Zagreb (AFP) – Luka Modric started playing football during Croatia’s independence war and the country’s notoriously fervent fans expect the world-class playmaker to launch their offensive at Euro 2016.

Croatia are looking to the 30-year-old to lift them as he has Real Madrid amid a rollercoaster season in La Liga and the Champions League.

With his supreme skills, Modric is known as the ‘Croatian Cruyff’ in reference to recently-deceased Dutch legend Johan.

“What he brings to the game is crucial,” says his Real Madrid teammate Sergio Ramos. “He’s never given all the credit, but he’s the backbone of our team.”

Modric helped steer Madrid to a record 10th Champions League title two seasons ago and was there as they won it again in Milan last month. 

He will be even more important for Croatia at the European Championship finals as they look to better their previous best results of reaching the quarter-finals in 1996 and 2008.

Certainly, Turkey, the Czech Republic and defending champions Spain — Croatia’s Group D opponents — will be wary of the threat from a Croatian midfield that also boasts Barcelona’s Ivan Rakitic, Inter Milan pair Ivan Perisic and Marcelo Brozovic and Mateo Kovacic of Real Madrid.

But Modric is the man to watch.

At only 22 years old he became only the second Croatian to be included in the UEFA Team of the Tournament after his Euro debut eight years ago.

After last year’s World Cup, Modric became the first Croatian selected in a FIFA World XI.

Born close to Zadar in the former Yugoslavia, Modric was six years old when war broke out in the Balkans, forcing his family to flee their home and his father Stipe, an aviation mechanic, to join the Croatian Army.

Modric’s family became refugees, living in a hotel in Zadar. But he went to school and eventually a sporting academy. The family’s financial difficulties meant his father fashioned shin guards from wood.

Rejected by Croatian giants Hajduk Split as a teenager because of his slight physique, Modric signed for arch rivals Dinamo Zagreb at age 16.

After a loan spell with Zrinjski Mostar in the notoriously tough Bosnian league, 18-year-old Modric was voted the league’s Player of the Year.

Modric returned to Dinamo Zagreb in 2005 via another loan spell at Croatian side Inter Zapresic, signing a 10-year contract and going on to play with current Juventus striker Mario Mandzukic.

After a four-year spell, over 30 goals and, notably, 29 assists, he brushed off reported interest from Barcelona to sign a four-year deal with Tottenham Hotspur in 2008.

Despite a knee injury hampering his first season, Modric was like a diamond in the rough, said former teammate Tom Huddlestone: “His versatility was probably a blessing and a curse, he was that good that he had to play out of position for a bit.”

When Harry Redknapp succeeded Juande Ramos as coach, Modric moved back into his more natural habitat deeper in midfield. He flourished, forging a reputation as a formidable and accurate passer, and became a Premier League star.

Redknapp once described Modric as “a hell of a player and a manager’s dream”. After rejecting overtures from Chelsea, Modric took “a step forward to a higher level” when he moved to Madrid on a five-year deal worth a reported 30 million euros ($34m) in 2012.

After a tentative first season under Jose Mourinho, Modric came into his own under Carlo Ancelotti when the Italian took over in 2013.

He was decisive in Real’s 10th Champions League triumph in 2014, providing the assist for Ramos’s 93rd-minute leveller that preceded their eventual 4-1 extra-time triumph over city rivals Atletico.

He then played the whole game as Madrid again beat Atletico, this time on penalties, in this year’s final, taking him into the Euros full of confidence.