What’s Croatia’s problem with Luka Modric?

Maja Hitij/FIFA/Getty Images


Nick Miller ESPN FC

If Harry Kane leads England to World Cup glory, he’ll be given a knighthood before the plane home touches down. Should Kylian Mbappe score the winner in Moscow, he’ll be France’s boy king, feted for life. If Eden Hazard is the man who lifts the trophy on July 15, he’ll never again have to pay for another strong Belgian beer.

But if the leader of the winners happens to be Luka Modric, then it might not be quite so straightforward. Modric is, to say the least, not universally popular in Croatia; in fact, he’s actively disliked by large swathes of the population.

Why? It’s a complicated issue, but it essentially boils down to Modric’s relationship with one of Croatian football’s most powerful men. When Modric was coming through the ranks at Dinamo Zagreb, he, like many others, signed a contract with Zdravko Mamic. Mamic has been, at various points, a Dinamo executive and vice-president of the Croatian Football Federation, and for a while at least was essentially Croatian football’s Mr. Big.

Under those agreements, Mamic provided initial financial support in return for a proportion of the player’s later earnings, and would be represented by his son Mario, a licensed agent. Clauses would be inserted into their contracts which stated the players would be due a cut of the transfer fee should they ever be sold. They would then use that money to pay their obligations to Mamic. In Modric’s case, when he moved to Tottenham in 2008 he received €10.5million of the fee, but around €8.5million of that went to Mamic and his family

The trouble came when Mamic was accused of inserting those clauses after the players — including squad members Dejan Lovren, Sime Vrsaljko and Mateo Kovacic, along with Modric– had been sold. In 2015 he was arrested, accused of embezzlement and tax evasion, and was eventually convicted, along with three other men. In June of this year, he was given a jail sentence of six and a half years. He seemingly has no intention of serving that sentence, after fleeing to Bosnia-Herzegovina before the verdict.

So where does Modric come in? In June 2017 he, along with Lovren, testified in Mamic’s trial. Modric said he “couldn’t remember” basic details like how much he earned in his early days at Dinamo and when he made his international debut. Crucially though, he claimed that the contract clauses in question were already in place before his sale to Tottenham in 2008.

However, that seemed to contradict earlier statements, which eventually led to him being charged with perjury in March this year. He could face up to five years in jail if found guilty. Lovren is also being investigated, although he has not been charged.

Even before this, Modric’s popularity in his homeland was low. Fans, sick of corruption in the Croatian game, saw his relationship with Mamic as part of the problem, and a few disrupted their match against Czech Republic at Euro 2016 by throwing flares on to the pitch in protest.

At this World Cup, the antipathy towards Modric continued, whether that was expressed through apathy at the side’s fortunes in Russia or in more specific ways, such as this supporter who had printed on the back of his shirt “Ne sjecam se” — “I don’t remember,” in reference to Modric’s testimony.

And that’s polite compared to some of the graffiti that appeared around Zagreb during the Mamic trial, which included the slightly chilling message: “Luka, you’ll remember this one day.”

Modric, perhaps predictably, hasn’t been keen to discuss his extracurricular concerns. When asked by a reporter from The Guardian before Croatia’s game against Nigeria if the case was a distraction for him or the team, Modric didn’t take it especially well. “Nothing smarter to ask?” he snapped. “It’s a World Cup, it’s not about other things. How long did you prepare for asking this kind of question?”

But what’s remarkable is just how brilliant Modric has been in Russia with all of this hanging over him. Players are routinely left out of matches because their frame of mind is impacted by pending transfers, and yet Modric has been able to produce incredibly performances knowing a possible prison sentence awaits after the tournament.

Still, the brains of some footballers are simply wired differently to others. From Lee Bowyer enjoying brilliant form with Leeds while on trial for assault, right up to John Obi Mikel appearing at this World Cup knowing that his father had been kidnapped, sometimes footballers have an extraordinary ability to compartmentalise and to concentrate their energy on football no matter what else is happening off the pitch.

In this World Cup, he’s been a conductor of subtlety and precision, gently taking teams apart. He was one of only two players left in Croatia’s starting XI for their final group game against Iceland, when they’d already qualified, as if coach Zlatko Dalic couldn’t trust his team to function without Modric on the pitch.

If he leads Croatia to victory over England and then in the final on Sunday, will his popularity be affected? Will on-pitch success save his reputation? Probably not. An unscientific survey of those who would know suggested that positions are entrenched. Those who have decided Modric is not a man to be celebrated are firm in their convictions. Others believe the World Cup is only about football, in which case Modric is already a hero. But it’s unlikely that minds will be changed.

Luka Modric could be a World Cup winner, admired and loved everywhere, except at home.