Jail threat hangs over Luka Modric's fairytale World Cup final
It could have been the happy ending to one of sport’s great fairy tales: a child refugee scarred by the horrors of war beats incredible odds to become one of the world’s best footballers before leading his tiny nation to World Cup glory in his final major tournament.
If only it was that simple for Luka Modric as he tries to write another extraordinary chapter to his life story with victory against France on Sunday.
For, even emerging triumphant from a World Cup which has taken so-called “sports-washing” to a new level would not cleanse the reputation of Croatia’s captain, who arrived in Russia with his standing among his own people at an all-time low.
The perjury charges which have cemented the Real Madrid midfielder’s status as a hate figure among many of his country’s supporters have cast a major shadow over their march to their first final.
That is despite the 32-year-old being forced to address them only once, before Croatia’s opening game against Nigeria, when he snapped back at his inquisitor: “Nothing smarter to ask?”
And if Modric can evade France’s midfield as easily as he dodged being asked again about facing the threat of being sent to prison at Saturday’s pre-match press conference, he might just end up lifting the World Cup after all.
A player who has made it to the top of the game despite the execution of the grandfather who helped raise him when he was just six – forcing him to flee his hometown – is clearly made of strong stuff.
And the fact he has played arguably the best football of his career this summer, and could end Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi’s Ballon d’Or duopoly, suggests he views his legal woes either as trivial by comparison or simply another obstacle to be overcome.
“I’ve seen a great deal of hardship in my life,” he said on Saturday.
“What is the most important is never to give up, never give in to circumstances, to trust yourself and to soldier on.”
He added: “This is what was my motive. This is what led me to this point in my life.”
The four-time Champions League winner was asked about the Balkan wars – “I don’t want to dwell on that” – and having been branded too small to be a footballer – “those words were an extra motivation for me”.
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Despite avoiding questions about what awaits him in Croatia, he showed he clearly cares about making people happy back home, vowing to dedicate victory to “people back in the country, to people around the world, to everybody who’s worn Croatia’s shirt because they’ve represented Croatia in the best way they could”. He added: “We’re here on the eve of a day when we have an opportunity to do something special and we will be dedicating, God willing, to everybody.”
It is not just Modric who would not fit neatly into a heroic narrative if Croatia pulled off one of football’s biggest ever shocks on Sunday afternoon.
While a World Cup win would have the power to accelerate the healing process for a war-torn state, the country has repeatedly tested the sympathy of the wider world in recent years.
Its fascist football fans have brought shame on the nation at each of the last four major tournaments, while even one of Modric’s team-mates has managed to do so here, with Domagoj Vida escaping further action having been warned over footage of him taunting Russia after Croatia’s quarter-final win.
Manager Zlatko Dalic nevertheless said: “We want the whole world to watch Croatia play. We want most of the world to root for us.
“Those guys in the squad who have been around for 10 years, they’ve faced many problems. They’ve played in empty stadiums, without those who were suspended, without much support.
“Without their character, their fortitude, they wouldn’t have reached this final.”
Dalic claimed such was his players’ commitment, those who failed to shake off “minor injuries” would tell him so and give up a place in the final.
Describing the climax of the World Cup as “a seismic event in Croatia”, win or lose on Sunday, he added: “Simply, this is the greatest moment in the lives of all of us.”
They would not have even reached the World Cup but for the appointment of Zalic when they were in serious danger of failing to qualify.
Modric said: “Despite this crisis, he filled us with self-confidence and – thank God – that first game against Ukraine away, we got a result.
“After that, the play-offs against Greece, we breezed past Greece to qualify and a great deal of influence on that was our national-team coach.
“He brought us calmness, he perked us up. What we like most about him is his sincerity and his approach, and his attitude towards each and every player.
“We are very happy that he’s here with us and he’s shown his values, not just as a coach but, more importantly, as a person, as a human being.”