For most players, being voted the worst signing of the season would destroy them. Luka Modrić isn’t ‘most’ players though. He’s been to hell and back before and a poll wouldn’t stop him from reaching his goal of becoming the greatest midfielder in the world. As a child, the thought of ever being a top class footballer was nothing but a pipe dream. To currently be arguably Real Madrid’s most important player, is a wonderful and emotional story.
Imagine having to flee your home, your grandfather being executed and your father joining the Croatian army all before your seventh birthday. This is what the Croatian War of Independence did to the Modrić family, in 1991. After fleeing the hamlet of Modrići (Northern Croatia), the family became refugees and lived in a hotel in the city of Zadar. Quite the childhood for Luka, but his circumstances would soon change, thanks of course, to football.
NK Zadar’s chairman told The Guardian in 2012 how he first heard about a young Modrić.
“There was 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.”
Josip Bajlo – NK Zadar Chairman
In retrospect, it’s easy to say that a young player looked special, but he was right. Modrić was able to play at the Zadar academy thanks to the little money his family had. Football was an escape from the war which was ongoing all around the city. Grenades often fell on the training pitches, leaving the players and coaches quite literally running for their lives.
Under the tutelage of Domugoj Bašić and Tomislav Bašić, Modrić was progressing well but was rejected from HNK Hajduk Split, the club Modrić supported, because he was too small. Instead, Dinamo Zagreb took a chance, if you can call it that, and signed Modrić as a sixteen-year-old.
In 2003 Modrić was loaned to Bosnian side, HŠK Zrinjski Mostar where he won the league’s Player of the Year Award at just 18 years old. The physicality of the league led Modrić to claim that if you can play in the Bosnian league then you can play anywhere.
After two successful loan spells away from Zagreb, Modrić was rewarded with a massive ten-year contract upon his return to the Croatian capital. In 2007 everyone knew who the 5’9″ midfielder was. Modrić won the Prva HNL Player of the Year Award which drew the attention of the rest of Europe. Spurs won the race for Modrić, paying Zagreb £16.5million for his services.
Each season saw Modrić’s stock rise. Harry Redknapp, Spurs manager at the time, used Modrić on the left in a four-man midfield before moving him more centrally, and unsurprisingly takes some of the credit for the player he is today.
“He was a fantastic player for me. He was playing on the left for me at Spurs so I moved him inside as a central midfield player and he has never looked back really. Unlike what some said, he wasn’t a lightweight midfielder at all”
After four impressive seasons in North London, Modrić knew it was time to move on in order to win trophies. In 2011, Chelsea made numerous offers for the midfielder, the final offer of £40million was rejected by Daniel Levy. After initially refusing to play at the start of the 2011/12 season, Modrić was again essential to everything Spurs did. Eventually though, Spurs knew they had to cash in.
On 27th August 2012, Luka Modrić had completed his journey from his war torn origins to the pinnacle of European football. £30 million was the final price (I bet Levy regrets that one), paid by Real Madrid.
It wasn’t easy for Modrić at first. The 2012 European Championships meant that Modrić had next to no pre-season. José Mourinho opted for Xabi Alonso and Sami Khedira as his first-choice midfield partnership, leaving Modrić on the bench and playing out of position in his first few months in Madrid.
In a Marca poll, Modrić “won” by being voted the worst signing of any La Liga club in 2012 with 32.2% of the votes. Modrić was closely followed by Alex Song, who somehow had managed to get a move to Barcelona (I honestly still don’t know how he pulled that off)!
The turning point came against Man United on 5th March 2013 in the Champions League round of 16 tie. Madrid were 1-0 down on the night (2-1 on aggregate) thanks to a Sergio Ramos own goal. After Nani’s controversial sending off for United, the tie turned and Madrid were on top. Up stepped Luka Modrić. He shifted the ball past Michael Carrick to find a yard of space before arrowing a shot from 20 yards past De Gea, who was helpless in his attempts to save. Three minutes later Ronaldo scored against his old side to settle the tie.
Since that night in Manchester the story is well known. Modrić’s confidence grew and he’s been a vital cog in Champions League-winning sides for both Carlo Ancelotti and Zinedine Zidane. Incredible awareness, close control and vision, Modrić’s all-round game is unmatched in Europe, making him the best midfielder in the world.
The small NK Zadar academy has been swapped for the bright lights of the Bernabéu but Modrić still plays with the same tenacity of the young man who was once loaned to the Bosnian League. As Real Madrid top La Liga and challenge for the Champions League, Modrić will again be crucial as he glides around the pitch for Los Blancos.
Surely Luka Modric has a place in our combined 21st century Barcelona and Real Madrid XI, right?!