Croatia's midfielder Luka Modric (R) and Croatia's coach Zlatko Dalic celebrate after winning the Russia 2018 World Cup semi-final football match between Croatia and England.
Croatia's midfielder Luka Modric (R) and Croatia's coach Zlatko Dalic celebrate after winning the Russia 2018 World Cup semi-final football match between Croatia and England.

From refugee to $320k a week

CROATIA'S win against England in the World Cup semi-finals is a major feat in itself, but it means much more than you may think, especially for captain Luka Modric.

The country ended England's "it's coming home" dream as the boys in chequered red and white defied all odds, claiming a victorious win of 2-1.

For a country of just 4.1 million that gained independence in 1991, it is quite the achievement.

"What they have done here, we'll try and put in context, because what Croatia have achieved is something simply extraordinary," said Craig Foster, former Socceroo and SBS football analyst.

"I'm looking at all the previous World Cup finals and there has been 20 today and you have to go back to Uruguay in 1930 and 1950 to talk about a country of this type of small population making a World Cup."

Growing up in Zadar, Modric won accolades for his local team.
Growing up in Zadar, Modric won accolades for his local team.

Helping guide his team to their first ever World Cup final was Modric. The former child refugee now earning $320,000 a week at Real Madrid.

He is one the world's best footballers, no doubt, but there is a backstory leading to his reputable status and success that has led him to become such a valuable player.

Modric, like many of Croatia's senior players, survived far tougher times than the tension of the World Cup as children during the Balkans War - and so Modric's childhood was anything but traditional.

Born in 1985, Modric spent part of his childhood in the Velebit mountain surrounded by signs warning of "Mines - Keep out!"

The 32-year-old spent his early years there and in the nearby village of Zaton Obrovacki until Croatia's 1990s independence war against Yugoslavian communists and Serbian forces broke out.

Modric rarely talks about his blighted childhood, but back in 2008 when he signed for Spurs he briefly addressed the hardships of his childhood.

"When the war started we became refugees and it was a really tough time," Modric revealed.

"I was six years old. These were really hard times. I remember them vividly but it's not something you want to remember or think about."

Despite living in a hotel for many years and struggling financially, there was one thing that gave him hope.

"I always loved football," he said. "I remember my first shin pads had the Brazilian Ronaldo on them and I loved them."

His mental strength and football capability has a lot to do with his past.

In a rare recent interview he said: "I never relax because if you relax in football your level drops and it can be difficult to get back into it. I will be like that until the day I retire."

"I think a lot of things that happened to me as a child in Croatia have left me feeling like I should never ease up."

Luka Modric endured a tough childhood.
Luka Modric endured a tough childhood.

Even a close childhood friend of Modric agreed, believing that such a hard background has contributed to his character and mental strength.

"It is certainly one of the factors that contributed … that drove him to become one of the best in the world," said Marijan Buljat, who trained and played with the now captain of Croatia.

"It happened a million times that we were going to training as the shells were falling, and we were running to shelters," Buljat was reported saying in Daily Nation.

While it surely doesn't show on the field, Modric battled a tough upbringing - his grandfather also named Luka, was executed at the hands of Serbian militants.

It is understood he lived with a young Luka and his parents who were then forced to live as refugees, hopping from hostel-to-hostel in the town of Zadar before finding a permanent home.

The burned out former house Modric lived in with his grandfather
The burned out former house Modric lived in with his grandfather

Josip Bajlo, the then the first-team coach at the First Division club NK Zadar, told AFP he clearly remembers a kid kicking a ball against a wall of a hostel car park

"I heard about a little hyperactive boy constantly playing with a football in the corridor of a refugee hotel, even going to sleep with it," Bajlo said.

It was during this moment Modric began to make a name for himself as a brilliant player.

Bajlo described Modric as the "greatest player in our history' and signed him up straight away for the club's football school, where he immediately stood out.

"Already children saw in him then what we are all seeing in him now in football terms," Bajlo told AFP.

Fast-forward to the early 2000s Modric left for Dinamo Zagreb before joining the English Premier League club Tottenham Hotspur in 2008.

Tottenham scout Eddie Presland flew to Zagreb in 2007 to watch a promising Brazilian-born striker called Eduardo, the AFP reported, but another player caught his attention, Luka Modric.

Ultimately, Presland went back three times to watch Modric before - aware of growing interest from Newcastle - Tottenham chairman Daniel Levy flew by private jet to Croatia to sign him in the summer of 2008.

While some players weren't fully convinced about the "scrawny" looking Modric, his skill and overall attitude quickly turned that around.

"He is like Raul," said former Real and Croatia defender Robert Jarni. "He leads with his football and his effort. He doesn't need to shout or make a big show."

Modric has worked hard on his physique since leaving Spurs for Madrid for £30 million ($AU53 million) in 2012, even paying for his own personal trainer, AFP reported.

Last October, Modric was named for the third time in the FIFA FIFPro team selected by thousands of professional players. In 2015, he became the first Croatian voted on to the FIFPro XI.

For Modric, one can only assume, there was no better feeling than when that final whistle blew against England in the World Cup semi-finals.

The country, its players have a lot to celebrate. Despite a challenging past, they have managed to create a new history - their first ever World Cup final.

"So what Croatia has achieved tonight is, in sporting terms, not just football but in global sporting history terms unbelievable," SBS sports analyst Foster concluded.

Croatia joins an exclusive club of 13 nations that has advanced to a World Cup final in a tournament where powers Brazil, Germany, Argentina and Spain made early exits.