Out of adversity, Modric to play for World Cup dream

2018-07-14 16:23
Luka Modric (Getty Images)

Moscow — Although small in stature, Luka Modric wields a big influence when he is on the soccer field.

The Croatia playmaker, who will be the key player when his team faces France in the World Cup final on Sunday, has overcome much more than just criticisms about his height in his 32 years.

"I've seen a great deal of hardship in my life," Modric said Saturday, referring to war at home in the 1990s and a recent perjury case. "What is the most important is never to give up, never to give in to circumstances, to trust yourself.

"This was my motive, this is what led me to this point in my life."

If Croatia win at the Luzhniki Stadium, only a few weeks after helping Real Madrid to a third straight Champions League title, Modric will be favored to sweep soccer's most prized individual awards: the Golden Ball as player of the tournament, the Ballon d'Or, and FIFA's annual best player award.

Modric, speaking through a translator, said it was "pleasing" to be mentioned as a contender for those awards, but it was secondary to the issue at hand.

"I'm really focused on my national team," Modric said.

Loyalty and a team-first ethic run through the national team from Croatia, which gained independence from Yugoslavia in 1991 and has only a few players younger than the country itself.

Modric spoke briefly about how this team's toughness has some roots in the Balkan war turmoil, but was reluctant to delve too deeply.

"I don't like to go back to these things. It's all in the past." said Modric, who was a child when his grandfather was killed and his family forced from its home. "Of course, everything influences you. It's made us resilient as people, as the nation."

At 1.72 meters (5-foot-8), Modric was asked about being doubted because of his height. Lionel Messi, however, is a five-time player of the year winner who is listed at 1.70 meters (5-7).

"I'm happy where I am. These things were not a burden, they only further motivated me," Modric said. "You don't have to be a strapping lad to play football."

Size has not stopped Modric from covering more distance than any player at the World Cup, registering 63.03 kilometers (39 miles) in six games, according to FIFA. And after his penalty late in extra time was saved by Denmark goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel in the round of 16, Modric stepped up minutes later to score in the shootout.

There were no questions during a 27-minute news conference with Modric and coach Zlatko Dalic about the criminal case that has clouded Croatian soccer, however.

Modric was charged with perjury in March, and defender Dejan Lovren is under investigation for suspected false statements in support of a former director of Dinamo Zagreb, who also was a vice president of the Croatian soccer federation.

Zdravko Mamic was sentenced last month to 6 1/2 years in prison for embezzlement and tax evasion worth millions of dollars linked to player transfer deals from Dinamo. They included Modric's 2008 sale to Tottenham and Lovren's 2010 move to Lyon.

Mamic has long been a polarizing figure with Croatian fans. Protests against the federation include throwing fireworks on the field to disrupt a game at the 2016 European Championship, and drawing a swastika on the field before a qualifying game.

Croatia regularly plays home games in empty stadiums because of disciplinary orders from FIFA and UEFA.

Dalic said such adversity over a decade made the team stronger.

"Without their character, without their fortitude, they wouldn't have reached this final," the coach said through a translator. "I'm so proud of them."

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