“Thank you Croatia! Thank you Zagreb!” hailed Croatian captain Luka Modrić to the joyous crowd in Zagreb’s Jelačićsquare. “We have achieved our dream.” More than half a million had turned out to cheer the Vatreni on their return from Russia, swamping the streets between the airport and the main square, with around 100,00 squeezing into the square itself. The open-top bus carrying the team made slow progress through the crowds before coach Zlatko Dalić and his players stepped onto an improvised stage to address their adoring public.
Under a shower of red and white confetti, players and fans alike sang the Croatian national anthem, celebrating this small nation’s best World Cup performance. That they had ultimately fallen short against France seemed irrelevant to the joyous homecoming festivities; this was a nation delighted to have achieved as much as they had. With a kinder rub of the green, Croatia may have made that final step to ultimate glory, but regardless, the mood was one of celebration and pride rather than commiseration and dismay.
And in Luka Modrić, they had the player of the tournament to celebrate. The Croatian midfielder was named the winner of the award, following in the recent footsteps of Lionel Messi, Zinedine Zidane and Oliver Kahn in winning this award when losing the final. Modrić had produced a World Cup of elegance and élan, exuding a style and sophistication that made the extraordinary seem easy. He was the driving force behind his team’s run to the final, blending smoothly with the rest of a talented and tenacious squad.
By all rights, he should be the national hero. If only it was that simple for Luka Modrić.
This could have been one of sport’s great stories: a child refugee, a casualty of war, who had overcome considerable odds to become one of the world’s finest footballers before leading his nation to the final of the World Cup. Aged just six, Modrić was forced to flee from his home village after the execution of his grandfather by Serbian militia at the outset of the Balkan wars. Taking refuge in the town of Zadar, he stayed in a series of dilapidated hotels rather than a family home.
As a young player he was rejected by Hajduk Split, the club he had supported, before getting his chance with Croatia’s biggest team, Dinamo Zagreb. He spent a couple of years out on loan, with one in neighbouring Bosnia-Herzegovina for Zrinjski Mostar while still a teenager. His quality began to shine through, however, and his reputation soared once he was back at Dinamo.
This led to a move to England and Tottenham before the biggest move of all to Real Madrid. As described by a Sky Sports article: “His Tottenham years hinted at genius. His time in Madrid confirmed it.” And then the World Cup took this to a whole new level. Modrić now sits on a footballing pedestal that few are able to reach.
And yet he is far from a hero in his homeland. He is a controversial and divisive character, scarred by involvement in a corruption trial and now facing perjury charges of his own. Even his magnificent World Cup campaign can’t cleanse his reputation in the eyes of many back home.
The mercurial midfielder’s association with the controversial figure of Zdravko Mamić has led him down a path that may yet end with a stint in prison. Just how did it come to this, and are Modrić’s World Cup achievements tainted in his homeland by the spectre of his close association with the pungent stench of corruption?
Mamić is a former chief executive of Dinamo Zagreb who was once the most powerful man in Croatian football. His fall from grace was a cause for celebration throughout the country. Mamić had contracts with numerous Croatian players set up when those players were young hopefuls, yearning for a chance to make the grade as a professional. These agreements saw Mamić provide financial assistance in return for a proportion of their later earnings, as well as a cut of the fee if the players were subsequently transferred to another club.
In the specific case of Modrić, the player received a €10.5m cut from Dinamo when he transferred from Zagreb to London in 2008, and around 80 percent of that money then went to Mamić. Dejan Lovren had a similar situation during his transfer to Lyon from Dinamo. The court in Mamić’s recent trial ruled that Modrić and Lovren were unlawfully paid 50 percent of their transfer fees by Dinamo, the bulk of which ultimately ended up in Mamić’s coffers.
The principal line of contention with all of this financial juggling was that Mamić was accused of inserting the clause relating to payments to Modrić and Lovren only after the respective sales had gone through. He was ultimately convicted of embezzlement and tax evasion and given six-and-a-half years in prison, although he fled to Bosnia before the sentence was handed down.
