Modric, from child refugee to Croatia's World Cup captain

Modrici (Croatia) (AFP) –


The burned-out shell of a remote cottage bears testimony to the trauma that Luka Modric lived through long before he became a Croatian national hero and Real Madrid star.

Hidden in the folds of Velebit mountain, with the nearest neighbours several kilometres away, trees now grow inside the roofless ruin where Modric spent part of his childhood and a sign warns of "Mines - Keep out!"

The player's grandfather, also named Luka, lived in the house, lying on a mountain road winding through the Modrici hamlet.

Modric, born in 1985, spent his early years there and in the nearby village of Zaton Obrovacki until Croatia's 1990s independence war broke out.

His grandfather was killed by Serb forces, the house was burned and the family fled to the coastal town of Zadar, some 40 kilometres (19 miles) away.

"I heard about a little hyperactive boy constantly playing with a football in the corridor of a refugee hotel, even going to sleep with it," said Josip Bajlo, who was then the first-team coach at the First Division club NK Zadar, where Modric began to make a name for himself as a brilliant player.

As soon as Bajlo saw Modric play he signed him up for the club's football school, where he immediately stood out.

"He was an idol to his generation, a leader, a favourite.

"Already children saw in him then what we are all seeing in him now in football terms," Bajlo told AFP.

- Training under fire -

The 1991-1995 war with Serb rebels, during which Zadar and the surrounding region were heavily shelled, toughened Modric, according to those close to him.

"It happened a million times that we were going to training as the shells were falling, and we were running to shelters," said childhood friend Marijan Buljat, who trained and played with Modric while growing up.

The 36-year-old, himself a former professional player, remained close to Modric over the years and believes that such a hard background contributed to the Croatia captain's character and mental strength.

"It is certainly one of the factors that contributed... that drove him to become one of the best in the world."

Last October, Modric was named for the third time in the FIFA FIFPro team selected by thousands of professional players. In 2015, he became the first Croatian voted on to the FIFPro XI.

His former club NK Zadar, now fallen on hard times in Croatia's third division, have a history of finding talent -- but Modric stands alone as a legend among fans.

"Luka is for Zadar a football God," said Slavko Strkalj, 66, a retired metal worker.

Modric left for Dinamo Zagreb in 2000 and then joined English Premier League club Tottenham Hotspur in 2008.

After a bidding war he was snapped up by Real Madrid in 2012.

- Tarnished image -

But his popularity in Croatia and his image as a modest family man was tarnished by his testimony last year during the multi-million-euro corruption trial of former Dinamo Zagreb chief Zdravko Mamic.

Modric's testimony supported Mamic's case against allegations of corruption, angering many fans who saw the trial as a chance to clean up the corruption-ridden sport.

Prosecutors eventually charged Modric in March for giving false evidence, an offence that carries a penalty of up to five years in jail. But the indictment has yet to be approved by a court and the player is currently not threatened with arrest.

Anger among fans over the case lifted swiftly it seemed after Modric's brilliant performance in qualifying for the World Cup.

But some fans and coach Zlatko Dalic worry that the issue could damage his performances in Russia.

Modric answered those concerns directly when he told Croatia's Jutarnji list newspaper that his "conscience is clear and that things happening aside don't influence my game."