Unthinkable as it now seems, Luka Modric had every reason to spend most of his career hating the World Cup.
As a 20-year-old, he got off the bench twice in 2006 as Croatia went out of the group stage by finishing behind Australia. His country did not qualify in 2010. Four years later, he arrived in Brazil as a Champions League winner, one of the best midfielders in the world, surely destined for better fortunes. A 3-1 loss to Mexico in game three sent them packing.
“My memories from Brazil are not nice,” he recalled two years on. “I didn’t play well. Maybe I was too tired after a long season. When I look back at the competitions I played in for Croatia, that was my worst performance.”
The World Cup, it is often said, boasts a capacity to bring about change unlike any other sporting event. That certainly applies to Modric. He will take to the pitch for Friday’s final in Moscow as the best player at football’s grandest event, three man-of-the-match awards to his name after three group-stage wins and three extra-time ordeals in the knockouts.
From Pele of 1958 to Andres Iniesta of 2010, tournaments have often ‘belonged’ to the greats. If that’s the case, Russia 2018 belongs to Modric.
A @FIFAWorldCup moment
France ’98 bronze-winning Golden Boot Davor Šuker
France ’98 bronze-winning #CRO captain Zvonimir Boban
Russia ’18 #WorldCup finalists captain @lukamodric10 #BeProud #Family #Vatreni pic.twitter.com/7mkRj7tNcI
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“Luka has achieved everything possible at club level but hasn’t done so for the national team,” said coach Zlatko Dalic after Croatia beat England in Wednesday’s semi-final, thereby reaching the final for the first time and consigning the famous bronze medallists of 1998 to the history books.
“This is maybe one of the best periods for Luka. He is playing the best football of his life.”
Modric’s career path to the pinnacle of the game is well-documented: a promising star of Dinamo Zagreb (he only joined their youth team after Hadjuk Split turned him down) and moulded by a loan spell in Bosnia-Herzegovina, he became a fine player at Tottenham and an incredible one at Real Madrid.
His early years are less well-known. Like some of his compatriots, including Ivan Rakitic, Mario Mandzukic and Dejan Lovren, Modric and his family were displaced by the outbreak of the Croatian War of Independence. But while his three team-mates and their families would relocate to central Europe, the Modric family headed for refugee hotels in Zardar.
“We were always afraid, that’s what I remember the most,” Tomislav Basic, one of Modric’s coaches at local club NK Zadar, told a Canal Plus documentary. “Thousands of grenades, fired from the surrounding hills, fell on the training pitch in those years, and we were always racing to reach the shelter. Football was our escape from reality.”
Club chairman Josip Bajlo recalls six-year-old Modric as “this boy who used to kick the ball around the hotel parking lot all day. He was skinny and really small for his age, but you could see right away that he had that something special in him.”
The hotel complexes look stark and barren today and were not wholly different 27 years ago. The threat from Serbian forces was real and inescapable. Modric’s grandfather Luka lived in a farmhouse on a road to the Velebit mountain range. One day, while he walked his cattle scarcely 500 yards from his home, he was murdered in cold blood by militia.
— HNS | CFF (@HNS_CFF) July 12, 2018
Similar refugee stories are appallingly common in football, and this World Cup. Switzerland stars like Xherdan Shaqiri, Granit Xhaka and Valon Behrami know them well. They have shaped individuals, sharpened their focus on turning their gifts into a better life for them and the families who risked so much to give them a chance of success.
That’s not quite how Modric remembers it. “Despite the difficult war period and my refugee status, I had a normal childhood, like most of the other children,” he told FIFA TV in 2016.
“My parents did everything so my sisters and I could live a normal life. We didn’t live in abundance, but we didn’t miss anything. There was a nice family atmosphere, a positive vibe, and that’s the most important thing in the end.”
It’s an attitude that has, perhaps, influenced Modric the player: uncomplicated, unflashy and, for some time, under-appreciated. From Dinamo to Tottenham to Madrid, from three Champions Leagues in a row to the World Cup final, he has glided into the Ballon d’Or reckoning for 2018 in much the same unassuming way as he cruises around a football pitch.
Winning the World Cup for Croatia, a tiny, young country of 4.5million people, would surely make him the favourite to end Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi’s dominance of football’s top individual prize. But, as Rakitic said on Friday, “Luka doesn’t want any of that. All we want is to win. Everything else is incidental.”
Getting that win against France represents Croatia’s biggest test in their football history. But when your captain has been making the difficult look easy all his life, how hard can a World Cup final really be?