Luka Modric

Out of Croatia's wreckage, a World Cup hero

The ground here is hilly, hard and dusty. The trees are bare; blackened and charred because of the wildfires which take everything in their path.

Nothing much thrives.

Once upon a time, livestock dotted the mountainside. But sheep and goats were hard to feed in this landscape and harder still to sell.

There haven't been many babies born here lately. There are not many opportunities this side of the highway, under the Velebit mountains, near the Dalmatian coast.

It is as starkly beautiful as it is desolate. And on its hills lie secrets.

Follow the winding path above the hamlet of Modrici and there's a house on a corner looking back towards the lake below. On one side sits a shed and an outhouse. On the other, set a little back from the road and jutting out of the crags, a sign:

“Stay back: there may be unexploded land mines in the area.”

The house itself was once proud. It provided shelter for three generations, under a roof that no longer exists. The house, like the grass below, is burned out. There are no windows in the window frames and there are loose blocks and debris all around.

There is a chained gate shuttered across the front doorway. And in that gate has been shoved an A4-sized Croatian flag. That is the only sign that this abandoned house on this eerily quiet mountain road once housed someone of significance.

Celebrations after Croatia finish runners-up at the 2018 World Cup

Celebrations after Croatia finish runners-up at the 2018 World Cup

That person was Luka Modric. Or, more accurately, Luka Modric Jr.

The townland of Jasenice, of which Modrici and the hills form part, was occupied by Serb forces in September 1991 during the Croatian War of Independence.

Only a handful of hardy, mostly elderly souls stayed to eke out a living thereafter.

"On the morning of December 18, 1991, around 9am, a group of Obrovac Chetniks set out along the old road toward Velebit.

"While they were driving along a winding, dusty Velebit road, they were singing their folk songs, primitive tunes full of ideological and violent rhymes.

"They also praised Draza Mihajlovic, Slobodan Milosevic and the other creators of Serbia’s project of occupation against their neighbouring nations.

"Exactly in that mood, the cheerful Chetniks came across a flock of sheep and goats, and a man who looked after the flock while it grazed poor, mountain grass. It was Luka Modric from Zaton Obrovacki, a village that adjoins Jasenice, located above Obrovac.

"The Chetniks stopped the car at once, got out and ran at the innocent shepherd still singing the song with their coarse throats.

"’Who are you, what are you doing here? This is Serbian land,’ they snapped.

"They pushed him, lashed out at him, and yelled at him, ‘Move forward, move!’ The terrified shepherd took a couple of unsteady steps ‘forward’ and then, Velebit echoed with terrifying gunfire.

"Luka Modric fell, shot down...

“After killing Luka Modric, the killers, the Chetniks, continued toward Meke Doce to finish their bloody job..."

Luka Modric Sr was Luka Modric's grandfather and that is how the Zadarski List newspaper journalist Ivica Marijacic described his execution in a report from April 1995.

The so-called SAO Krajina militia murdered six more pensioners that day. They were later heard to boast about their deeds outside a police station. It was disclosed in the International Court of Justice that local Serbian authorities were made aware of these crimes but that there had been specific orders not to investigate.

Whoever shot Luka Modric and those other people that day were never brought to justice. They couldn't be tracked and escaped over one border or another.

Luka Modric Jr was six years old at the time. The life he had – quiet, rural, a help to his beloved grandad in the fields – was over. He was a refugee now, along with his parents and sister. They left and never came back; the house, in an area booby-trapped by mines, not worth inhabiting ever again.

And that's the childhood home of Luka Modric. He didn't get another one. He instead had crowded refugee hotels in the nearby town of Zadar. The very first thing he bought with his first professional pay packet was a house for his mother and father; somewhere they could again call home.

If you kicked a ball on that hillside outside the Modric home, it would bounce and roll all the way down to the road. One of the first questions you ask yourself when you see the first home of one of the greatest players in the game is: Where did he play? He couldn't. Not here.

But down in Zadar, he could.

Today, the Kolovare Hotel is a handsome four-star. It backs onto the Adriatic Sea. During the Croatian War of Independence, though, it was a refugee shelter. It was crowded with families, unfortunate, internally-displaced people who did not have to travel far but were war refugees nonetheless.

The Modrics lived at the Kolovare for seven long years and were among the last refugees to leave.

And the Kolovare had a nice flat car park. That is where young Luka Modric began to obsessively hone his football skills. A teacher from his primary school lived opposite and would implore him to go inside and do some homework. Unfailingly polite, Luka would say “just a little longer”.

He was a clever boy, adaptable to any sport his school would throw at him. He enjoyed basketball and played two-on-two with some friends, including the future national team goalkeeper Danijel Subasic. Modric excelled as a goalkeeper himself, in handball.

However, the first time his PE teacher Albert Radovnikovic saw him with a football at his feet, he was astonished. He would try to challenge him, by making him play against older boys, putting him in goal, or sometimes both. But Modric would surmount all those challenges and win.

