Tuesday 11 December 2018

'The stench of death that was never far away' - Luka Modric's brutal childhood makes his rise to the top all the more remarkable

Croatia's Luka Modric. REUTERS/Albert Gea
Croatia's Luka Modric. REUTERS/Albert Gea
Kevin Palmer

Kevin Palmer

Life would never be the same for six-year-old Luka Modric after the brutal execution of his beloved grandfather rocked his world.

The date was December 18th 1991 and after vicious Serbian forces had captured the town of Modrici, a tiny hamlet on the slopes on the Velebit mountains in northern Dalmatia, they began to inflict a reign of terror on Croatian families who had failed to escape.

Luka Modric Snr’s only crime was to walk his cattle up the abandoned street where, along with five other Croats, he was cornered and shot by Serbian thugs eager to send out a warning to the Croats still left in Modrici to leave or face the same fate.

Little Luka was devastated, as his bond with his grandfather ran deep as he spent many hours with him while his parents were working in the knitwear factory in a bid to sustain the family’s modest existence.

The only option open to his parents after this devastating tragedy was to leave Modrici and as they found refuge in the Hotel Iz in the town of Zandar, got used to life without a regular supply of electricity and running water.  

Grim as it was, this became normality for Luka’s parents Stipe and Radojka and his little sister Jasmina, with the regular bombardment of bullets and grenades from Serbian forces complimented by the daily threat of landmines around every corner.

Back then, Luka was a quiet kid whose only passion in life was kicking his football around the car park of the hotel, trying to block out the sounds of bombs and the terrifying stench of death that was never far away.

When you appreciate where he has come from, Modric’s achievement of becoming a four-time Champions League winner as one of the kingpins of the Real Madrid midfielder are all the more remarkable, with this rags to riches story truely one of the more vivid in the modern game.

While he rarely talks about his childhood as the pain of the memories he had buried at the back of his mind may be too raw to revisit, the maestro who will lead Croatia in their World Cup quarter-final against Russia on Friday did offer up these comments in an interview when he first signed for Spurs back in 2008.

“When the war started we became refugees and it was a really tough time,” said Modric. “I was six years old. These were really hard times. I remember them vividly but it’s not something you want to remember or think about.

“We lived in a hotel for many years as we struggled financially, but I always loved football. I remember my first shin pads had the Brazilian Ronaldo on them and I loved them.

“The war made me stronger, it was a very hard time for me and my family, I don’t want to drag that with me forever, but I don’t want to forget about it either.”

If Modric’s experiences in his childhood were traumatic, his efforts to break into football were challenging for entirely different reasons.

Shy, frail and written off by a succession of coach’s who did not believe he could stand up to the rigours of top level sport, 10-year-old Modric was rejected in his first trial with Hajduk Split and his football dreams appeared destined to remain unfulfilled.

It was Tomislav Basic, head of Zadar’s youth academy, who used his contacts to earn Modric his big break in the game, as he got him a trial at Dinamo Zagreb that allowed the willowy-framed midfielder to prove he could compete in the rough and tough world of Croatian league football.

That allowed Luka to become a full Croatian international, secure a move to Tottenham in 2008 and then on to Real Madrid in 2012, where international superstardom has accompanied the wealth and luxury he could never have imagined in his youth for his wife Vanja and children Ivano and Ema.

Remarkably, despite his stunning success as the symbol of a fine Croatian team that pulled off one of the stand-out results of this summer’s World Cup as they beat Argentina 3-0 in the group phase, Modric’s popularity back home was serious tarnished by a court appearance last year.

At the turn of this century, most up-and-coming Croatian footballers became associated with influential deal maker Zdravko Mamic and Modric signing an agreement that guaranteed Mamic a percentage of his future earnings in return for initial up-front payments.

Former Arsenal striker Eduardo da Silva was another of Mamic’s young-guns who ended up being sued by the agent for failing to pay him 20 per-cent of his salary for the entirety of his career, yet Modric bought himself out of the deal with a one-off payment when he moved to Tottenham for £21m a decade ago.

Instead of the fee for the transfer going to Dinamo, Mamic pocketed much of it for himself, in what appeared to be a payment from Modric to get out of the agreement he had made with the adviser in his youth.

Modric was accused of making false statements as Mamic was charged with tax fraud and embezzlement by Croatian authorities and he was sentenced to six-and-a-half years in jail in January, fleeing to Bosnia to avoid his punishment.

Yet the trial and Modric’s appearance as a key witness left his reputation among his nation’s football lovers seriously tarnished and it will take time for that open wound to heal.

Dinamo Zagreb fans chanted anti-Modric abuse during a game earlier this year and the Hotel Iz - where Luka and his family stayed during the war - was daubed with derogatory graffiti in the aftermath of the trial, but now he has a chance to become a hero all over again.

Modric’s inspirational performances with Croatia at the World Cup can only help to reshape the image of an icon who has been through so much to reach the point where he could lead his country to glory in the World Cup finals.

When you have lived through this much, every challenge must seem manageable.

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