He's loved in Madrid, but in Croatia? It's complicated for Luka Modric
When Real Madrid signed Luka Modric from Tottenham in the summer of 2012, they weren't exactly sure what they were getting or where he was going to fit. Jose Mourinho's team had won La Liga the previous season, and the midfield already included Xabi Alonso, Sami Khedira, Michael Essien, Mesut Ozil and Kaka.
Some Spanish media compared Modric to Johan Cruyff, largely because of the mop of hair. Others imagined him in midfield, while fretting over whether he had the physicality to hold his own in the trenches. Mourinho himself, facing the constraints of his most difficult season and preoccupied with finding the right mix, only began to start him -- and leave him on the pitch for 90 minutes -- in the new year.
For Modric, it was the curse of the jack-of-all-trades. By the following year, there was no question where he belonged: in the middle of the pitch, letting his football brain of a GPS work out the details. Real Madrid stormed to "La Decima," the club's 10th European Cup. One season later, he got hurt in November and only returned in March. In his absence, the team slipped from first to second place behind Barcelona, and they would never recover.
At this stage, there was little question -- Modric was the glue that held Madrid together, the fulcrum that balanced Sergio Ramos' crew at the back and the BBC up front. He was the team's most important player not named Cristiano, possibly alongside Ramos, whose intangibles weigh heavily.
The last two seasons culminated in two more Champions League titles. The difference is that Modric is now truly free. There's a genuine holding midfielder alongside him (Casemiro) as well as an intuitive, elegant passer (Toni Kroos) and a creative force who can invent football out of nothing (Isco).
Modric still does all these things; the difference is he doesn't have to. He can pick his spots, following the inputs and instinct of a footballing brain that simply works faster and more efficiently than most. He can go on mazy dribbling runs. He can track back to block passing lanes. And he can dictate as a traditional playmaker.
The legendary Dragan Stojkovic, the cult hero of Yugoslav football who dominated behind the Iron Curtain and was cruelly hacked down by injuries once he got his big move to the West, gave the Real Madrid star the highest compliment when he watched Modric as a kid. "I saw a small blond boy who played exactly like I would," Stojkovic said. That's a bit like having Warren Buffett tell a first-time investor, "Gee, I would have picked those very stocks."
Yet for all the cool and calm the 32-year-old Modric exudes -- he has been sent off just once in his career -- and for all the right choices he makes on the pitch in the white of Real, his parallel existence with Croatia is as chequered as their jersey. You would think, as the best player and team captain with 101 caps under his belt, Modric would be the team's emotional leader, the veteran hero universally loved and adored as they go into a World Cup playoff against Greece.
Not quite, because should they make it to Russia, Modric will lead them burdened with a storm of distrust and ambivalence, most of it aimed toward him. It's to do with a long-running dispute at the heart of Croatian football, where a man named Zdravko Mamic exercised an outsized influence for most of the past two decades.
Chickens came home to roost at Euro 2016 against the Czech Republic, when Croatia fans -- angry at what they thought was inaction by the authorities and by their Football Association -- showered the pitch with flares.
The fans' anger at the time wasn't directed at the players, most of whom were seen as victims of circumstance, especially Modric. It was well known -- and later confirmed by court documents -- that Mamic had bankrolled a number of promising young players, including Modric, in exchange for a cut of their future earnings.
But perceptions changed last summer, when Modric was called to testify at Mamic's trial for embezzlement and tax fraud, which is ongoing. Modric recanted key parts of his previous testimony, saying he was "confused" at the time.
The backlash was intense. Modric had long been a hero on the pitch. Now, in the eyes of Mamic's critics, he was proving to be less than one off it.
Fair? There's a school of thought that says Modric should be allowed to be a footballer and nothing else, that he should not -- 15 years after the fact -- remain entangled in whatever web he was drawn into early in his career. But there's a counter-argument that says that if he wants to be as great off the pitch as he is on it, he needs to do the right thing.
Modric turned 32 in September. He has two, maybe three, years left at this level. Most likely, assuming Croatia get past Greece, this will be his final World Cup. It may also be his final chance to repair the relationship with those who, in spite of everything, will be cheering him on this summer.
Gabriele Marcotti is a Senior Writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.