Luka Modric: the Greatest Croatian footballer who anchored his country’s Golden Generation | Sunday Observer

Luka Modric: the Greatest Croatian footballer who anchored his country’s Golden Generation

22 January, 2023
Luka Modric
Luka Modric

Luka Modric is a professional footballer who captains the Croatia national team and plays for La Liga club Real Madrid. He plays as a central midfielder but can also play as an attacking midfielder or as a defensive midfielder. He is widely regarded as one of the greatest midfielders of all time and the greatest ever Croatian footballer.

Modric made his international debut for Croatia against Argentina and scored his first international goal in a friendly against Italy in 2006. Modric has anchored Croatia’s “Second Golden Generation,” participating in every major tournament Croatia has qualified for, including four FIFA World Cups of 2006, 2014, 2018, and 2022 and four UEFA Euro Cups of 2008, 2012, 2016, and 2020.

At the Euro 2008, he was selected for the Team of the Tournament, becoming only the second Croatian to ever achieve the honour. Following group stage eliminations in his first two World Cups, Modric led Croatia to the 2018 FIFA World Cup Final, winning the Golden Ball. At the 2022 FIFA World Cup, he led the team to a third-place finish, winning the Bronze Ball.

Modric has been named Croatian Footballer of the Year a record ten times between 2007 and 2021. In 2002, he was signed by Dinamo Zagreb at 16, after showing promise with his hometown club NK Zadar’s youth team. 

He continued his development in Zagreb, before spells on loan to Zrinjski Mostar and Inter Zapresic.

In 2015, he became the first Croatian player to be included in the FIFA FIFPRO World XI, in which he was regularly included until 2019, as well in the UEFA Team of the Year between 2016 and 2018.

In 2018, Modric became the first Croatian player to win the UEFA Men’s Player of the Year Award, and by winning The Best FIFA Men’s Player and Ballon d’Or awards, he became the first player other than Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo to claim the awards in more than a decade. In 2019, he was awarded the Golden Foot award for career results and personality.

He has won twenty-one major trophies at Real Madrid, including five UEFA Champions League titles, three La Liga titles, one Copa del Rey and four FIFA Club World Cup titles. He won the La Liga Award for “Best Midfielder” in 2016 for the second time and the UEFA Club Football Award for “Best Midfielder” in 2017 and 2018.

Player Profile

A diminutive and technically gifted midfielder, Modric is typically deployed as a creative play-maker and sets the tempo of the match by controlling possession from the middle of the pitch. He has been widely applauded for his swift passing and long-range shots, both often in the style of the trivela technique, as well as his composure and ability to evade tackles under pressure.

He is also noted for his tactical intelligence and versatility in both attack and defence, as well as his vision, interpretation of space, and work rate. Modric is considered a veteran of the “pre-assist” or build-up play, often creating space and time for his teammates to shoot or deliver goal-bound passes to other players.

He is also effective at taking set pieces, particularly corners or wide free kicks. Modric has been integral to the success of both the Croatia national team and Real Madrid. He has earned the nicknames “the midfield Maestro”, “the magician” and “the puppet master.”

He had the second-highest count of key passes per game (2.06) in the team, as well as a very high pass accuracy rate (87%), with the highest passes per game count (62.5) in the team, the most long balls per game (5.6), the most successful dribbles (2.2), interceptions (2.5), and the highest tackle (1.9) count per game among others.

In 2013/14 season, Modric made more tackles (56) than any other Real Madrid player in La Liga with an average number of 2.86 tackles per match, as well as making the most completed passes (878) in the opposition half of the pitch among Real Madrid players.

In 2014/15 season, Modric’s average passing accuracy was between 91.6-92%, while his highest completion rate in a single match occurred in October against Barcelona when he completed all 42 attempted passes. 

Modric’s technical ability has been heralded and he has been consistently praised by some of the sport’s most experienced managers, including Johan Cruyff, Alex Ferguson, Pep Guardiola, and Sven-Goran Eriksson.

Slaven Bilic said Modric “is a player who makes others better, they all benefit from him being in the team. He’s not selfish, he’s playing for the team ... he’s a complete player; good in defence, good in offence - it looks like he was born with the ball at his feet.”

Birth and Growth

Luka Modric was born on September 9, 1985 and was raised in the hamlet of Modrici, north of the city of Zadar in SR Croatia, then a republic within SFR Yugoslavia. He is the oldest child of Stipe Modric from Modrici and Radojka Dopud from Krusevo.

