Happy birthday, Luka Modric: The child refugee who turned into a Ballon d'Or winner


The small town of Zadar is the oldest in the Croatian republic.

For all its history, it wasn't until 1985 that it produced one of its most famous sons.

Within six years, the world that Luka Modric was born into had fallen apart.

Some of the most intense fighting of the Croatian War of Independence uprooted countless families in what was quickly becoming the former Yugoslavia.

Modric's was among them. Ask many footballers from the region who grew up in that environment, and they will have stories of conflict and heartache to offer that seem a lifetime away from the world of elite sport.

The personal journey of the midfielder, who turns 34 today, is one of the most poignant. His grandfather was killed by rebels from the Serbian Autonomous Oblast of Krajina, a self-proclaimed, self-governing area of what is now Croatia.

All across the Balkans, ethnic tensions which had existed for centuries but which since the Second World War, had nonetheless seen different national groups living alongside one another peacefully, had reached breaking point.

It prompted the Modric family to flee and while they were in exile, the house they left behind was torched. Their new abode was the Hotel Kolovare, still in Zadar, and later the Hotel Iž.

Bombs continued to decimate Croatian cities, but for a young Luka Modric, there was at least sanctuary to be found among the other refugee children with whom he could play football.

Dinamo Zagreb's forward Luka Modric chas

Aged 16, he was picked up by Dinamo Zagreb - perhaps fittingly, given the club's own deep connections with the conflict.

The scenes at Maksimir, Boban's kick. Now they were about to finalise Modric's departure from that unsteady start in life.

His role in winning three back-to-back titles, as well as a domestic Player of the Year honour, earned him a move to Tottenham in 2008, three years after making his debut for Dinamo.

Yet the same old concerns about his slight figure followed him to England.

Juande Ramos seemed bemused by what to do with him. There was a stint playing at right-back as Spurs slumped to two points from eight games and looked like relegation candidates.

Bolton Wanderers v Tottenham Hotspur - Premier League

It wasn't until Harry Redknapp's arrival, and his insistence on letting Modric play with total freedom, that he began to blossom in the Premier League.

As there are now, there were mutterings about his relative lack of goals. That was the only real criticism of a player who could single-handedly make a team tick.

Modric has always said that his early life moulded him into the person he is today. That meant equipping him with a steely determination that seems to defy his ostensibly mild manner.

So it was when Real Madrid came calling and Daniel Levy had no interest in selling. The player forced the move, refusing to train and earning an £80,000 reprimand in the process.

Small change really, compared to the prizes he has scooped at the Bernabeu.

Real Madrid v Club Atletico de Madrid - UEFA Champions League Final

To be precise, one La Liga title, four Champions Leagues and a Copa del Rey. In another era, it might have been more.

There has always been a sense that Modric doesn't get the credit he deserves, except when playing for the Croatian national team.

While off-field issues prompted a brief dip in his popularity in the past couple of years, he reached a personal pinnacle with his performances at the 2018 World Cup, guiding his country to the final against all expectations.

Finally, the decade-long grip of Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi on the Ballon d'Or was about to be broken.

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