Soc­cer’s golden boy Luka Mo­drić

Soc­cer ace Luka Mo­dric has come a long way, from war-torn Croa­tia, to claim his spot as the best of the best in the game


HE grew up a refugee in his own coun­try, kick­ing a ball around aban­doned park­ing lots as the sound of gun­fire echoed around the sur­round­ing hills. Foot­ball was Luka Mo­dric’s es­cape dur­ing his boy­hood in war-rav­aged Croa­tia – and it’s rock­eted him to global star­dom.

De­spite once be­ing deemed too small to make it in the game he so loved, the 33-year-old Real Madrid mid­fielder has done the seem­ingly im­pos­si­ble: pushed Cris­tiano Ron­aldo and Lionel Messi off the pedestal they’d oc­cu­pied for 10 years.

For the first time in a decade a new guy has scooped the Fifa Best Men’s Player award, herald­ing a new era of su­per­stars in the beau­ti­ful game.

But Mo­dric was mod­est in the face of tri­umph. “This award isn’t just mine,” the scrag­gly haired Croa­tia cap­tain said in heav­ily ac­cented English.

“It’s for my team­mates from Real Madrid and Croa­tia. With­out my coaches, I wouldn’t have won this and with­out my fam­ily I wouldn’t be the player I am to­day.”

The Fifa hon­our is the lat­est in a string of awards for Mo­dric, who re­cently took home the Uefa Men’s Player of the Year award and the Fifa World Cup’s Golden Ball af­ter his team was beaten by France in the fi­nal.

Not bad for the frag­ile grand­son of a goat herder whose world was torn apart when war de­scended on his vil­lage.

MO­DRIC was just six years old when his grand­fa­ther, Luka Mo­dric Snr, walked his goats up an aban­doned street in the town of Mo­drici and was mur­dered by in­vad­ing Ser­bian sol­diers. The fam­ily home was burnt to the ground and lit­tle Mo­dric, his par­ents Stipe and Rado­jka and sis­ter Jas­mina fled to the town of Zadar.

They found refuge at a ho­tel of­fer­ing shel­ter to Croa­t­ians dis­placed by the war in the Balkans, but his grand­fa­ther’s death hit Mo­dric hard. Luka Snr had taken care of him while his par­ents worked long hours in a knitwear fac­tory and Mo­dric helped his grand­dad take care of his goats.

Ripped from his home, griev­ing his grand­fa­ther and bat­tling to ad­just to his

new sur­round­ings, Mo­dric was mis­er­able. The ho­tel was over­crowded, had no water or elec­tric­ity and the sound of gre­nades and gun­fire was a con­stant back­drop. “Th­ese were re­ally hard times,” Mo­dric said in an in­ter­view with Bri­tain’s The Sun news­pa­per. “I re­mem­ber them vividly.”

But the war made him stronger, he added. “It was a very hard time for me and my fam­ily and although I don’t want to drag that with me for­ever, I don’t want to for­get about it ei­ther.”

His es­cape from the daily hard­ships was to play foot­ball on a makeshift pitch on the ho­tel’s park­ing lot – and Josip Ba­jlo, chair­man of Mo­dric’s boy­hood club NK Zadar, re­calls the boy’s dogged de­ter­mi­na­tion and singe-minded passion.

“He was skinny and re­ally small for his age, but you could see right away that he had that some­thing spe­cial in him,” he says. “How­ever, none of us could’ve dreamt that one day he’d grow to be­come the player he is now.”

Mo­dric’s size was a con­stant draw­back. As a teen he was re­jected by Ha­j­duk Split, a club he’d sup­ported as a kid, be­cause he was “too small and frag­ile”, The Guardian re­ported.

Even­tu­ally Tomis­lav Baši´c, one of Mo­dric’s early coaches at NK Zadar, called in a few favours and got the then-15-year-old Mo­dric a spot at Ha­j­duk’s bit­ter ri­vals, Di­namo Za­greb. Af­ter one season with their youth side Mo­dric was sent on loan to Zrin­jski Mostar in the Premier League of Bos­nia and Herze­gov­ina, and then to Croa­t­ian side In­ter Zaprešic.´

It was dur­ing th­ese two sea­sons that he re­ally be­gan to shine and he was of­fered a 10-year con­tract with Di­namo upon his re­turn. With his earn­ings, Mo­dric was able to buy his fam­ily a flat.

