These observations — where I look at Real Madrid’s history, its players on loan, Castilla, tactical tidbits, and other relevant thoughts -- are now a regular weekly thing. All previous editions can be found here.
In one of his first touches in a Real Madrid uniform, Luka Modric, just as Xavi Hernandez was breaking away in midfield to ignite an attack, snuffed the ball away from the Spaniard, thieving possession and allowing Real Madrid to sling back on their own terms.
That was four years ago, in his official Real Madrid debut. Modric was 26, entering his prime, and has continued his upward trajectory ever since. Four years on, and four more to go - his new contract sees him remain with the club until the age of 35; at the very least.
35. That seems like an eternity in the life of a footballer. It’s an age that represents, on average, the post-mortem of peak abilities. Yet, it looks impossible to be upset by the contract renewal. It’s a deserved reward to one of the most unique players of this generation, the most aesthetically-satisfying central midfielder on the planet, and a man who has lifted two Champions League trophies in half the amount of time he’s been in the Spanish capital.
So here we are, celebrating. Not one, but two contract renewals to two of the top 3-5 central midfielders on earth. That’s not something that happens too often at Real Madrid. In fact, has it ever? You’d be hard-pressed to find the club ever rocking two top-five generals at once.
In 2014, Real Madrid boasted a reinvented Di Maria who performed at a top-5 level alongside Luka Modric and a deep-lying Xabi Alonso. Before that? The thinking becomes onerous. In Galactico project 1.0, Ivan Helguera at his peak was performing at a top-5 level, but he often played as a sweeper, and his partner in crime, Claude Makelele, was a destroyer, not a central midfielder.
Keep rolling back time, and it still doesn’t work. The club came close in 1998 when Clarence Seedorf and Fernando Redondo lifted the European title in Amsterdam. That was before the pinnacle of Seedorf’s career though, amid a late-90s era that was spoiled with midfield maestros. Besides, Fernando Redondo was a defensive midfielder, and neither that instance, nor his overlap with Michael Laudrup three seasons earlier fits the bill entirely.
And therein lies the significance of the contract extensions given to Toni Kroos and Luka Modric. Having two players at such an elite level controlling the middle of the park is a rare occurrence at a club that tends to be top-heavy. What’s even more significant is that Real Madrid has rolled out a longterm blueprint with their renewals, and have even begun the grooming process of Modric’s heir, Mateo Kovacic.
Mind you, Modric still has, at the very least, two-to-three years of elite football left in him. If the career of Andrea Pirlo is anything to go by, then he could have even more. By the end of his contract, Luka Modric should go down as one of the best Real Madrid players of all time - a club legend, and an extra name Madridistas have to squeeze in when contemplating an all-time squad.
Lots of Modric lies ahead even if five years from now he’s no longer the player he is now. Real Madrid don’t need him to be the same game-changing presence eternally, to be sure. The beauty of this new contract - which sees Luka guaranteed until June 30, 2020 - is that it comes with zero political baggage. Modric is not one who disrupts the locker-room, nor is he the type of personality that must be on the pitch at all times when healthy. He works for the team and revolves his game around what the club needs of him. At the very least, for the next four seasons, Real Madrid have one of the most genuinely selfless personalities in football, and at the very least, an additional assistant coach that will aid in the priming of young Mateo.
And ultimately, it’s a ‘feel-good’ story, this. One can’t help but feel happy for a player of such humility who’s worked so diligently to achieve what he has. Modric was doubted everywhere he went, and has had challenges few people talk about.
He grew up in Zadar amid the Croatian War of Independence. To protect him and his two siblings, his family fled from the area in 1991, just as the war was heating. Luka’s father joined the Croatian army, and amid all the unsettling, his grandfather - who Luka was named after - was executed by the Croatian Serb rebels.
Young Luka was six at the time - his family finding refuge in a hotel room. He would play football in an empty parking lot, unfazed by the war around him. He was small-framed and skinny - attributes that still apply. But out of that war blossomed a legend, and his family, ever-poor, put every penny they could to support Luka’s football career; as bleak as it seemed given the circumstances surrounding him. That’s love.
As one of his childhood coaches Tomislav Basic put it, “Football was our escape from reality”. Basic also spoke of grenades, in the thousands, raining upon football pitches. Those were the moments they would run to find shelter.
But the problems in Croatia weren’t limited to a physical war only. Corruption in the football federation is all too familiar by now. Modric was a first-hand victim of the money-hungry shark that is Zdravko Mamic who is infamous for tricking young talents who come up through the Dinamo Zagreb ranks into signing contracts that squeeze their life earnings for the remainder of their playing careers. Eduardo Silva was the most well-known case of this. As a 16-year-old, without knowing a word of the language, he signed a contract that saw him pass 50% of his earnings to Mamic for the remainder of his football career.
Modric was deceived too, reportedly passing 20% of his wages to Mamic.
Well, that’s one way to award one of the best players to ever play for your club.
On the pitch, it wasn’t all rose-colored either. Luka Modric has had to fight for his place everywhere he’s went - nothing handed to him. As a child, he was cut from Hadjuk Split for being ‘light-weight’. That was the moment where Luka was so shaken he nearly quit the sport altogether.
Years later, even after breaking through with Zagreb and signing for Tottenham, few had faith in his abilities. The stigma of being feeble in a physical league was still alive, and it was something he was hammered with by fans and English press alike. He suffered injuries, and when available was slotted in unfavorable positions.
Eventually he found his feet under Harry Redknapp which earned his transfer to Real Madrid. Even with that transition though, Luka struggled. He would rarely crack the starting XI under then head coach Jose Mourinho due to Xabi Alonso, Sami Khedira, and Mesut Ozil’s presence. When he did, he wouldn’t be playing in an ideal position to command the midfield.
"There came a time at Tottenham where I had to change to improve and grow as a player. I did not doubt my quality and I knew that sooner or later I would succeed here, working every day in training and in the games. I've always had confidence in myself. I did not start well, but I never stopped believing in myself, “ Modric said after inking his new deal with Real Madrid.
"I think I have developed as a player in these four years. I have more experience than before and need to keep on the same path to help the team to play well both in defence and attack. I must continue at the same level."
Of course, those struggles are now entrenched in the past. It’s easy to ignore the tumultuous road that Luka Modric, and many other footballers, have en route to their success. For Modric, this contract is more than a paper or a series of numbers. It’s a symbol - a seal to a storied career. It’s a gesture from the club that means more than just committing salary to a player until he’s in his mid-30s. It was simply the right thing to do. It’s a sign of respect.
"I hope it is not my last contract renewal. My desire is to retire at Real Madrid and with this renewal I am closer to that challenge."