Luka Modric playing for Dinamo Zagreb against Hajduk Split in 2006

Luka Modric playing for Dinamo Zagreb against Hajduk Split in 2006

The children were not always able to use the school gym for those lessons and there weren’t even assurances that there would be class everyday. Zadar was still a war zone, with artillery shells falling with devastating regularity. Luka and his classmates would be forced to shelter under their tables when they heard the air-raid sirens, sometimes hiding out so long that the only thing to do was to laugh.

It was the same story at the local football pitch, where Luka was becoming a force to be reckoned with. There would be occasions at training when the alarms would start to wail, and the teams would have to take cover. When it was all over, they'd come back out.

The children at the school were shielded from the worst of the war but it still had an effect. Once in the third grade, Luka was asked to write a story about something which had had an emotional impact upon him. He chose to write about the death of his grandfather.

There is scarcely a football player alive who has not had to overcome one obstacle or other. But the ones that Luka Modric had were unique.

He was first raised in a house where no football was kicked. He was born at a time when sport and hobbies had to be played out alongside the quest for survival.

And there was the issue of his size. He was always the smallest and skinniest player on his team. The shirt he wore should have fitted a boy his age but always fitted Luka like an XXL.

His boyhood club, Hajduk Split, turned him down because he was too small.

But Luka and his coaches were able to make the best of it. When they would come up against bigger, stronger teams, Luka would play centre-back to make sure his side could get on the ball.

He was rapid across the ground as well and could cleanly win any kind of challenge. His PE teacher would say that he could make a slide tackle on the concrete playground and come up without a scratch on his legs.

His low centre of gravity meant he could twist and turn easier than his taller counterparts. He played quite a similar game to the one he does today. Other habits remain too.

When he first joined Dinamo Zagreb, he would come home late at night, sometimes as late as 3am, and his girlfriend would have his post-match steak prepared. Then, he would sit down in the middle of the night and watch the footage of the game he'd just played. Those who know him at Real Madrid say he still does exactly that.

Croatia celebrated on their team bus at the World Cup last summer with the song "Nije u soldima sve" (Money Isn't Everything). An old Zadar team-mate noticed that it was the same song - by Luka's favourite singer Mladen Grdovic - he used to sing with his youth team in Zadar 20 years ago.

There are only fragments of Modric's struggle left in Zadar. Outside the Hotel Iz, where he moved to from Hotel Kolovare, there is graffiti serving as a reminder of bitter days before the World Cup. Modric's part in the fraud trial of ex-Dinamo executive Zdravko Mamic divided the country.

Zdravko Mamic during his multimillion-euro corruption trial

Zdravko Mamic during his multimillion-euro corruption trial

This hotel, like the Modric family home, is dilapidated. Windows are boarded up. It is not the Zadar you'll see in a travel brochure.

‘MODRIC – MAMIC'S BITCH. YOU WILL REMEMBER THIS DAY MODRIC.’

It's messy, unsightly and gets to the root of the complex nature of the relationship between Croatia and its most famous footballer.

Those who know Modric in Zadar say his World Cup performances were given out of spite. Leading his team to the final might not have got him off the hook in court but it helped restore his image in the eyes of his countrymen. He was cleared of a perjury charge in October.

In many ways, Modric's story is well known from the day he first played for Dinamo Zagreb. It follows an upward trajectory. There were big transfers and a whole host of trophies. What he's got today is the logical culmination of years of gruelling work, of eliminating every obstacle which confronted him along the way.

The hardest yards may well have been put in before he moved to Zagreb. The hardest yards may have been through the war, through the rejections, through the loan spells. In the Bosnian league – regarded as one of Europe's most violent at that point – he would finish games crippled with cramp for Zrinjski. But he would dust himself down and go again the next week, carrying away the division's player of the year award in the process.

By the time he got to Zagreb, it was everything he'd ever worked for. Living in a makeshift apartment by the Maksimir stadium, he refused most offers of an after-game drink or a get together with team-mates. That's not what brought him to the capital. He came to learn, to win, to progress.

He didn't have a lot of choice over what happened in his formative years. He was carried along as his parents managed as best they could. The only thing he could control was his football. And when his plan took hold, there was no stopping him. A self-made man.

Back up those hills where the burned-out house lies, the flag flutters in the doorway. There are some messages scrawled on it. They stand in contrast to those outside the ruined hotel down the road in Zadar. One says ‘Thank you’. Another says ‘Our captain Luka’.

There is almost a religiosity in visiting this place. Up here you feel like you should join in with the still silence of the clean air under the clear blue sky. That you should join your hands and reflect.

It’s not a statue but it is a tribute. It is in many ways more than just another ruined house. It is a scar on the landscape; it is a gravestone. It is at once a reminder of the happiness and the vivacity that was contained in it, and also a reminder of the destruction that was wrought upon these lands.

Who knows how Luka Modric might have turned out had there been no war? Would he have left Modrici for anything else other than school? Would he have followed his father to the local knitwear factory instead? Would he ever have struck up a love affair with that little sphere that appeared ubiquitously at his feet?

This house is an illustration of all that is tragic but all that is possible. It is where in desperate times a new path was forged. Nothing much thrives here but it is here where a small boy from nowhere started his journey.