Is Luka Modric playing for his freedom?
Luka Modric is playing for much more than a place in the final. Croatia’s World Cup semi-final against England could be his last match for a long time.
Real Madrid’s ethereal playmaker has been in inspired form in Russia. His gliding gait and effortless passing have guided Croatia to the final four in a World Cup for the first time since 1998. Modric’s performances have earned him the man of the match award in three of his country’s five games. He scored against Nigeria in Croatia’s opening match, then again in their 3-0 demolition of Argentina. Against Denmark in the round of 16 he missed a penalty in extra-time but held his nerve in the shootout, just as he did against Russia in the next round. His characteristically stylish displays are as nonchalant as we have come to expect from the diminutive midfielder. However, the ease with which he plays belies his off-the-field turmoil.
Before the tournament, little was expected of Croatia domestically. Rumours of in-fighting were rife. The relationship between the team and the fans hung by a thread. Two of their most important players were, and still are, facing jail time.
Modric, along with Liverpool defender Dejan Lovren arrived in Russia with their freedom hanging in the balance. The cases against the pair relate to financial irregularities in their transfers from Dinamo Zagreb to Tottenham and Lyon.
Former Dinamo Zagreb executive Zdravko Mamic has already been sentenced to six and a half years in prison for transfer fraud. He has since fled to Bosnia which, for the time being, has granted him asylum.
It was discovered that Mamic used his position at Dinamo to write clauses into players’ contracts allowing him to recoup 50% of any fees paid for them. Modric stands accused of perjury after allegedly lying to police conducting the Mamic investigation. He faces up to five years in jail. Lovren, yet to be formally charged, is also suspected of giving false testimony to protect his former employer.
It is not just Mamic who has sullied the once-proud name of Croatian football. His brother Zoran, a former agent, and Damir Vrbanovic, Executive Director of the Croatian Football Federation, also splash around in the swamp of corruption. Like Mamic, they have been handed prison sentences.
Mamic seems to have been the ring-leader. He is the greasy lynchpin, the Fat Tony who presided over the disillusionment of Croatian football fans for many years. His actions could signal an abrupt end to Modric’s career. It would be a huge shame if the greatest player Croatia has ever produced were to end up in jail as a result of his own naivete and another man's greed.
But first, there is the semi-final to attend. Conveniently, the date for Modric’s hearing is not yet set. He will at least be able to see this tournament through to its natural conclusion.
England pose a difficult obstacle for a side that has had to go through the rigours of extra-time and penalties in consecutive matches. Additionally, Gareth Southgate’s men have the weight of a delirious nation behind them, pushing them slowly but surely towards redemption.
But Croatia have Modric, the untouchable anchor who plays as if guided by God. On more than one occasion, he has had luck bestowed upon him by higher powers.
As a child, he managed to flee his hometown during the war. His grandfather, among thousands of others, was executed by Serb rebels in 1991. Hajduk Split rejected him as a youngster but luck shone again when Dinamo Zagreb decided to look past his physical shortcomings, taking a chance on the 16-year-old. In this tournament his Modric’s luck has also been evident. His missed penalty against Denmark turned out to be of no consequence whilst his spot-kick in the shootout against Russia somehow, by divine intervention, found its way into the net.
How long will his luck continue? Will it propel Croatia to the final? Will it keep him out of prison?
If Croatia go on to win the World Cup, Modric will be the hero. The judge will probably look favourably on him in sentencing and let him off with a slap on the wrists in exchange for a signed shirt. Modric has the power to be his own saviour and, in turn, that of Croatian football.