 50 meters to the goal as opposed to a small area. We made sure to push him back and do this work together.

Messi spoke to the fans before the Joan Gamper match to address what happened last season. Obviously, last season didn’t go the way you’d like. What do you think went wrong in that Liverpool match and what do you think your team has learned from it?

Hopefully we can learn a lot. Sometimes football isn’t so easy, you know. I’m also sure the players from Liverpool didn’t expect [that outcome]. It was really hard for us because I think we were really close and we had a great season. After this game, it was like we had a bad season.

I think that it’s difficult to explain what happened. It’s football, so anything can happen. The small details were on Liverpool’s side. We had a good first 50 minutes and created a lot of chances to score, but the ball didn’t get in, and for Liverpool it felt like everything they did resulted in a goal. It was one of the hardest parts of my career for sure.

You were fortunate enough to win the treble with Barcelona in 2015. How hard was it to achieve something like that?

I think the most important thing is that when you start to win games, things start to feel normal. During the season, it’s normal to have bad or not-so-good games. It’s normal. It’s important to win on the days where you are not playing so good. When the big games come, you will be really strong for it and the other teams will respect you a lot.

Do you think this squad right now has what it takes to get there?

For sure we’ll be stronger this season. It will be really hard again because the other teams were really good this summer. First of all, we have to think about what we have to do, which is to make sure we win the big games to build enough confidence to get all those titles. 

Barcelona made a bunch of signings this summer, most notably the additions of Antoine Griezmann and Frenkie de Jong, did you play any part in helping them make that decision?

I think these guys didn’t need it. First of all they had to decide — it was a decision they had to make — but I think it was really clear to them to be with us here. With all my respect to other clubs, Barcelona is the biggest club in all of the world. We’re going to enjoy it and have a big season with them.

What’s the first thing that you noticed from those two when they joined you on the practice field?

You can see they have a lot of quality. They will bring us a step forward. It’s also important for them to know that the other guys have a lot of confidence in them.

Have you helped them in any way to get used to everything?

Of course. In the dressing room, you have to make them feel comfortable, like they are at home. The guys are really welcoming, and they can feel it. You can see that they are really happy. And this is the part where we have to be a big family.

What about someone like Neymar? I know you’re good friends with him on social media. Do you think there will be a day where he will wear the Barcelona shirt again in the future?

I don’t know. For me, first of all, I would like to have Neymar every time on my team — it doesn’t matter if it’s at Barcelona or wherever. Guys always want to have a player like Neymar on the team, not only because of the quality of the pitch but because he’s a quality person. He’s a funny guy, and really open. If it’s possible to have him here, hopefully we say yes. If he leaves Paris, finally, I hope he will join us, but it’s a decision that Neymar and the other team has to make. But, if he plans to move, I hope that he joins us.

You’ve been in Barcelona since 2014, longer than any other club you have played for. How would you describe your time at Barcelona?

I think it’s been amazing. On my first day when I arrived, I was in the same dressing dressing room as Xavi, I learned a lot from people like Leo, [Javier] Mascherano and Dani Alves. It was really important for me. I’m really happy and proud to be part of this club, and I don’t want to stop here, so hopefully there are more things to come.

Is there one player where you maybe learned more than the others in the early years?

For me, the most important guy was Andres Iniesta — not only because of his quality and what he does on the pitch, but because out of the pitch he was and is today one of the biggest friends I have in this world of football. 

Do you guys stay in contact a lot and give each other advice?

Yeah, we speak a lot. Also, our families are really close. I’m really happy and proud to say that he’s a lifelong friend of mine.

You’ve obviously played in Switzerland, Germany and Spain, and in a perfect world you’d want to stay at Barcelona for the rest of your career. Is there another league that you have thought about playing for down the road?

I don’t know if it’s possible to stay until the last day at Barcelona. I think it’s quite hard.

Right, I know. That’s why I said in a perfect world. Everyone would love to do that, but it’s really hard to do.

It’s really hard. I’m really happy, too. I think the best league for me is the Spanish league. Of course, I like a lot the Premier League and also Serie A. The best part for me is to live everyday with my family in Spain and enjoy my life as a football player.

Miami will have a team here soon. They’re about to start playing. Would you ever consider playing in America one day?

So just give my phone number to David Beckham and he can call me. No, but of course, one year is a possibility. It would be very special for me to be in the MLS (one day.)

How much do you think the game is growing here in the United States?

The most important thing I took from the people I spoke with is that every year they have taken it to the next level. It’s not about just having 20,000-30,000 people at every game, but it’s more about growing the level on the pitch higher and higher. I can understand that between the NBA, NHL and baseball that it’s hard to grow the game here. I think it’s important that you can analyze the situation today and compare it to seven or eight years ago and notice that it’s a different level of game being played in the MLS.

Is there any American sport you enjoy watching?

I love the NBA. I also like to see some games in the NHL and baseball, also.

Do you have a favorite team for those sports?

I’m really happy that now there are some big basketball players from Croatia. I think I’ll be a big fan of the Clippers, and also Portland. Hopefully those Croatian guys we can do well.

You’ve scored plenty of great goals over your career. Is there one that is your favorite to come to mind.

I’ve been lucky to score some special goals. I think the one against Tottenham was not bad. 

Also for me, maybe the most special goal was my first professional goal I scored with FC Basel in Switzerland and I won the prize for best goal of the season. Maybe this one you can look on YouTube.

I was going to bring up the first goal you scored for Barcelona against Real Madrid. Not many people can say they scored against their rival. What’s it like to score a goal like that?

I think it’s the biggest game in the world. Everyone is waiting to see the Clasico. To be part of this game is amazing, and then to help your team with a goal like I have been able to in the last few years makes me feel really proud.

No other rivalry in the world better than this, right? Is there anything that comes close?

It’s different when it comes to expectations around the stadium. I think the people I know as me for some tickets, but for this game it’s better to leave your phone at home because it’s nonstop.

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