The making of Luka Modrić from war-torn Croatia to the world’s best midfielder

The making of Luka Modrić from war-torn Croatia to the world’s best midfielder

Pinned to the floor with the nearby bed serving as their canopy of preservation, a family besieged by war would sometimes sit for hours. Miles away, mortars would be shot in their direction indiscriminately, fortunately whizzing past before making the earth tremble in their wake. Thousands of grenades, fired from the surrounding hills, would rain down on the parking lot that masqueraded as a training pitch in front of their hotel. When the outside commotion ceased to exist, little Luka Modrić would crack a modestly shy smile, pick up his football and make the long and frightful journey outside.

As the door creakily swung open, smoke would billow to the sky, casting an eerie cloud disguised as a silhouette of war. Craters littered the grey, bombed-out pavement, turning the pristine and sun-soaked port city into something that more closely resembled the moon. Doing his best to dance around the destruction, the six-year-old Modrić instead chose to cultivate beauty. 

With each subtle dribble and feathery touch, the reality of his dark and precarious world would slowly drift away into the abyss. Goals would be scored and joy would reign supreme. In those moments he was free and innocent; a mindstate that all children should be afforded, but far too many are robbed of.

Born in 1985 in the rural settlement of Modrici, a tiny suburb on the slopes of the Velebit Mountains, Luka Modrić’s childhood was anything but traditional. As the oldest child of his father Stipe and mother Radojka – whose days consisted of brutal work schedules spent in the nearby knitwear factory – Luka was left to be supervised and nurtured by his grandfather, affectionately known as Luka Sr. Through all of the time spent together, the bond between the two would grow so strong that many would come to view the pair as inseparable entities.

Outside the love-infested walls of the family home, a fragment of a nation had decided to pick up arms and fight for its independence. Known as the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia at the time, many Croats had grown tired of foreign rule and yearned for their own sovereign nation. At the same time, many ethnic Serbs living in Croatia opposed the secession and wanted Serb-claimed lands to be in a common state with Serbia. This source of contention slowly avalanched past ceasefires and bi-lateral agreements, subsequently placing the republic on the brink of an armed conflict.

As luck would have it, Luka’s home region would become one of the epicentres of the war and his father would be forced to join the Croatian military. Backed by the Yugoslav army and nationalist volunteers from Serbia, the local Serbian contingent would capture the surrounding area around Modrici in an effort to cut off communication and transport between the two parts of the country.

On 18 December 1991, Luka Sr. began his day like any other and climbed a nearby hill with his cattle. Before he would get the chance to rest his feet on the other side, Serbian rebels spotted and detained him. Along with six other elderly civilians, they were taken to the town of Jesenice and executed in cold blood. In the following weeks, landmines would be deposited around much of the town and death threats to the family practically became a daily occurrence. Left with little-to-no choice, Luka’s parents stuffed as many belongings into their luggage as they could, gathered the family and officially embarked on an uncharted and treacherous life as refugees.

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Finally settling in the city of Zadar, Luka and his family would find refuge in one of the city’s largest hotels, the Kolovare. Deep down, it is the hope of any refugee that the circumstances behind their new identification, while inescapable, are temporary. Although many tread down this path riddled with unknowns in ways they see fit, one trait that must remain consistent is patience. In stating that the Modrić family would need to practice this willingly would be an understatement to say the least.

The next seven years of their lives would be spent in those hotel rooms, and a decision that was once made solely to escape the threat of violence was proven to be fleeting. Due to its proximity to the sea, Zadar was now a target from not one, but two different fronts.

The city would fall under siege the following two years, often bringing the threat of death and destruction even closer to the doorstep. Despite this, Luka’s family were steadfast in their belief that their kids would not be robbed of their childhood. Friendships with the other children in the hotel were not only encouraged, but demanded. Although somewhat reluctant at times, Luka began to open up to his neighbours before eventually befriending a fellow Croat refugee, Marko Oštrić.

Hours would dissipate from the clock as the two would find themselves in a trance of football and friendship. Whether it was in the smouldering car park or the flickering lit hallways of the hotel, the two could hardly ever be found without a ball close to their feet. This love of the game and the subsequent skills birthed from it would become evident to anyone inclined to take a gander. A worker at Luka’s hotel took a keen interest in him, so much so that he picked up the phone and placed a call to Josip Bajlo, director of the local club, NZ Zadar.

Bajlo reciprocated the worker’s enthusiasm and took a ride to the hotel to get a look at this now mysterious seven-year-old. Despite the small sample afforded to him, Bajlo was impressed enough, offering Luka a chance to enrol in his primary school and sporting academy with the war now coming to an end. Funds were hard to come by for the family, but through the help of an uncle, Luka would begin his once unthinkable and obstacle-filled journey to footballing stardom.

Equipped with minimal athleticism and a body that could be blown to the ground by a strong breeze, Luka would have to make up for his deficiencies with his most precious gift – ball control. Even from a young age, observers would marvel at his smooth and precise touch. It was something not usually seen from such a novice, captivating the imaginations of his new coach Domagoj Bašić and the head of the youth academy, Tomislav Bašić. Modrić would come to describe the latter as his “sporting father”, for it was he whose belief in Luka would never waver.

