Meet the Croatian Cruyff

Back in July 2008, FourFourTwo introduced a Balkan schemer by the name of Luka Modric. In the light of current transfer rumours, what he had to say then is very interesting – not least the words, "big, fat contract"...

Luka Modric doesn’t look like Johan Cruyff. Not in the flesh, not straight on, not when his hair is dry and slightly bouffant. And yet the comparisons are unmistakable. In profile, when sweat has dampened his mop flat to his skull, there is something of the Dutchman in his face, but it is more than that. It is the spirit that he conveys, impishly intelligent on the field and with a capacity for caustic observation off it. He’s not short of confidence, and has underlined the Cruyff comparison by asking to wear the number 14 shirt at Spurs next season.


This had promised to be the transfer soap opera of the summer. Barcelona and Arsenal had expressed an interest in the Dinamo Zagreb playmaker, and he met Newcastle officials in April. Four days after being wined and dined by Dennis Wise, though, Modric had signed for Spurs in a £16million deal.


“One day I saw an interview with Niko Kranjcar in the newspaper,” says Modric. “He was joking about my possible transfer. I had said a few days before that I dreamed of playing in Spain, but he said I had to go to England because they pay the best money. I know people will not believe me, but money was not the reason I came to England. I didn’t think about money at all. Of course, I’m very happy with my big fat contract, but the most important thing for me was to play in a big club in the top league; everybody at Dinamo knew that. Everything has turned out great. Dinamo are satisfied and I’m happy.”


 

Central to this happiness was Tottenham’s much-criticised chairman Daniel Levy. “He’s a straightforward man,” explains Modric. “Our talks were easy. It was a big thing that he came to see me in Zagreb; that told me how keen Tottenham were. I always knew that this was my last season in Croatia and 
I wanted to find a new club before the Euros. Chelsea was one of the options, but I was linked with Barcelona, Milan, Newcastle and some clubs in Russia… Every day there were new rumours and I didn’t want to be under pressure, because I knew that Dinamo and [my agents] the Mamic brothers would find the best solution for me. Clearly they did. 


“I always dreamed about Barcelona. They are my favourite club, but I didn’t go to Spain. I have no regrets: I’ve chosen a very good club and I’m sure I’ll enjoy playing for Tottenham. The main reason I chose Spurs was Juande Ramos. He asked me to go to London, so I did. I have a really high 
opinion of him, and after the Euros we’ll sit down and talk plans for next season.”

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It is the European Championships that now dominates Modric’s thinking. Drawn with Germany, Austria and Poland in 
arguably the simplest first-round group, Croatia had seemed a viable outside bet to win the tournament, but the injury to former Dinamo team-mate Eduardo (or ‘Dudu’, as he’s known in Croatia), their top scorer in qualifying with 10 goals, has diminished their chances. “It will be hard without Dudu,” he says. “He was our strength in qualifying. He was like a machine with his goals.


“I saw him break his leg on TV – it was horrible. I was afraid for him, not just for his career but for his health. He’s a big friend. We spent a lot of time together in Zagreb. I tried to call him straight away, but of course it was impossible. I talked to him after his operation and he was optimistic. We have to be focused and not whinge because we are without him. We have class players like Ivan Klasnic, Igor Budan, Mladen Petric and Bosko Balaban who can take his place.”


Before the qualifier in Zagreb in 2006, Modric was scathing about England. “They’ve got some great players, and if you go by their names they’re one of the best sides in football,” he said. “But I wasn’t excited by them at the World Cup.” So while he has learnt diplomacy in the intervening 18 months, when he dismisses suggestions that the draw has been kind to Croatia, it is probably because he means it.


“It’s a hard group,” he says. “Everybody says Germany and Croatia are favourites, but it will be hard to go through to the next phase. Our task is to go as far as we can, but you never know. I am an optimist, but Poland will be hard to beat and you must not forget Austria. Every host is always hard to beat.”


Their first game, against the hosts in Vienna, is likely to be key and, given Austria’s reputation for physicality, it should give Spurs fans an immediate indication of whether their new waif-like creator will be able to cope with the physical demands of the Premier League. Although he is given the luxury of being an out-and-out playmaker for Dinamo, with Croatia he has defensive responsibilities, and it’s his ability to 
combine that with supreme vision and touch that makes him such an exciting prospect. 


As Kranjcar said, Modric hasn’t struggled in previous battles with the likes of Gerrard and Lampard; the question is whether 
he can extend that over a season. Still, £16million on a player who’s potentially the new Cruyff seems a worthwhile gamble.

From the July 2008 issue of FourFourTwo. Subscribe!

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