When one thinks of the greatest midfielder of their generation, many would point to Barcelona and Spanish national team duo, Xavi and Andrés Iniesta. In all fairness, both Spaniards have earned the right to be called one of the best in the world. Others would also point to French maestro Zinedine Zidane, Englishman Paul Scholes, and probably even Italian magician Andrea Pirlo. What’s unfortunate is that many have overlooked the tiny nation of Croatia, home to the one and only Luka Modrić.
Captaining his national team to its first ever FIFA World Cup final, Croatia would bow out in spectacular fashion after being overrun by quite possibly, the best French squad in the last 20 years (which was the last time they won the World Cup.) Many didn’t expect Croatia to make it that far in the competition; pundits all over were labelling them as underdogs compared to the bigger nations with far more experience and talent.
It was an almost fairytale ending for the 1.72m tall midfielder of reigning Champions League winners, Real Madrid in his third FIFA World Cup campaign. Born in the city of Zadar, Croatia in 1985, Luka Modrić’s childhood coincided with the Croatian War of Independence between Croation forces loyal to the government and the Serb-controlled Yugoslav People’s Army.
Forced to flee Zadar, Modrić became a refugee in December of 1991 when his grandfather was executed by Croatian Serb rebels while his father was serving in the Croatian army. Through difficult times, Modrić found his calling in football, which was a way to escape the reality of war.
A true rags-to-riches story, Modrić battled through many years of hardship before signing his first professional contract at the age of 16 with Dinamo Zagreb. Touted as too small for football, he proved his doubters wrong before securing a move to Tottenham Hotspurs back in 2008. Even after making his way into England, many viewed his start to the English Premier League (EPL) as lacklustre, with then Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger saying he “was too lightweight.”
However, it wasn’t until his move to Real Madrid in 2012 that the entire footballing world began to take notice. Marca considered his 33 million pound move to the Spanish capital the worst signing of the year. Fast forward six years later and Modrić is considered a key element in Madrid’s four Champions League trophies in the last five years.
This is a player who has gone from a war-torn country to playing for the biggest team in Spanish football, to leading his country all the way to the final of the 2018 World Cup in Russia. Having qualified for the World Cup, Croatia appeared in in Group D alongside favourites Argentina and dark horses like Nigeria and Iceland. Having not been able to get past the group stage in its last three World Cup outings, this year was different as Croatia topped its group, scoring seven goals and conceding only one.
The Croatian captain was crucial in the country’s run to the final, getting past the likes of Denmark in the Round of 16 and hosts Russia in the quarterfinals. What made the journey all the more arduous was both games having to go to extra time and eventually, penalty shootouts, both of which Modrić was involved with.
Setting up a semi-final against England, Croatia dispatched its opponents in extra time once again, with Modrić saying after the match, “They underestimated Croatia tonight and that was a huge mistake. All these words from them we take, we were reading and we were saying: ‘OK, today we will see who will be tired.’ They should be more humble and respect their opponents more.”
With all that is said and done, nobody can deny that he didn’t deserve it. From pulling the strings with the entire Croatian team, orchestrating each attack with such grace and fluidity, its reminiscent of his time back at Tottenham Hotspurs as well as his consistent performances with Real Madrid. Always in the right place at the right time, being able to pick out a key pass to open up the opponent’s defence, Modrić is undoubtedly Croatia’s best player, especially after having the kind of start to his career.