When Croatia came as runners-up at the 2018 FIFA World Cup, the football-mad country had something to celebrate. The loss in the final against France did not matter very much, as the players were hailed as true heroes, their performance praised, with the streets in cities like Zagreb and Split filled by fans who only wanted to celebrate the performance of a national team established in 1994.
But in the latter city, a pearl of the Adriatic coast, a player vowed to try and secure his place in the team four years later, at Qatar 2022. A local hero, born and bred in Split, who travelled across the world, but came back to his boyhood club, Hajduk, in 2021 and promised himself he will never miss another final tournament.
And there he was, on the pitch of the Al Bayt Stadium in Al Khor, making his debut at the World Cup, when he replaced Andrej Kramaric in the 71st minute of the draw against Morocco, 0-0, in the group phase at Qatar 2022.
The whole city of Split was surely watching the match with a high pulse, but when Livaja entered the pitch, it was definitely a surreal moment, the idol, the maverick, the guy who embodies the spirit of the city representing the team on the biggest of stages.
But how did Livaja get here? Well, brace yourself, because the story is exactly one that really embodies the true colours, the passion and the unexpected breaks that make football the greatest sport on Earth.
Livaja became one of the idols at Hajduk when he was only 14 years old, after starring in some domestic tournaments, three-on-three football matches, played on concrete grounds, with tall posts and a short crossbar, which really emphasises the technique of the players.
Shoot hard and you’ll miss. Become better, refine your technique, dribble your opponents and you will become king. This is exactly what Livaja did, beating teams that featured Ivan Rakitic or Ivan Perisic, true stars of Croatian football, in front of tens of thousands of fans, who love these kind of tournaments.
But when Internazionale Milano comes knocking, it is virtually impossible to say no. Especially for a boy aged 16, as Livaja was, when the Italian giants saw his potential and asked Hajduk for a transfer. Yet the Croatian star, a superhero in his country, was one of the many players that come to fulfil their dream as youngsters at Inter or any other European powerhouse.
Despite his innate talent and amazing technique, Livaja could never break into Inter’s first team, with a plethora of teams following in his career. First, it was Switzerland’s Lugano, before coming back to Italy, where he featured for Cesena and Atalanta.
Teams in Russia, Spain and Greece, with some comebacks in Italy followed, with the Croatian striker featuring for nine teams in the past 11 years, never settling down and constantly on the move.
“It is difficult to say, but these moves helped me grow. It is not easy to settle down when you are always loaned and do not have any continuity. I had good times in my career, but maybe I would not make that move. I would probably have decided to stay one more year in Split to try and prove my worth, but not even the Hajduk offered me great possibilities back then,” said Livaja, reflecting on his career.
But when push came to shove, especially with Qatar 2022 in mind, Livaja took one of the boldest decisions in his career in 2021, returning to Hajduk, exactly when he was entering his prime.
His excellent games, with 52 goals in 78 matches not only made Hajduk one of the teams to beat Croatia once again but really put Livaja on the map for Croatia’s national coach, Zlatko Dalic.
Yet Livaja’s world was rocked once again just three months before the start of Qatar 2022, when his father, Milan, died in a traffic accident, falling from his motorcycle. It was something that could have broken Croatia’s striker, but he picked himself back up and tried to deliver his dream, in the memory of his father.
“Every four years, the World Cup is there and I hope I won’t wait for 2026 for something. Right now I’m playing the best football of my career, but who knows, maybe in four years I’ll be even better,” said Livaja before Zlatko Dalic announced the names of Croatia’s players who were going to travel for Qatar 2022.
Indeed, Livaja was there and fate just turned to him smiling once again. After so many hardships and missed chances, the time was his. From the concrete pitches in Split and in the memory of his father, Livaja not only travelled to Qatar, but also made his debut at the FIFA World Cup. A story worth telling and with a happy ending for now.