Modric mostly spent his early years in the stone house of his paternal grandfather after whom he was named. His childhood coincided with the Croatian War of Independence in 1991 and when the war escalated, the family was forced to flee and he became a refugee and lived with his family.

His father joined the Croatian Army as an aeromechanic. He recalls it as a tough time for his family and something which shaped him as a person. Modric began playing football and entered the primary school and a sporting academy in 1992. 

Modric began his international career at youth level, playing for the Croatian under 15, under 17, under 18, under 19 and under 21 teams. He has scored 3 goals in his 37 appearances of youth career for Croatia from 2001 to 2005. Modric made his full international debut for Croatia on March 1, 2006 in a friendly match against Argentina which Croatia won 3-2.

He made his debut for Dinamo in 2005 and won three consecutive league titles and domestic cups, being named the Prva HNL Player of the Year in 2007. In 2008, he moved to Premier League club Tottenham Hotspur for a club-record transfer fee of £16.5 million, where he led Spurs to their first UEFA Champions League appearance in almost 50 years, reaching the quarterfinals in 2010/11.

In 2012, Modric joined Real Madrid for a £30 million transfer fee. There he became a key player and helped to win La Decima. After Zinedine Zidane took over Madrid, Modric was critical to three consecutive Champions League titles from 2015/16 to 2017/18, each time being voted into the squad of the season.

Modric married Vanja Bosnic in 2010 and blessed with a son, Ivano, born in 2010 and two daughters Ema, born in 2013 and Sofia, born in 2017. Modric released his autobiography Mojaigra (My Game), co-written by sports journalist Robert Matteoni in 2019.

Modric has scored 23 goals in his 162 appearances of his international career from 2006 to 2022.He has scored 76 goals in his 573 appearances of the senior club career from 2003 to 2022.

2006 World Cup

Modric made two appearances at the 2006 FIFA World Cup finals as a substitute in the group fixtures against Japan and Australia. Later, he earned greater recognition at international level, scoring his first goal in Croatia’s 2-0 friendly win over world champions Italy on August 16, 2006.

Modric’s performances ensured a regular place in the international side and in Croatia’s UEFA Euro 2008 qualifying campaign, which included home and away victories against England. Modric was often dubbed “the Croatian Cruyff.”

Modric scored Croatia’s first goal of Euro 2008, converting a penalty in their 1–0 victory against hosts Austria on June 8, 2008 and becoming the team’s youngest ever goal scorer at the European Championships at 22 years and 273 days. It was also the fastest penalty ever awarded and scored in the European Championships history.

He was named UEFA Man of the Match in Croatia’s next match when they defeated the eventual finalists Germany. In the quarter-final, Turkey won the penalty shootout3–1. At the end of the competition, Modric was included in the UEFA Team of the Tournament, becoming only the second Croatian to achieve this honour after Davor Suker.

2010 World Cup

In the 2010 World Cup qualifiers, Modric scored three goals, against Kazakhstan, Andorra, and Ukraine, matching Ivica Olic, Ivan Rakitic and Eduardo. After appearing in all their UEFA Euro 2012 qualifying matches and scoring a goal against Israel, Modric started in Croatia’s three group stage matches against Ireland, Italy, and Spain.

2014 World Cup

After the playoffs, Modric with the Croatian team qualified for the 2014 World Cup. They entered Group A with hosts Brazil, Mexico, and Cameroon. Croatia played the opening match against Brazil, which they lost 3–1. In the second match, Croatia won 4–0 against Cameroon, but did not progress to the knockout stage after losing 3–1 to Mexico.

In the Euro 2016 qualifying rounds, Modric scored his first goals for Croatia in three years, the first against Malta on his 29th birthday, then a penalty against Azerbaijan. On March 3, 2015, Modric captained Croatia for the first time, in an away draw against Azerbaijan. In Croatia’s opening group stage match against Turkey, Modric scored the match-winning goal.

He became the first Croatian to score at the finals of two separate European Championships, having previously scored against Austria in 2008 and was named Man of the Match. He was awarded the FIFA Club World Cup Silver Ball in 2016 and a year later the FIFA Club World Cup Golden Ball in 2017.

