'Luka Modrić deserved the Ballon d’Or, but his status of a role model has been compromised'
Croatian football writer Alex Holiga on Modrić's professional rise and moral fall and what the footballing future holds for his country
The relationship between Luka Modric and the Croatian public has been a complex one over the last year. What was the immediate media and public reaction to him winning the Ballon d'Or, the greatest individual prize in world football?
It is indeed a very complex relationship; everyone has their own answers and ways of looking at the issue. Of course, when he won the Ballon d’Or, a vast majority of the public was happy and proud of him. The media was flooded by all things Modrić for days and people saw that as a massive accomplishment not just for him but also for Croatian football — although it could be argued what the prize really means nowadays and whether he deserved to win it or not. I personally think he deserved it, but I am not a fan of individual prizes such as that one.
Modric captained his country to a World Cup final and has won four of the last five Champions League trophies with Real Madrid but on the other hand, he got charged with perjury and was accused of making false statements at the tax fraud trial of Zdravko Mamic. And even though these charges were dropped a few weeks ago, is Luka the symbol of what’s gone well and at the same time totally wrong with Croatian football in recent years?
Modrić’s story encapsulates all that is both good and bad about Croatian football. On the one hand, you have a kid who is a complete outsider conquering all obstacles and lack of trust in him to make it to the top of the world with his enormous talent as well as (even more so) hard work and dedication. On the other, he was a willing accomplice in something at the very least morally wrong — the court is to decide if it was also illegal. In any case, he took an enormous amount of money from his club just to give it to Mamić, who was very clearly in the conflict of interest — as someone who had a private, vested interest in the player, while at the same time acting as club executive who put a clause in his contract enabling Modrić to get the money to give it to him. For crissakes, he’d go to a bank with members of the Mamić family to transfer the money from his account to theirs or withdraw cash to give it to them — this was money that was supposed to belong to Dinamo and this is something firmly established that not even the Mamić defence is trying to dispute; they are only arguing whether the clause in his contract was backdated or not. To me, that’s a travesty. Let’s put it this way: if you have a kid and want to tell him/her an inspirational story of Luka Modrić’s rise per aspera ad astra, this is something you can’t leave out because otherwise you’d be telling him/her that it’s OK to cheat and lie as long as you are successful and bring joy to people with what you do best. With this, Luka’s status of a role model has been irretrievably compromised.
Do you think that people who consider Modric a traitor to various social and footballing values, will forgive him one day or is their relationship a lost cause?
I think I just answered that my previous reply. It’s about moral values first and foremost. And I wouldn’t label him a ‘traitor’, because he wasn’t alone in this. There were other players involved in similar schemes as well. None of them — except Eduardo, to a degree — has had the guts to speak up. They have just conformed to a dominant paradigm in Croatian football and society in general — and it’s a deeply sick society of distorted values, I’m afraid.
The recent success Croatia have been enjoying on the international stage is in a stark contrast to the local football league’s ever decreasing level. How do you explain this contradiction?
I wouldn’t say the league’s level is “ever decreasing” in itself. Dinamo Zagreb are finally rising up to their potential this season, other bigger clubs have stabilised themselves and are generally on a higher level in most aspects than they were a few years ago. But that’s just the surface of things — many other traditional clubs have fallen apart, while the investment in infrastructure and, especially, grassroots, has been meagre. I’ve been asked many times to explain this contradiction and I still have no answer. There is no plan, no blueprint — obviously there must be some good coaches on youth level, but most is down to improvisation and reliance on natural talent. Some of it may be down to social Darwinism. In Croatia there aren’t many bright prospects for youngsters, many people want to leave or are leaving; others are looking for shortcuts, ways to achieve certain material status. If a kid is talented, parents are likely to do take more risks and do much more to support him — even if that means moving to Zagreb, allowing him to neglect school, sign contracts with shady characters — in hope they will one day amount to something, because other options are much more limited than in, say, Western Europe. The pool of talent won’t last forever, though, especially not when neglecting grassroots.
With a population of just 4.1m people, Croatia continues to produce high-quality players at an amazing pace. How much of that grassroots success is down to the old school Yugoslavian football heritage?
Not very much. It has been almost three decades since the breakup, football has evolved exponentially in the meantime and, even though tradition does account for something, you can’t get anywhere with old ideas.
The Croatia generation that reached the 2018 World Cup final consists mainly of players whose childhood was marked by the Yugoslav wars. How big of a role has this human tragedy played in their post-war professional success?
This falls into the narrative of social Darwinism I mentioned. An experience like that definitely shapes character in your childhood and formative years. For some kids, it made them try harder and be more determined to succeed than their peers who didn’t lack anything when they were growing up. When you are an outsider, displaced and been through dramatic events early on, football can be a way of blending in and those tragedies, as well as your status, can make you realise you need to fight harder than others for what you want. It’s not something specific to Croatia or this time. There has always been a disproportionate number of outsiders and people of very modest backgrounds succeeding in sport, as well as in other competitive social fields.
There’s a lot of talk about Modric but don’t you think that the more people are praising him, the more they’re overlooking what Rakitic has achieved?
I tend to agree. Rakitić has been brilliant at the World Cup, perhaps even better than Modrić.
Is the Modric-Rakitic connection the Croatian equivalent of Xavi & Iniesta?
No. For years they’ve been more of a Croatian version of England’s Gerrard-Lampard conundrum and no manager before Zlatko Dalić was able to fit them together in a complementary manner — especially because Croatia lacked a ‘proper’ holding midfielder to play behind their back ever since Niko Kovač retired. And even though not even how Dalić used them was ideal for both, the switch from 4-2-3-1 to 4-1-4-1/4-3-3 was instrumental to Croatia’s success. But they are no Xavi and Iniesta — Croatia didn’t play possession football, they were used in a very different way.
Vedran Corluka, Mario Mandzukic and Danijel Subasic have all retired from international football. Modric, on the other hand, is already 33. Once the Golden generation leaves the big stage, what does the future hold for Croatia?
Well, that’s the big question, isn’t it? Realistically, this generation was already slightly past its peak in Russia, but the players rallied around a common cause, they showed great strength of character and were — it must also be said — rather lucky to get the opponents they did in the knockout stages, as well as to defeat them after going behind every time and needing either extra time or penalties to go through.
There is a host of talent among the young players and some of them are likely to become key in the near future, but it’s impossible to tell how they will develop. Also, a team is not just a collection of individuals and even if we’re going to have new big stars in years to come it doesn’t necessarily mean we’ll also have a team capable of big things. The material is there, but it’s what you do with it that counts.
If you have to pick just one Croatian starlet we need to keep an eye on, who will he be? And why?
I believe Nikola Vlašić has a big career ahead of him, but he’s already the best player of the Russsian league, having played there for only a few months on loan from Everton. There are really many others I could mention — and Hajduk Split’s 18-year-old midfielder Ante Palaversa is definitely one. He’s special. I hope he’ll continue to develop well and soon show everyone why.