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Luka Modric’s Incredible Football Journey Stems From His Selflessness And Work Ethic

Kiyan Sobhani chats with Croatian manager Branko Ivankovic about Modric’s football longevity

RC Celta v Real Madrid - La Liga Santander Photo by Octavio Passos/Getty Images

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 thing. All previous editions can be found here.

It is hard to fathom, but incredible to think about now: 29 years ago, Luka Modric was a kid playing football in an empty parking lot, in the eye of the Croatian War of Independence. His football training sessions, as described by childhood coach Tomislav Basic, were only a symbolic shelter — an escape from reality. Physically, it provided the kids with little-to-no comfort at all — it was a host for grenades raining down (sometimes in the thousands), with all the children running for cover as the storm of weapons passed.

Luka was named after his grandfather, Luka Modric Snr, who was brutally executed by Serbian Militants when Luka (Jr) was six years old. It was a traumatizing childhood to endure. Part of that trauma is what makes Luka so special now. From that war-zone arose one of Real Madrid’s best central midfielders of all time, still playing at an unbelievable level at the age of 35.

Modric is loved by all. His character shines through despite — and possibly as a result of — what he endured. When I asked his former manager at Dinamo Zagreb, Branko Ivankovic, about his first impressions of Modric back in 2006, Ivankovic didn’t speak about Modric’s technical abilities as what stood out to him.

“My first impression was about his personality,” Ivankovic said. “He was so young at that time, and had a very hard childhood.”

Ivankovic says that Modric’s hardships turned him into a leader, and that they weren’t just down to his childhood. He didn’t always have the confidence of everyone around him, and at Zagreb, was even loaned to Zrinjski Mostar in Bosnia, and then Inter Zaprešić, a team that fluctuates in and out of Croatia’s second division. “He’d had a very hard way of becoming the player he is today,” Ivankovic says. “For example, at Dinamo Zagreb, he was sent to a loan move to Bosnia’s very brutal league, and also after that, to Inter Zaprešić — also not such a good team.”

Modric shone, and became a natural leader of those sides, even in those fledgling years. In the 2004 - 2005 season, he helped Inter Zaprešić achieve their highest ever finish (2nd) in the Croatian League during that loan stint.

“With Inter, he made the fight for the championship — you know what I mean?” Ivankovic says. “He was born as a leader, but there’s a football quality he showed at that time that made me say ‘he’s the most prospective player in the world’.”

The ensuing years, like a snowball, vindicated Ivankovic’s belief in Modric — both about his talent and drive. Now at the age of 35, with a World Cup final and a Balon D’or under his belt, it’s impossible to argue against his greatness. But not everyone saw it at the time. Modric has been doubted nationally in Croatia, England, and Spain. None of it has mattered, and any take that belittled his generational ability and work ethic is laughable now.

Modric, who was once cut from Hadjuk Split for being too much of a lightweight, earned a deserved contract extension with Real Madrid at the age of 30, taking him all the way to present day. He has rewarded the club’s faith in him, repaying his salary ten-fold with performances, trophies, leadership, and dignity.

Ivankovic remembers that he was criticized publicly for one of his takes in particular, when Dinamo Zagreb played against Werder Bremen in 2007, when the German side boasted the Brazilian Diego, who was destined for stardom. Ivankovic said publicly that Modric was just as good as Diego, if not better. Analysts and fans laughed. Time has told the truth.

“When we played against Werder Bremen, they had one excellent player from Brazil, Diego,” Ivankovic recalls. “He was a big star, and after Bremen, he moved to Juventus. I said at that time that Modric is a better player than Diego, and everyone, including Diego, was surprised. But I was sure that Modric was a bigger prospect, and that he would be one of the best players in the world because he’s a hard worker, and because he’s an extremely talented player that has personality.”

Ivankovic is not surprised that Modric not only surpassed Diego, but surpassed almost every midfielder of his generation, to the point where he’s morphed into an all-time great. The uniqueness of Modric is not based on one single trait. It is not defined by outside-of-the-boot passes, or mere talent — something many have. It’s drive. It’s persistence. It’s the mental willpower to take care of one’s body — to take note of food intake and proper training. Modric doesn’t compete with others, he competes with himself.

“Each day he wants to be better. Better, better, better,” Ivankovic says. “He doesn’t compare himself with other players. He just wants to be better day by day.”

Dinamo Zagreb v Werder Bremen - UEFA Champions League Qualifier
Modric passes the acclaimed Diego
Photo by Friedemann Vogel/Bongarts/Getty Images

Modric has nearly hit 2000 minutes in the league this season already — good for 40th in the country, and third behind only Thibaut Courtois and Raphael Varane on the team. When the mainstream media discusses freak athletes who age well, few talk about Modric in the same light as they do with Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Cristiano Ronaldo. Maybe Modric isn’t tall and built like a Greek God the way those two are — but he cares about his body in the same manner. His work ethic is second to none.

Ivankovic says he knew that after every training session at Zagreb, he’d likely have to stay longer. “Coach, coach,” he recalls Modric calling to him during practice. “Can we work after the training?” That was a regular occurrence. That mindset carries you far. It can be the difference between getting to the top, or having your career dwindle. Modric, who played out of position initially at Tottenham, stuck through adversity and worked his way to the top rather than crumbling. He had to start from scratch again at Real Madrid, and again, worked his way to the top without being coddled. That’s patience and self-belief. That’s greatness.