Through steady progression and a safeguard from all of the chaos of the outside world, at the age of 12 Modrić would be invited for a trial with his boyhood idols. Growing up as a fervent supporter, Hajduk Split was an opportunity that mirrored his personal destiny. Unfortunately, the club did not echo the same enthusiasm, instead seeing a boy who was too small and fragile. Heartbroken, Luka gave a long and hard look at quitting the game of football, but again there was Tomislav Bašić, rebuilding his pupil’s self-belief and even going as far as to hire a personal trainer to improve his strength and fitness.

With puberty now coursing through his veins and a training regime beginning to deliver results, the country’s biggest club, Dinamo Zagreb, approached Bašić in order to register an interest. At an ensuing youth tournament in Italy, Modrić’s stellar play began to also tickle the imagination of some of Serie A’s finest including Parma, Inter and Juventus. The allure of playing abroad was tough to ignore but Bašić believed Luka’s development would be better served with more time at home.

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In charge of arranging the move, Bašić approached Zagreb and was able to broker an agreement with the capital side. Luka went on to spend the following season with the club’s youth side, but often struggled to convince despite the occasional flashes of his untapped potential. Adjusting to life away from his family in his new, unfamiliar surroundings did not come easily. While Modrić may have been the talk of the town in Zadar, at Zagreb he was just one of many talented prospects scratching and clawing to make the first team.

The club believed that in order for Modrić to reach his full potential, he would not only need to continue in his development physically but mentally as well. In the summer of 2003, the club made the decision to loan him out to Zrinjski Mostar in the Bosnian league. At the time, Liga 12 was widely considered the most brutal and physically taxing championship on the planet. Teams were littered with enforcers and the stands chock-full of racially insulting barbs cast down on any player not deemed one of them.

Instead of cowering, Modrić thrived, developing his creative majesty and tapping into a mental fortitude that he didn’t know existed. He was voted the league’s player of the year and had left all of his doubters mute and respectful, except for the only one that truly mattered – Zagreb. Still unconvinced, they loaned him out again, this time to Croat side Inter Zaprešić, a club in the suburbs of Zagreb with a reputation of nurturing young Dinamo talent. Modrić was sensational yet again, leading Inter to the runners-up position in the league for the first and only time, while also receiving a call-up to the Croatia under-21s.

Unable to ignore his unmitigated genius any longer, Dinamo signed him to a 10-year contract accompanied by a paycheque that would finally allow him to repay his family for all of the sacrifices and faith they had invested in him. Instead of buying a driveway full of fancy cars or a mansion for himself, Luka bought a flat for his family in Zadar to call their own. At last, the Modrić clan handed in their room keys to reception and uttered the word that for far too long had eluded them: check-out. They were no longer refugees, and nearly 13 years of tireless encouragement and strength had provided a sense of vindication.

With Luka’s mind now totally free from any type of a burden, it would’ve been understandable for him to get comfortable and rest on his laurels. On the contrary, it only emboldened him to get better and prove his worth to the world. The following four years at Stadion Maksimir were rarely anything less than brilliant, as the little maestro would score 31 goals and dish out 29 assists, displaying all of the attributes that made him one of the best up-and-coming trequartistas in world football.

Three times a league winner, he would secure an additional three domestic cups, a player of the year award and his first call-up to the full national team against Argentina in 2006. The world’s best kept secret had finally begun to creep out, and it was only a matter of time before a lucrative move to mainstream Europe materialised.

With many of the continent’s clubs now on high alert, three would step to the forefront in the race for the Croatian’s signature in the spring of 2008. Arsenal were said to have the edge early on, but backed out when Arsène Wenger expressed doubts about Modrić’s lightweight frame being able to hold up in the Premier League. According to Bojan Krkić Sr. – who was working at Barcelona as a scout at the time – Modrić was flown to Catalonia for a meeting with himself and other officials from the club.

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Once there, he impressed with his intelligence and winning mentality, prompting Bojan to approach the board with the disclosure that Modrić was willing to sign if they provided the green light. Despite his massive potential, Barça were not thinking of the future, instead turning down the offer, happy to push forward with the world’s greatest midfield at the time.

Over in north London, Tottenham were coming off an-11th placed finish and were desperate to crack the top four of the Premier League. Acutely aware that an infusion of elite-level talent would be necessary to do so, manager Juande Ramos and the club’s hierarchy identified Modrić as their number one target and were more than willing to make history in order to acquire his services. Signing him to a six-year contract, Spurs would pay £16.5 million to Zagreb, equalling the club’s record fee set by Darren Bent’s move in 2007.

Arriving as the Premier League’s first summer transfer, the bright lights of White Hart Lane awaited, furnished with a long-suffering fan base salivating for any semblance of success. That hunger failed to be satiated at first, as Spurs would endure their worst start to a league season in their history, winning none of their first eight matches and drawing a measly two. Luka’s poor form coincided with the club’s malaise, leading many to question if he truly was cut out for life outside of the Balkans.

