Softly spoken, slightly shy but football-crazy, Niko Kalinic has taken on the demands that come with being an Atlético player and says he's ready for the challenge.
Softly spoken and a little bit shy but Niko Kalinic could spend hours talking about football, a passion which is clearly close to his heart. In an interview with AS, he makes it clear that he is well aware of the demands that come with being an Atlético player but adds he's ready for the challenge.
What was your first impression of Spanish football and Atlético?
I'm really happy here, I'd never played in Spain before, I've played in England and Italy but came here filled with expectation and I'm totally focused on doing well with Atlético.
High technical level from top to bottom
What caught your attention the most?
The level of football played here. Every team plays well, everyone plays good football. It's not quite as defensive as in Italy, every team wants to win their games and do so playing well.
How did you react when you heard Atlético were keen on signing you?
Well, I'm sure you can imagine... when one of the biggest clubs in Europe calls you, a club that is constantly battling to win major silverware, and which has spent years playing at the highest level, there wasn't very much that I needed to think about…
Was it Simeone who called you?
Yes, we spoke. He told me that he would really like me in his team, that Atleti would be playing a lot of matches and that there would be opportunities for everyone. His phone call made my day. When you come to a club like this, you know how difficult it is to break into the team.
Fierce competition for places
Some might consider it risky business for a striker at a club like Atlético with players like Diego Costa and Griezmann in the squad…
When you sign for a big club like this, you know that you are not going to play every game. You know that they have some of the best players around, like Costa and Griezmann both are. I've seen them playing and I know what they are capable of. I don't know when I will get to play, no one knows, but I will make the most of every opportunity I'm given. The way I see it, whether Simeone gives me one minute or 90, I have to give my very best for Atlético.
Did Vrsaljko and Mandzukic give you any advice about Atlético?
They told that it's a very good club, but not just for the players they have. They told me all about the atmosphere at games and the fans - which is another big plus in the club's favour. They also told me that everyone here is very down-to-earth and approachable as well as warning me that we are expected to work extremely hard. Training is tough, every day. But that's something which motivates me.
Gruelling workouts at El Cerro
Did they also warn you about El Profe?
(Laughs). Yes they did. But I'm ready for the demands.
Out on the pitch, what does Simeone expect from you exactly? Not just goals I imagine…
The same as he asks from the other strikers - first and foremost is working hard to help the team. After that, to try and create spaces for other players to run into. Here at Atleti, they don't just expect you to think only about goals and nothing else. It's a more collective thing than that - much more than in the other teams I've played for, I'd say. The team always comes first, if the team is ok, you feel ok - that is what they keep drumming into you. It's not about the number of goals you score. I try to lose my marker or draw him wide, give my team mates options to make decisive passes, I enjoy being involved in moves.
We saw you doing that in the Betis game - the first game you have started. You seemed very involved and came close to scoring...
I was happy with how it all worked out. I was pleased that we won and for the support that I felt from everyone. It was a very important game for me, for my self-confidence. The goals will come later. It was crucial that we beat Betis, who have been looking strong. They are another good example of what Spanish football are all about - they're a great side and came to our ground to give us a game. Or just look at what Eibar have done! Here, every team you face tries to play well, people like that. It's very interesting...
Ok, time to commit one way or the other - who would you give the Ballon d'Or to: Modric or Griezmann?
I can't answer that. They are both great players. It's a decision for others to take. For me, they are two of the best players around.
You started out with Hadjuk Split then moved abroad to England when you were still only 20 years old. That must have been tough for you…
Yes, I was still practically a teenager, and I didn't know the language. I moved to England to play for Blackburn but I really struggled to adapt to that kind of football - you have to be constantly battling - fighting just to survive and with your eyes looking upwards all the time to follow the ball. That kind of football isn't for me. English football is more physical. I was up against great defences like Man United's with Vidic and Ferdinand - sometimes I didn't even get to touch the ball. We learned a lot there, for my family and me it was positive in terms of life experience but the football was so tough. After that, I had a positive experience playing in Ukraine with Dnipro. Juande Ramos taught me a lot - that was very enriching for me. Him and Marcos Álvarez, the fitness trainer who is now at Betis really helped me a lot. I played and scored in the Europa League final against Sevilla. Then Paulo Sousa appeared in my career and took me to Florence. That was amazing, they hardly knew me but little by little I started making my mark in a great league like Serie A. We played well under Paulo Sousa, I was scoring goals, it was a great time for me before moving to Milan.
Despite the expectations, it didn't really work out. Why was that?
It was difficult for me. I didn't do the pre-season with the squad. I had been training on my own in Split waiting for the transfer to go through. I joined when the season had already started. After that I had a lot of fitness problems… Milan is a great club, they are used to winning and contesting trophies and they want instant results. There were 11 players in the squad who, like me, had only recently arrived… You need time to build something. I wish Milan the very best, they deserve to be battling to win the Champions League.
What's Gattuso like?
Phew, he's incredible. Away from football he's always joking, smiling, happy and relaxed. But once you're training or playing… He gives everything and he expects everyone to do the same. He really puts you under pressure. He's a bit mad, but in a good way. He's a great person and I think Milan will go far with him.
Who have been the toughest defenders you have faced?
I've already mentioned Vidic and Ferdinand, and alongside them I'd add Terry, Chiellini and Bonucci.
Cristiano seems to be doing well in Italy...
I was never in any doubt he'd do well there, someone like him will never have any problems. He's a top player. He scored in England, he scored in Spain, so it's obvious he'll keep scoring in Italy…
As two football fanatics, who watches the most matches on television - you or Simeone?
I don't know. I watch a lot of games, lots, I've always been like that. If you knocked on my door, I'd probably be watching a game of football. I drive my family up the wall. If my mother-in-law or sister-in-law come over, they'll grab my wife and son and go out for a walk. I'll be left on my own and you can guess what happens next, TV is turned on and more football… I could watch football all day long. I'm mad about it (laughs).
Have you learned how to say 'Take each game as it comes' in Spanish yet?
(Laughs). Yes, but football has always been like that. You can't look any further than your next game. If you start looking two games ahead, you're just making trouble for yourself. All we are thinking about is Villarreal, it would be a mistake to be thinking about Borussia.