Af­ter a four-year stint with Di­namo, the big leagues came knock­ing. Mo­dric was courted by Chelsea, Barcelona and Ar­se­nal but even­tu­ally signed with Lon­don side Tot­ten­ham Hot­spur in 2008. The mid­fielder went on to be­come Spurs’ se­cret weapon and had four siz­zling sea­sons at White Hart Lane.

In 2012, Real Madrid made Mo­dric – by then mar­ried to Croa­t­ian sweet­heart Vanja Bos­nic – an of­fer he couldn’t refuse. He signed a five-year deal with the Span­ish gi­ants in a £ 30 mil­lion (R556 mil­lion) trans­fer deal.

He had a slow start but he’s cer­tainly earned his keep with the pow­er­ful side.

“With Mo­dric pulling the strings in mid­field, Madrid be­came a bet­ter foot­ball team,” writes Ben Hay­wood of soc­cer web­site Goal. The diminu­tive magic-maker was de­scribed as the “cat­a­lyst” for three of Los Blan­cos’ Cham­pi­ons League ti­tles over the past four sea­sons.

Un­like many of his peers, Mo­dric seems con­tent to stay put in Madrid where he lives a quiet life with Vanja, their son Ivano (8) and daugh­ters Ema (5) and Sofia (1).

“I re­ally en­joy my life in Spain,” he said. “I want to stay here for as many years as pos­si­ble and, if it’s pos­si­ble, fin­ish my ca­reer here.

MO­DRIC prefers to keep his pri­vate life pri­vate – but this doesn’t mean he’s com­pletely scan­dal-free. Ear­lier this year he was called as a wit­ness in the em­bez­zle­ment and tax eva­sion trial of Zdravko Mamic, dubbed by sports chan­nel ESPN as Croa­t­ian foot­ball’s “Mr Big”.

Like many up-and-com­ing Croa­t­ian foot­ballers, Mo­dric signed a deal with Mamic – a Di­namo Za­greb ex­ec­u­tive and vice-pres­i­dent of the Croa­t­ian Foot­ball Fed­er­a­tion – dur­ing his Di­namo days.

Un­der the agree­ment, Mamic agreed to pro­vide fi­nan­cial sup­port for young play­ers in ex­change for their earn­ings later on. In Mo­dric’s case, this meant a whop­ping €8,5 mil­lion (R140 mil­lion) of his €10,5 mil­lion (R173 mil­lion) Tot­ten­ham trans­fer fee went to Mamic and his fam­ily in 2008. Mamic was ac­cused of insert­ing th­ese clauses into con­tracts only af­ter the play­ers had been sold, which Mo­dric was called on to at­test to in 2017. But on the stand, Mo­dric tes­ti­fied the clauses had al­ready been in place when he was bought by Spurs – which com­pletely con­tra­dicted what he’d said in ques­tion­ing in 2016.

As a re­sult he was charged with per­jury, for which he’s now await­ing a trial date. Liver­pool star De­jan Lovren is fac­ing the same charge as a re­sult of sim­i­lar con­tra­dic­tory tes­ti­mony dur­ing the Mamic trial. Both men could face up to five years be­hind bars if found guilty.

So what hap­pened to Mamic? Croa­tia’s so-called “pub­lic en­emy No 1” was found guilty and sen­tenced to six years in pri­son – which he ob­vi­ously has no in­ten­tion of serv­ing, hav­ing fled to Bos­nia and Herze­gov­ina be­fore the ver­dict had been an­nounced.


Luka Mo­dric dur­ing a La Liga game against Atletico Madrid at San­ti­ago Bern­abeu in Spain last month.

Mo­dric won best Fifa men’s player at the Fifa Foot­ball Awards in Lon­don. He was also named one of the Fifa FifPro World XI, a team of the world’s best soc­cer play­ers voted for by all pro­fes­sional male foot­ballers who be­long to the FifPro play­ers’ union. Luka with wife Vanja, their son Ivano (8) and daugh­ters Sofia (1) and Ema (5), af­ter Madrid’s Cham­pi­ons League win in May.

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