But Modrić isn’t seen as a victim in all of this, far from it. His involvement takes on a shadowy edge as he had initially told investigators that Mamić had inserted the clause retrospectively. Had Modrić stuck with this, he likely would have been seen as a hero for helping to bring down the key figure in the corrupt world of Croatian football. But come the trial in June 2017, Modrić contradicted his earlier statements by claiming that the clauses were already in place prior to his sale to Tottenham, and that he couldn’t remember much of the detail.
After Mamić’s guilty verdict, Modrić has been charged with perjury and will face trial, and a potential five years in jail if found guilty, later this year. “Perceptions of Modrić changed from the moment that the strange business became apparent,” explained Croatian journalist Bernard Jurišić. “The court case against Mamić was followed with great care in Croatia, and the very fact that Modrić was involved in the whole story undoubtedly undermined his reputation.
“The public are divided. On the one hand, there are those who claim that Modrić could not be expected to know the specifics of the law. On the other, some claim that he is just as responsible as Mamić. By appearing to change his testimony, after pointing the finger at Mamić in his initial statement, he earned condemnation across Croatia.”
He was seen as protecting a loathed and corrupt figure, one who had been a stain on Croatian football for a considerable time. Mamić may still have been found guilty but seeing Modrić miss the chance to definitively condemn him, a man who represented to many the privilege and corruption at the top of Croatian football, was too much for the watching public.
Numerous anti-Modrić chants could be heard around the grounds of the domestic league. Graffiti outside the Hotel Iz in Zadar, where the young Modrić had been housed as a refugee all those years ago, reads, “Modrić is Mamić’s bitch.” However, others had more sympathy, suspecting that Modrić, like many a player before and since, had been forced into a bad deal as a young player desperate to make it in the game.
This whole murky mess ensured that Modrić arrived in Russia with his reputation in his homeland at an all-time low. Considering his standing as a player, a multiple Champions League winner with Real Madrid no less, and a soaring reputation as one of the world’s finest playmakers, this was a remarkable fall from grace. Many Croatians cheered him on in Russia of course, but a number only did so with a caveat.
That he went on to play with such style and success in the World Cup is simply extraordinary. As one Guardian journalist put it, “To plays as well as he has would be remarkable under normal circumstances, but to do so with the looming prospect of a trial on his mind has been astounding.”
His influence on Croatia’s progress was clear from the outset against Nigeria and even more so in the seismic victory over a desperate and panicked Argentina. By the semi-final with England, notably in the second half and extra-time once England’s influence waned, he was imperious.
He had capable teammates of course, but he was central to leading his team back from adversity in each victorious knockout match ahead of the final. He had the uncanny ability to drag the game his team’s way, to find a way where others may have foundered. Even when he initially fell short, when missing his late penalty against Denmark, he still came through for his team in the shootout.
His central role in Croatia’s stunning run to the final itself was all set against the backdrop of his upcoming trial, which suggests that to him his legal concerns were simply another obstacle to be overcome. Ahead of the clash with France, he said: “I’ve seen a great deal of hardship in my life. What is the most important is never to give up, never give in to circumstances, to trust yourself and to soldier on. This is what was my motive. This is what led me to this point in my life.”
He may have been able to put it at the back of his mind when on the field, but when asked about it directly, he would bristle: “Nothing smarter to ask?” he would snap when quizzed on this subject ahead of Croatia’s opening group match.
Croatia’s success, driven by the marvellous Modrić, hasn’t led to any great softening of views in his homeland. There are still those for whom his involvement in the Mamić trial cannot be expunged by his achievements in Russia. And while there are undeniably a growing number of people who feel that the key man behind Croatia’s finest footballing achievement should be forgiven, there are others who feel that fame and success shouldn’t affect how he is viewed by the law. Hero or otherwise, nobody should be above the law and if Modrić committed perjury, he should face the same consequences as anyone else.
His apparent cordial relationship with Croatia’s President, Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović – herself closely associated with Mamić – merely adds more fuel to the flames. For Luka Modrić, 2018 may have seen him ascend to the lofty perch of global renown, but within Croatia there will always be a reluctance by many to fully embrace him as the hero his footballing achievements alone may warrant.
It is a saga that has plenty of distance still to run. The World Cup’s golden ball winner and one of world football’s most celebrated and exquisite playmakers could yet be dragged under by the Mamić affair, and his own murky involvement in it.
By Aidan Williams @yad_williams