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.