Modric has had different roles in his career, and not every position has maximized his output. Being played out of position often and enough can derail a player’s career, stall their development, and bash their confidence into the earth. It’s hard to find a sweet spot where a manager cares enough about your individual development to create a scheme that helps you thrive. Football is harsh. Managers change. Fates change.

In Modric’s last season at Zagreb, he scored a career-best 17 goals and slung 11 assists. Since, he’s played as a deep-lying playmaker, a 10, and a lone defensive midfielder. He has played in every tactical blueprint imaginable. During Real Madrid’s three-peat, he was the team’s superglue on both ends of the field — popping up in every position conceivable to thwart opposition attacks while contributing offensively in key moments. There’s a uniqueness to the way he plays — he covers ground like few in the history of football have. He’s still doing that at 35. His insistence on being physically able to play that role at this level should be praised. It should be something young midfielders aspire to.

“If you want to be one of the best players, it’s not enough to stand with the ball somewhere,” Ivankovic says. “Luka has the power to run back and has the power to go and finish an attacking move.”

Ivankovic had Modric playing in a more attacking role, but isn’t surprised at Modric’s success from deeper positions. The Croatian manager wanted to use Modric’s assets to help the team in the final third.

“As a midfield player he had to score, not just pass,” Ivankovic said of Modric’s 17-goal outburst in the 2007 - 2008 season.

For Ivankovic, the key to Modric’s success was that he was never fixated on being a one-dimensional player. His vast and diverse portfolio of skills make him playable by any manager, in any scheme.

“With me, he didn’t play as a defensive midfielder,” Ivankovic says. “He was an offensive midfielder, but he respects defense first. He respects all rules in football today, and not just what happens in attack. As you see in Real Madrid, he’s running back, he’s running up, he tries to score. It’s the same in the Croatian national team.”

Modric never hit those offensive numbers from the 2007 - 2008 season again — but his role changed, and his overall influence on the pitch rose. As a Real Madrid player, his overall goal + assist contribution peaked in the 2019 - 2020 season in La Liga — the same season where he had over 400 pressure attempts and 22 blocked shots. In the 2016 - 2017 season — Real Madrid’s most impressive season in recent memory — Modric posted an absurd 42 interceptions while completing 1.85 dribbles per game. This season, Modric is enjoying the best goal + assist ratio of his entire Real Madrid career.

Amidst all that, Modric, apart from being sidelined due to a hamstring injury in the 2014 - 2015 season for 23 games, remained durable and reliable.

But there is concern now, more than ever, that Modric may burn out with all these games that he’s playing this season.

“I’m not worried,” Ivankovic says. “He takes care of his body. He respects training. He also rests at home and he has a fantastic family who he’ll spend a lot of time with. His family refreshes him and keeps him at the highest level.”

“Okay, he can have some games where he looks a little bit tired, but generally I don’t worry about him because he prepares himself. If he’s in a good mood, he’ll be in good condition. I don’t worry about his power as his ages.

As Modric nears his late-30s, it’s hard to see where his career ends. He, along with players like Sergio Ramos, are the exception to the rule — the biggest cases for Real Madrid to revise the way they deal with contracts for players over 30. Some players are toast by 27, others haven’t even come close to their peak at that age. It’s hard to put a blanket over footballers based on their age. (A study in 2016 noted that most footballers peak between 25 - 27. The outliers who extend that peak to a later age are impressive, and have a common denominator: they’re meticulous about the way they treat their body. I suspect that number will rise with each passing generation.)

The grace with which Modric has aged has sparked debate about his place in football history, particularly in comparison with two rivals: Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta, both of whom were out of the mainstream football scene earlier than Modric. As I bring up Xavi (playing in Qatar at age 35) and Iniesta (playing in Japan at age 33), Ivankovic interrupts me mid-thought.

“I’ll tell you something,” says Ivankovic. “Modric became the best player in Europe when he was 33 years old. A lot of players after 30 start thinking, ‘Okay we’re close to finishing our career’ and they don’t know. They don’t want to work on themselves and try to be better.”

For Ivankovic, what Modric has done to extend his career is special, and is possibly even more impressive than what Ronaldo and Ibrahimovic have done. He goes on to say that that Modric, Xavi, and Iniesta are all on the same level. To this day, the Croatian manager brings up Modric’s longevity in his training sessions with his current players as an example to model.

“He is not like Ibrahimovic or Ronaldo. He is something more,” Ivankovic says. “He became the best player in the world and is from Croatia — not from Spain, England or Italy. Everybody always thinks about the Brazilian players, Argentinian players, Italian, England, French, Spanish or Portuguese.”

What stands out about Modric the most, though, is that his individual success is a by-product of his selflessness — his acceptance and servitude to the team’s collective goals, which sees him execute every little micro-task at hand to lift his team up.

“Luka Modrić is a player who is really, really a team player,” Ivankovic concludes. “He always thinks about the team, then about it himself”

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