Ramos’ decision to play Modrić on the left wing for the first time in his career was a baffling choice, however it only underscored just how much belief managers put into his versatile talent. Due to their disastrous start, Juande Ramos would become the club’s sacrificial lamb. His sacking paved the way for Harry Redknapp to be appointed as the new Spurs boss, changing the trajectory of a partnership that had been slowly heading for a dead end.

Redknapp’s understanding of Modrić’s qualities would see his midfielder moved into a deeper more central position, a role tailor-made for a player of his quality and one that he would learn to master. Tottenham’s thrilling 4-4 draw against arch-rivals Arsenal in October would prove to be the turning point, as the next four years would see the side become a visage of attacking football with Modrić behind the controls.

Although no silverware would be won during his tenure, you would be hard-pressed to find a single Spurs supporter who does not have fond memories of this landmark side. Hope was instilled again, whether it was the highs of the clubs first ever appearance in the Champions League or in the weekly inspiration provided by their aesthetically pleasing style of play.

Modrić would make 160 appearances for the English side scoring 17 goals in the process. In the end, a call from José Mourinho and the most prestigious club in world football was just too much to ignore. Despite not wanting to sell, Tottenham chairman Daniel Levy agreed to grant Luka his wish and accept a £30 million bid from Real Madrid after a long and drawn-out negotiation. Arriving in the Spanish capital in August 2012, Luka Modrić’s footballing odyssey had taken him from decaying pitches in a war-torn nation to its golden pulpit.

The time to bask in self-accomplishment wouldn’t last long, though, as Los Blancos were due to face their arch nemesis Barcelona in the second leg of the Spanish Super Cup just 36 hours later. Modrić would come on for Mesut Özil in the 83rd minute, helping shut the door on the Blaugrana and winning his first piece of silverware in his new home. The positive first impression was critical in building a trust from the demanding Santiago Bernabéu mob, yet it proved to be superficial.

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A lack of pre-season training hindered his fitness and ability to snatch a spot in the starting line-up from Özil, Xabi Alonso or Sami Khedira. Mourinho’s defensive vision for his side clashed directly with what he believed Modrić was able to provide, rendering him a glorified substitute and a constant target for criticism. In a poll ran by Marca at the conclusion of the year, Luka was voted by readers as the worst signing of any La Liga club in 2012 with 32.2 percent of the votes. He was closely followed by Alex Song, an experimental signing that most Barcelona fans would like singed from their collective memory.

Mourinho’s resignation that summer would prove to be a blessing in disguise in many respects, but no individual seemed to benefit more than Modrić. Carlo Ancelotti’s appointment brought a more relaxed environment and a clear intent to allow his squad to play to their strengths. From day one of the Italian’s tenure, Modrić became one of the most frequent starters in the team and has never looked back. The most important assist of his career would come in the 93rd minute of the 2014 Champions League final, as his corner would find the head of a darting Sergio Ramos who detonated it into the back of Atlético Madrid’s net.

Real went on to win 4-1 in extra time, delivering the club their long-awaited 10th Champions League title and a euphoria hard to put into words. The Croatian’s accolades didn’t stop there, as he was nominated for the UEFA Champions League Team of the Season and received the LFP award for the best midfielder in Spain.

As the years have gone by, managers have come and gone and playing styles have varied. Teammates have seen their form fluctuate and injuries have halted cohesion. Despite it all, Modrić has pushed forward with an unrelenting resolve that has allowed each component of the Galáctico collective to truly become a team. Under a president once known for acquiring individual brilliance instead of stashing trophies, Modrić’s arrival has spearheaded that transformation. Since his debut, Real Madrid have collected 12 pieces of silverware and have become the envy of football fans around the world. 

Resting high above in the human perch, the brain is the central organ of the nervous system. It controls most activities in the body, processing, integrating and coordinating information it receives from the sensory organs, before making decisions as a set of instructions sent to the rest of the body. Without it, us humans would be nothing more than lifeless beasts, scouring the earth with no direction, purpose or feeling.

In much the same way, football clubs can only function and reach the zenith of their potential with the assistance of a central command centre. Managers are often tasked with coming up with the blueprint, however its implementation is ultimately laid at the feet of one willingly capable player. Some do it better than most, but no one on planet earth is presently more effective at it than Real Madrid’s number 10.

Moonlighting as a puppeteer on the pitch, Modrić pulls all of the strings for a side that has won three of the past four Champions Leagues. In an age of social media that now breaks down a player’s worth based on YouTube highlights, the Croat’s limitless influence can sometimes be an exercise in excavation. Mere statistics will never tell you the full story of just how good this generational player truly is. He is the hushed architect, gliding around the pitch effortlessly and always in the right place at the right time. He has dropped deeper and deeper as his career has progressed, often in an effort to assist defensively to the detriment of his own personal numbers, yet he is perfectly content in delivering the assist for the assist.

Embodying the legendary Rakim lyric “Cause it ain’t where ya from, it’s where you’re at”, Luka Modrić is definitive proof that magicians can come in all shapes and sizes from any type of background or circumstance. With his critically acclaimed act now going on 14 years strong, who is to doubt that his best trick is still yet to come?

By Justin Sherman @JShermOfficial

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