Why Croatia maestro Luka Modric is the most underrated star at Euro 2016

Why Croatia maestro Luka Modric is the most underrated star at Euro 2016

Luka Modric has had a tough journey to becoming a two-time Champions League winner.

The eldest son of a textile worker and an aero-mechanic, Modric was raised in a small village close to Zadar. His family were forced to flee their home when the Croatian War of Independence took a turn for the worse in the early 1990s.

Living in a hotel for a long stretch of his childhood, the young Croat’s attentions quickly turned to football as a release. A release that so many of us use to escape from everyday travails.

This wasn’t the run-of-the-mill 9-5 he wanted to forget though: his father had just moved away to join the army; his grandfather had been executed by rebels.

Although he was initially turned away for being a featherweight, Modric was eventually signed by Dinamo Zagreb as a 16-year-old.

A loan spell in Bosnia and Herzogovina – one of the most gruelling leagues there is – quickly dispelled the tag of being too small.

It was at Zagreb where he would make his name. The emerging midfielder won the Prva HNL Player of the Year award, catalysing three successive league titles for his side.

The trophy haul came after he was named the Croatian Football Hope of the Year in 2004. He certainly gave hope to Tottenham Hotspur.

The acquisition of Modric signalled a shift for the future. Off the back of a first trophy since 1999 – the League Cup triumph nine years later – gone were the days of Hossam Ghaly and Teemu Tainio.

Modric had arrived to usher in a new era. There was finally an excitement around N17 which had been missing since the early 1990s.

His career since has been well documented: guiding the first British club to win a Uefa club competition – the European Cup Winners’ Cup in 1963 – to the newly-formatted Champions League for the first time in its history.

He quickly outgrew Spurs, though. Jamie Redknapp, former Lilywhite and son of then-manager, Harry, was incessant in his praise of the player: “[He’s] a hell of a player and a manager’s dream, so I am told.

“He trains like a demon and never complains, will work with and without the ball on the field and can beat a defender with a trick or with a pass. He could get into any team in the top four.”

Redknapp was right. He could walk into any team in the top four, but not just in the Premier League.

A young Modric attracted interest from both Barcelona and Arsenal but decided to remain in his native Croatia to grow as a footballer.

“[Arsene] Wenger wanted me because the Czech Rosicky could have left. It was an honour that a manager who works so well with the youngsters was interested in me, but I preferred to wait,” he recalled.

And although he was keen on a move to Chelsea – who tabled a £40m bid for his services which Daniel Levy rejected – in his latter London years, Modric was otherwise faithful to the team that gave him a chance in what he described as the toughest division in the world.

“I spent four great years there with a lot of emotions, with a lot of love from the club and the fans. I enjoyed every moment with Tottenham. But in one moment you feel you need to take a step forward, to go to a higher level.”

He left Spurs without any silverware to show for his efforts, but he gave the fans unrivalled moments of j0y.

No one held it against him when Modric departed for the Bernabeu in 2012. On his Real Madrid debut, less than 48 hours after his transfer was announced, Modric lifted his first trophy in the Supercopa de Espana. He deserved it.

The diminutive playmaker, defensive anchorman, combative orchestrator – one of the most versatile midfield engines to ever play the game – has since cemented his status as one of the greatest in the world, perpetually outshining a team of look-at-me prima-donnas.

After Los Blancos scooped their 11th European crown – La Undecima – last month, he said that the “trophy belongs to Real… the best club in the world.”

It is no coincidence though that Madrid’s 12-year wait for La Decima in 2014 came when Modric was fully settled post-Jose Mourinho and thriving under Carlo Ancelotti.

Squawka’s Muhammad Butt convincingly explained last year why Sergio Busquets is the best midfielder in world football and it is hard to argue against the case with a quick glance at his international pedigree.

Busquets was integral to La Roja’s World Cup and European Championship domination; no one shields their defence better than the 27-year-old protector.

But as impressive as his talents unequivocally are, Busquets’ silverware was reaped due to the wealth of talent amidst Spain’s golden generation, something not exactly on offer to Modric.

With an estimated population of 4.3 million, Croatia only declared independence in the early 1990s, gaining acknowledgement from Fifa and Uefa by 1993.

Five years later, in their first World Cup appearance, they finished third. It remains their best finish in a major tournament.

Nonetheless, since their break away from Yugoslavia, the 2010 World Cup and the 2000 European Championships remain the only tournaments they’ve failed to qualify for.

They travel to France this summer having qualified second to Italy in Group H after losing only one match. Ivan Perisic finished as the group’s top scorer with six goals and Croatia’s midfield is one of the best on the continent.

Alongside Modric there is fellow Liga star Ivan Rakitic, wearer of rival colours at domestic level but similarly instrumental in red and white.

A glance down the team-sheet takes you to Matteo Kovacic, the man who joined Modric in Spain’s capital last year.

Like his compatriot, he may have struggled in his first season with Madrid (readers of Marca prematurely voted Modric the worst signing of the year) but let us not forget Kovacic’s past imperiousness in Serie A.

Add Arsenal-linked Marcelo Brozovic to the list and you’ve got four versatile midfielders. Perisic, Mario Mandzukic and Nikola Kalinic complete the array with all-time record appearance holder Darijo Srna leading his charges from defence.

Despite boasting their most talented squad for years, they aren’t without their controversies, however; there are huge fears that Croatia’s best ever team will fail to get past the group stages.

Ante Cacic was only appointed in September 2015 and is hardly the most popular of coaches.

The 63-year-old is yet to settle on his favoured formation, switching between a 4-4-2 and a 3-5-2 after inheriting 4-2-3-1 and the 4-4-2 midfield diamond from his predecessor, Niko Kovac. It’s anyone’s guess which set-up will be used in France.

The one thing that remains a certainty is the starting berth of Modric though, who could seamlessly slip into any midfield role asked of him.

He won 35 tackles in La Liga last season – more than title-winning Wes Morgan in England.

He made 62 interceptions – more than high-flying right-back Dani Alves across Spain.

He created 61 chances – more than Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale and all of his Real Madrid teammates. He did all of this while upholding a pass accuracy of 91%.

At 30, Modric is the most complete footballer on the planet and, with a little help from his teammates, the only Croatian to ever be voted into the Fifa World XI will be vying to make national history over the next four weeks.

If anyone can lead their country to glory, it’s Modric, the most underrated star due on display this summer.