2018 World Cup

For Croatia’s 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign, Modric became the new team captain. Croatia started the campaign well. However, following 1–0 defeats to Iceland and Turkey and a 1–1 draw with Finland, which was Modric’s 100th appearance for the national team, Croatia seriously compromised their qualification for the tournament.

This caused Modric to publicly state his lack of confidence in coach and was soon replaced by Zlatko Dalic ahead of Croatia’s final qualifier against Ukraine, which Croatia won 2-0 and won a place in the play-offs. Modric scored a penalty in the 4-1 victory over Greece in the second qualifying round, enabling his team to qualify for the World Cup.

Croatia was placed in Group D alongside Argentina, Iceland, and Nigeria. During the tournament, Modric along with Ivan Rakitic and Mario Mandzukic were referred to as Croatia’s “Second Golden Generation.” In Croatia’s opening win against Nigeria, Modric once again successfully executed a penalty kick and was named Man of the Match.

He also scored in Croatia’s subsequent 3-0 win over Argentina with a long-range shot from 23 metres, also being named Man of the Match. After also featuring in the final group stage match, against Iceland his performances in the first round of the tournament saw him ranked as the best player of the group stage.

In the round of 16 against Denmark, with the score tied at 1–1, Modric created a goal scoring opportunity in the second half of extra-time but was not successful. However, he managed to score his spot-kick during the ensuing penalty shoot-out and Croatia advanced to the next round following a 3-2 victory on penalties.

In the quarterfinals against hosts Russia, Modric provided an assist in extra-time and once again scored in the victorious penalty shoot-out following a 2–2 draw, winning Man of the Match for the third time in the tournament.

In the semi-final against England, Croatia advanced to the World Cup final for the first time in their history following a 2-1 victory in extra time. It was reported two days before the final match that Modric ran the most miles out of any player and had most dribbles per match and completed passes in the opponent’s half in his team.

Although Croatia was beaten 4-2 by France in the final, Modric was awarded the Golden Ball for the best player of the tournament and was included in the Team of the Tournament. After the squad’s huge welcome in Zagreb, Modric and his teammates were welcomed by tens of thousands of people in their hometown of Zadar.

Modric was bestowed the honour, the Order of Duke Branimir in 2018. Besides, he won the FIFA World Cup Golden Ball and the Best FIFA Men’s Player in 2018. He was also named to the FIFA World Cup Fantasy Team as well as the FIFA World Cup Dream Team in 2018.

2022 World Cup

During the Euro 2020 qualifying rounds, Modric scored two goals; a penalty in the away 1–1 draw with Azerbaijan and a solo-effort in the home 3–0 victory over Hungary as Croatia topped the group and qualified for the tournament. 

On March 24, 2021, Modric made his 134th appearance for the national team in a 2022 World Cup qualifying defeat to Slovenia, equalling Darijo Srna as the most capped player in the history of the team. Three days later, in a 1–0 victory over Cyprus, he surpassed Srna’s record.

Despite Croatia’s poor showings in their first two group stage games of the UEFA Euro 2020, Modric was named the Man of the Match in the second, a 1–1 draw with the Czech Republic. Four days later, in the 3–1 victory over Scotland, Modric scored Croatia’s second goal and provided an assist for the third goal as Croatia progressed to the round of 16.

Modric’s goal made him Croatia’s oldest ever goal scorer at the European Championships at 35 years and 286 days, while simultaneously holding the record for the youngest goal scorer that he set in 2008. During the 2022 World Cup qualifying, Modric scored three times and assisted twice in seven appearances.

He scored a penalty in a 1-0 away win over France in the 2023 UEFA Nations League match. Also, he scored opening goal in the last group’s game and 3-1 away victory against Austria, helping the team advance to the 2023 UEFA Nations League Finals.

In the first and third group stage games of Croatia’s 2022 FIFA World Cup against Morocco and Belgium, he was named the Man of the Match. He became the first player to play in both the European Championship and the World Cup in three different decades.

In the round of 16 and quarterfinals, Croatia advanced on penalties against Japan and Brazil, with Modric scoring in the shoot-out against Brazil, and captaining Croatia to a second consecutive World Cup semi-final where they lost 3–0 to Argentina. In the third-place play-off, Croatia prevailed 2–1 over Morocco, and Modric won the FIFA World Cup Bronze Ball.

(The author is an Associate Professor, International Scholar, winner of Presidential Awards and multiple National Accolades for Academic pursuits. He possesses a PhD, MPhil, and double MSc. His email is [email protected])