Luka Modric has won football's highest individual honor, having been named the winner of FIFA's The Best award for the 2017-18 season. The Croatian is both adored and hated in his homeland. DW explains why this is so.
No tattoos, no gel in his hair and a closely-guarded private life; Luka Modric seems like a footballer from an earlier time.
The 172-centimeter (5 ft. 8 in.) tall captain of the Croatian national team is shy, and press conferences or interviews aren't his thing. He finds it difficult to speak about himself. But on the pitch, he is the boss.
"The war, life in the refugee camp hardened me," he once said of his early years growing up during the Croatian War of Independence.
It certainly hardened him enough to withstand stiff competition to establish himself as a regular at Real Madrid. "El Pony," as he is known to his teammates, wears the number 10 jersey at Real – a sign of appreciation for his achievements. Modric is both a battler and a technician with deadly passes over 30-40 yards with the outside of his boot his signature move.
'The best Croatian player of all time'
The 33-year-old is a strong and tireless runner, who is never afraid to take men on with the ball and never shys away from a tackle despite his small frame. He takes responsibility on the pitch, takes great care of the ball and his vision is exceptional.
Monday's win is just the latest in a string of recent individual honors for the Real Madrid midfielder. Having led Croatia to the final of the World Cup in Russia, where they lost to France, Modric was awarded the Golden Ball. Just a few weeks ago, he was named European player of the year.
"Luka is not only the best of our players right now, he is the best Croatian player of all time," teammate Ivan Rakitic of Barcelona said during the tournament in Russia. A relentless creator and runner, Modric won over his critics, including those back home in Croatia.
He played so well, it looked as if he'd managed to forget about the storm surrounding the charges related to alleged false testimony made in his appearance as a witness in the court case against Zdravko and Zoran Mamic. This is the other side of Luka Modric.
During his testimony earlier this year, Modric was asked about the circumstances of his 2008 transfer from Dinamo Zagreb to Tottenham. At first he said that he had agreed to a deal in which the then-Dinamo executive director, Zdravko Mamic personally received part of his transfer fee.
Later, Modric denied this, saying he couldn't remember the details of the contracts in question. If found guilty of perjury,the world footballer of the year could face up to six years in prison.
The court in Osijek hearing the case, found the Mamic brothers guilty of embezzling around €15 million ($16.6 million) and evading €1.6 million in taxes. Zdravko Mamic has so far avoided going to prison by fleeing to neighboring Bosnia. The conviction is not yet final.
The national team captain is worshipped by many in Croatia, but his court appearances have lost him some of that affection. Many fans are disappointed, unable to understand his on-off memory when it comes to the Mamic case – as well as his dubious ties to the "Godfather" of Croatian football.
One day after Modric's spectacular loss of memory during the Mamic trial, banners heaping abuse upon him were put up on walls in Zadar, his hometown on the Dalmatian coast.
On the façade of the hotel where a six-year-old Modric and his family found refuge during the war in the early-to-mid 1990s was written: "Luka, you will remember this day."
On the one hand, it's natural to expect high-paid athletes to function as role models, says Dario Brentin of the Center for Southeast European Studies at the University of Graz. On the other hand…
"…Modric is not seen as the puppet master, but as a small cog in Croatia's corrupt and nepotistic Mamic-directed football machine. As a result, his missteps will largely be forgiven.”
As a result, there is a certain public ambivalence about Modric, though the euphoria and pride elicited by the successes of the national team tend to carry more weight. For a long time, athletes have been considered by many to be the best ambassadors for Croatia. Politicians know how to use that to their advantage and like to bask in the glory of the Vatreni. "Sport has a key role for the nation's identity,” Brentin told DW.
The journalists charged with investigating the scandals and critically reporting on the role of those representing the national team are often referred to as "traitors to the fatherland”. Like Alexander Holiga of online portal Telesport:
"Given that the national team players represent not only Croatian sport, but the whole country, then the support of the Vatreni is seen as a supreme patriotic duty.”
The end of an era
Modric being named as the world's best male footballer signals the end of an era as, for the first time in a decade, neither Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi have claimed world football's most prestigious individual award. He's written Croatian sporting history in Holiga's opinion, but more importantly, Modric winning the award sends the right signal, despite all the irritation regarding his statements and the connection with the Mamic clan.
"Players like Modric are the antitheses of modern football. Nowadays, individual brilliance and the stars themselves are glorified. We now talk of heroes. Modric is not a show-off, above all he's a team player, the heart of the team, the motor. He connects the individual parts of the collective and makes them better.”