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Luka Modric in pursuit of elusive title with Croatia

Srecko Matic
June 14, 2024

Luka Modric remains the heart and soul of Croatia as he heads into what is likely his final international tournament, Euro 2024. However, the Real Madrid superstar is not without controversy in his homeland.

Luka Modric gestures in a Croatia jersey
Even at 38, Luka Modric remains Croatia's biggest starImage: Laci Perenyi/IMAGO

Croatia is engulfed in football fever again – especially since captain Luka Modric led the Vatreni (fiery ones) to a 2-1 win over Portugal in Lisbon last Saturday. The veteran star of Champions League winners Real Madrid was Croatia's linchpin in their last friendly ahead of Euro 2024.

His and Croatia's goal at the European Championship is nothing less than the title, Croatian sports reporter Ines Goda Forjan told DW.

"This will probably be his last major tournament with Croatia," said Forjan, who reported on the national team from their training camp northwest of Berlin.

"He is a special player, very focused on the European Championship, very motivated. He wants to make history with Croatia."

The captain's missing title

Given its population of just 3.9 million, the Adriatic nation has certainly punched above its weight in recent years, having come third at the 1998 World Cup, losing to France in the final in 2018, coming third again in 2022 – before losing in the Nations League final to Spain on penalties one year ago. The only thing that is missing is a title – for their captain.

Ines Goda Forjan
Croatian sports jounalist Ines Goda ForjanImage: RTL Hrvatska

"A gold medal as a farewell present, that's Modric's dream," Forjan said.

There's no question about it: Modric makes his teammates better, provides the rest of the team with self-confidence and serves as national team coach Zlatko Dalic's assistant on the pitch. Going into Euro 2024 he had 175 caps and 25 goals to his name. It's hard to argue with Goda Forjan's assertion that he is simply the "best Croatian footballer of all time."

'As long as they need me'

At 38, Modric has reached an age at which many stars have long since retired from international football to concentrate on their domestic careers. So what keeps him turning out for Croatia? 

"I keep playing because it is still something special for me. There's no better feeling for me than playing for my country," he said in an interview published on FIFA's website prior to the 2022 World Cup. "I would love to keep playing for my country as long as they need me and as long I can help them."

This dedication is not lost on the Croatian fans.

"Studies clearly show that the success of the Croatian national team is one of the main reasons why they (Croatians) are proud to be Croatian," Dario Brentin of the University of Graz in Austria told DW.

"The successes in football, but also in other sports, are often among the three most important patriotic, identity-forming moments in Croatian history, alongside Croatian independence and the so-called Homeland War," added the researcher, who specializes in sport and politics in the Balkans.

Dario Brentin
Balkans sports and politics expert Dario BrentinImage: Privat

Football as an escape from war

The reasons for Modric's love of the national team and his country can be traced back to his childhood, which was shaped by the war that broke out in 1991 after Croatia declared its independence from the former Yugoslavia. The village where he had grown up until the age of 6 was occupied by Serb rebels and he and his family fled to nearby Zadar on the Adriatic coast.

During the war, his grandfather Luka, after whom he was named, was killed. Modric has described the loss of his grandfather as "the event that shaped me for life."

Football offered him an escape from everything that was happening around him. He first kicked a ball on the dusty grounds of a Zadar hotel, which became home to his family during the war.

"In 1991, he lived as a refugee in Zadar. In 2018, he was voted the world's best footballer," says Ines Goda Forjan, describing Modric's difficult path to becoming a world star. "In 2024, he won the Champions League for the sixth time. Croatians love sport, but they love success even more. These successes, especially in football, gave rise to huge national pride."

Controversial consort

However, this general sense of national pride can sometimes morph into nationalism. Footballers in particular have been no strangers to controversy in recent years

The unofficial anthem of the Croatian national team is "Lijepa li si" (You are beautiful), a patriotic song by the controversial Croatian rock musician Thompson, who critics regard as a right-wing extremist. His biggest hit is "Bojna Cavoglave" (Cavoglava Battalion), which opens with "Za dom spremni" (Ready for the homeland), the greeting used by the World War II fascist Ustasha regime.

Former Croatia and Hertha Berlin defender Josip Simunic was banned from the 2014 World Cup after leading some members of the crowd in the chant following a qualifier in Split.

Croatian players celebrating at Trg Ban Jelacic following the 2018 World Cup
Controversial singer Thompson (third from left) joined Croatian players on stage following the 2018 World CupImage: Goran Stanzl/picture alliance

The song has been played and sung in the dressing room of the Croatian national team. Modric and his teammates also welcomed Thompson, whose real name is Marko Perkovic, on to the stage in the central square in Zagreb during the celebrations that followed the 2018 World Cup.

Many fans are critical of this proximity. The players sometimes give the impression that they don't even know what the fuss is about. Modric has never commented on the matter, nor has he distanced himself from it.

This disappoints Brentin, the University of Graz academic.

"I would have liked him, as a moral authority, which is what he is perceived to be, to take the opportunity to address certain things in society that are problematic, unpleasant or questionable," he said.

Loved and hated

Six years ago, Modric also caused irritation with strange court appearances. He appeared as a witness in the trial against Zdravko Mamic, a former longtime top executive at Dinamo Zagreb. In 2018, he was sentenced to six and a half years in prison in Croatia for tax fraud. He evaded the sentence by fleeing across the border to his native Bosnia-Herzegovina, where he has lived ever since.

Modric too was charged with giving false testimony in favor of Mamic, although this was later rejected by a Zagreb court. This left many fans disillusioned with the midfield star.

However, as Brentin noted, this sentiment didn't last for long.

"What counts for most people… are his footballing skills. That's why his missteps are largely forgiven."

Even more so, if Luka Modric leads Croatia to the title at his last major tournament.

This article was originally published in German.