Luka Modric is getting better with age. The Real Madrid midfielder recently featured in FIFPro’s team of the year at the gala for The Best and he finished third in this year’s Goal 50 vote, behind only Cristiano Ronaldo and Gianluigi Buffon. He really is that good.
The Croatia captain has helped Los Blancos to three Champions League titles over the past four seasons, since joining from Tottenham in the summer of 2012. Right now, he is probably the world’s best midfielder. However, the road to the top was not always smooth.
Modric was born on September 9, 1985, in the city of Zadar, but grew up with his family in the nearby village of Modrici. It is common in Croatia for villages to take the name of a family, but years later, Modric would make a name for himself far beyond his homeland. He was named after his grandfather Luka, who was killed as Serbian military troops took their village in December 1991. After that, Modric and his parents moved to Zadar, where they lived as refugees in Hotel Iz (where some fans wrote graffiti against Luka earlier this year, after he testified in court in a trial against Zdravko Mamic, in favour of the former Dinamo Zagreb director).
While Luka Modric’s family home now lies in ruins, the Croatia skipper rose to become one of the most popular footballers in his country. The burned-out shell of a remote cottage bears testimony to the trauma that Luka Modric lived through long before he became a Croatian national hero and Real Madrid star. Hidden in the folds of Velebit mountain, with the nearest neighbours several kilometres away, trees now grow inside the roofless ruin where Modric spent part of his childhood and a sign warns of “Mines – Keep out!” The player’s grandfather, also named Luka, lived in the house, lying on a mountain road winding through the Modrici hamlet.
Modric, born in 1985, spent his early years there and in the nearby village of Zaton Obrovacki until Croatia’s 1990s independence war broke out. His grandfather was killed by Serb forces, the house was burned and the family fled to the coastal town of Zadar, some 40 kilometres away. “I heard about a little hyperactive boy constantly playing with a football in the corridor of a refugee hotel, even going to sleep with it,” said Josip Bajlo, who was then the first-team coach at the First Division club NK Zadar, where Modric began to make a name for himself as a brilliant player.
As soon as Bajlo saw Modric play he signed him up for the club’s football school, where he immediately stood out. I heard about a little hyperactive boy constantly playing with a football in the corridor of a refugee hotel, even going to sleep with it. “He was an idol to his generation, a leader, a favourite. Already children saw in him then what we are all seeing in him now in football terms,” Bajlo told AFP.
The 1991-1995 war with Serb rebels, during which Zadar and the surrounding region were heavily shelled, toughened Modric, according to those close to him. “It happened a million times that we were going to training as the shells were falling, and we were running to shelters,” said childhood friend Marijan Buljat, who trained and played with Modric while growing up. The 36-year-old, himself a former professional player, remained close to Modric over the years and believes that such a hard background contributed to the Croatia captain’s character and mental strength. It happened a million times that we were going to training as the shells were falling, and we were running to shelters, “It is certainly one of the factors that contributed… that drove him to become one of the best in the world.”
Last October, Modric was named for the third time in the FIFA FIFPro team selected by thousands of professional players. In 2015, he became the first Croatian voted on to the FIFPro XI. His former club NK Zadar, now fallen on hard times in Croatia’s third division, have a history of finding talent — but Modric stands alone as a legend among fans. “Luka is for Zadar a football God,” said Slavko Strkalj, 66, a retired metal worker.
Modric left for Dinamo Zagreb in 2000 and then joined English Premier League club Tottenham Hotspur in 2008. After a bidding war he was snapped up by Real Madrid in 2012.
But his popularity in Croatia and his image as a modest family man was tarnished by his testimony last year during the multi-million- euro corruption trial of former Dinamo Zagreb chief Zdravko Mamic. Modric’s testimony supported Mamic’s case against allegations of corruption, angering many fans who saw the trial as a chance to clean up the corruption-ridden sport.
Prosecutors eventually charged Modric in March for giving false evidence, an offence that carries a penalty of up to five years in jail. But the indictment has yet to be approved by a court and the player is currently not threatened with arrest. Anger among fans over the case lifted swiftly it seemed after Modric’s brilliant performance in qualifying for the World Cup.