Luka Modric has taken an extraordinary path to the World Cup final – from fleeing his home as a child during Croatia’s war of independence to global superstar status.
Croatia’s captain has also overcome the challenge of a relatively fragile physique to become one of the world’s best players.
As a child refugee Modric honed his skills in a cratered hotel car park with nobody watching but on Sunday an estimated global audience of one billion will tune in to watch Croatia take on France in Moscow.
“A boy training under shells and growing up during war knows no fear,” Marijan Buljat, Modric’s friend and childhood team-mate at NK Zadar told AFP.
“It is ugly to go thorough this, but eventually he showed how strong he is in all situations. This all contributes to him being fearless and becoming one of the best in the world.”
A career that would eventually take him to four Champions League wins with Real Madrid via Tottenham Hotspur in the Premier League and Croatia’s biggest club Dinamo Zagreb, began on the Adriatic coast in Zadar, where Modric took refuge from Serbian forces.
“He is mentally a very strong character,” said Josip Bajlo, his former coach.
Modric finished his club season by lifting the Champions League title but Croatia’s build-up to the World Cup was overshadowed by a court case.
The midfielder was charged in March over alleged false testimony he gave in the case that saw Croatian football kingpin Zdravko Mamic sentenced to six-and-a-half years in prison.
Modric’s indictment still has to be formally approved by a Croatian court and he is not currently facing arrest.
But his performances in Russia – where he has been named man-of-the match three times – have enhanced his status as a national hero.
- “Most complete player” -
Modric’s technique has never been in doubt. However, questions were asked about whether a skinny kid who only grew to be 5 feet 8 inches (1.73 metres) tall could hold his own against taller, more powerful opponents in central midfield.
“You don’t have to be a strapping lad to play football,” said Modric. “I can only say I’ve never doubted myself, irrespective of what others said.”
Modric has shown his physical strength in leading Croatia through three periods of extra-time against Denmark, Russia and England to become the smallest country in 68 years to reach a World Cup final.
“He is the most complete player in the world,” said former Croatia coach Slaven Bilic. “For me Luka is the best midfielder in the world for the past five to six years.”
For many years an under-appreciated factor in Madrid’s success due to the goals of Cristiano Ronaldo, Modric has now also emerged as a strong contender to break the decade-long grip Ronaldo and Lionel Messi have had on the Ballon d’Or.
Croatia defender Dejan Lovren said earlier in the tournament that Modric may already have been crowned the world’s best player if he had been Spanish or German.
In characteristically self-effacing style, Modric said he had no interest in individual prizes when the World Cup is at stake.
“He has something which slowly disappears and is rarely seen on the pitch... a football humility,” former Croatian international Mario Stanic, a hero of the side that reached the semi-finals in 1998, told the Sportske Novosti newspaper.
“It is when the biggest or the best while playing thinks the least about himself. This is the cornerstone on which Luka Modric built his shrine and became a football God.”
On Sunday, four million Croatians will be praying their humble hero will have enough energy to send them to heaven.