Zadar (Croatia) (AFP) – Bombs fell on the Croatian town of Zadar as Luka Modric refined his football skills in the corridors of a refugee hotel and in cratered car parks.
Modric, 30, is now Real Madrid’s midfield general, plotting attacks for Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale and Karim Benzema.
Modric was “a vivid child who liked to socialise,” recalled Miodrag Paunovic, one of Modric’s trainers when he made his football debut with NK Zadar nearly 25 years ago.
“But among some 200 boys he immediately stood out, it was obvious that he would become a great player. A natural-born talent but also a hard worker,” Paunovic told AFP.
The star, who will be key to Croatia’s hopes at Euro 2016, grew up near Zadar on the Adriatic coast. He was only six when war broke out in 1991. His father joined the Croatian army and the Modric family had to take refuge in Zadar to get away from Serb forces who occupied the region around the town.
The former Yugoslav republic’s proclamation of independence sparked the 1991-1995 war with rebel Serbs who opposed the move.
Living in a hotel, with hundreds other refugees, Modric played football in the hotel corridors and the parking lot.
His talent was clear however and NK Zadar invited him to join them after a scout spotted him.
Zadar, now struggling in Croatia’s second division, are used to producing top players.
On the wall of club director Josip Bajlo is the flag of French club Olympique Marseille. Josko Skoblar, or “Monsieur Goal” as he was known in Marseille, started at Zadar. Skoblar won the European Golden Boot in 1971 after scoring 44 goals in the season.
Croatian internationals Sime Vrsaljko and Danijel Subasic also started with Zadar.
But Modric is the hero.
– ‘Training under shells’ –
“He was destined to become a great player,” Bajlo, Zadar’s first team coach during the Modric years, told AFP.
“Luka was an extremely active kid, constantly playing with the ball. I remember he was small, looked physically fragile, but that was never an obstacle for him.”
The club moved Modric’s family to another hotel closer to the ground to make attending training safer in the constant shelling.
Zadar’s numerous Greek and Roman-era sites and spectacular sunsets over the seafront are now a tourist draw.
But the town was heavily shelled during the wartime siege by Serb forces. Water and electricity were often cut and the road to the capital Zagreb was closed for more than a year. About 50 civilians were killed in Zadar and around 400 in the surrounding region during the war.
Zadar stadium was twice shelled but no one was there at the time. And no child was killed or wounded while going to the training sessions that helped them to overcome anxiety caused by the conflict.
“Although shells fell during training these boys had something else on their mind. They were simply playing football then,” Bajlo said.
The adversity helped Modric to become the great player he is now, Bajlo said.
– ‘Always a step ahead’ –
NK Zadar reached Croatia’s top division, but Modric left for Dinamo Zagreb in 2000 when he was 16. He joined Tottenham Hotspur in 2008 and was the subject of major bids from a host of big European clubs before joining Real Madrid in 2012 for a reported 39 million euros ($43 million).
NK Zadar remain fiercely proud of their role in the rise of “Little Luka”.
“While in Zadar he was always a step ahead of everyone his age,” said Bajlo showing the club’s trophies, including those won by Modric.
The Real Madrid player comes from a modest family and his parents live in a residential building near the pitch where he used to train.
“Luka remained modest as he comes from a poor area, a simple background, an unpretentious family,” said Danijela, a 30-year-old housewife walking nearby with her little son.
At a pitch next to the Zadar stadium, schoolboys were training hoping to follow in their idol’s footsteps.
“Modric started here, just like me,” Luka Halic said proudly.
“He is the best! I want to be like him one day,” the 10-year-old added before running off with the others to the locker room.
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