Croatia's Luka Modric has been at the center of everything his team have accomplished in the FIFA World Cup 2018 so far. Here we look at the man's journey to the grandest stage in football.
The Croatian team's run to the final of the FIFA World Cup 2018 has been something of a cause for celebration all by itself - the 3-0 thrashing of Argentina, the three consecutive extra time games (with two of them leading to penalty shot-out wins). While it is true that no player is greater than the team, certain players are vital for the team to click the way it does. One such player is Luka Modric, captain of the Croatian national team.
Modric's rise to the top has not been easy. As a child, he witnessed the horrors of the Croatian war in Modrici, where his grandfather, a soldier, was murdered by the Serbs. The young Luka Modric was close to his grandfather. In an attempt to escape the chaos, his parents decided to move the family to the port city of Zadar.
Things did not improve there as the city was open to attacks from both, land and sea. But Luka did spend a lot of time running around with a football - in the corridors of the hotel where his family stayed and out by the front. Meanwhile, his father managed to make ends meet for the family by working as a mechanic for the Croatian military.
Josip Baljo, a director at local club NK Zadar , received a call from one of the workers at the hotel about a seven-year-old boy who regularly played football in the parking lot. Baljo went down to the hotel to check out the boy, and was impressed. He enrolled the boy into the club's youth academy, and arranged for his family to move to a hotel closer to the club's training ground.
Training sessions, while a great escape from the tragedies of war, were still fraught with danger. Air raids, incoming mortar and grenades were always a threat, and the kids had to run inside for safety as quickly as possible.
Despite the war, Modric's development as a player continued. His coaches saw great potential because of his touch and movement with the ball. The biggest challenge, however, was his physique. Modric was too small and skinny. Croatian football, in those days, was full of big players who looked strong. Consequently, Modric was considered by many to be unfit for a career in football.
At the age of 12, Modric got the dream call for a trial with his favourite club, Hajduk Split. The club however, were not impressed and told him to try again next year.
Modric considered quitting the game after that, but Tomislav Basic, head of Zadar's youth academy and a "second father" to the youngster, convinced him otherwise. Basic recruited a personal trainer to work with the teenager and help him build his confidence.
In 2001, at the age of 16, Modric signed with Dinamo Zagreb after an impressive youth tournament in Italy as well as his debut for Croatia U-15s. The club sent him out on loan to Zrinjski Mostar in the Bosnian League, after 18 months in the Dinamo youth team. The physically demanding league helped him develop into a stronger player - racial slurs and bullying from the opposition were common, and Modric learnt to maintain his composure.
Dinamo sent him on another loan, as he played for Croatian league side Inter Zapresic in the 2004-05 season. He led the club to a runners-up place in the domestic league - the only time they ever managed that feat. Further, he emerged as a gifted player for his country, earning U-21 caps.
Dinamo Zagreb finally offered him a 10 year contract, as he led the club to three Croatian league titles and three domestic cups, as well as picking up several player of the year awards, and earning his first international cap.
His impressive abilities led to a move to English Premier League side Tottenham Hotspur, where he spent four years, including a run to the quarter-finals of the UEFA Champions League in the 2010-11 season.
In the 2012-13 season, Modric made the big move to Spanish giants Real Madrid. His achievements with the club have been nothing short of incredible - four Champions League titles, three UEFA Supercups, three Club World Cups, two Spanish Supercopa titles, one Copa del Rey, and one La Liga title.
Modric was instrumental in Madrid's win against Liverpool FC in the Champions League final in May, and barely two months from that date, he has led his national team to the World Cup final.
He has played all six of Croatia's World Cup games leading to the final, and spent 604 minutes on the pitch. His hard-working ethic has been on show throughout; he has covered the most distance by any player in the tournament with 63 kms.
10 attempts on goal, two goals scored, and 16 chances created. Combine these attacking stats with those of his usual role in mid-field: 368 out of 443 passes completed, and 30 ball recoveries. A clear picture of a potential World Cup winner, and a Player of the Year winner begins to emerge.
A classier and more deserving player would be hard to find, to fill in the void left by Messi and Ronaldo.