Poignancy was allied with glory last week when Luka Modric collected the Ballon d’Or, football’s grandest individual prize.
His story is defined by far more than breaking the decade-long duopoly of Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi. Or orchestrating Croatia’s unexpected run to the World Cup 2018 final and a third-successive Champions League triumph with Real Madrid.
The centre midfielder’s life represents a triumph over adversity not experienced elsewhere in Europe during more than half a century of unprecedented peace.
The now 33-year-old is a child of the brutal Croatian War of Independence. Its horrors, from 1991-95, caused him to become a refugee in his own land.
But a rare understanding of the game would offer an escape. From the hotbed of Dinamo Zagreb’s academy, to Tottenham Hotspur and beyond.
It is in Croatia’s capital, midway through the previous decade, that Zoran Mamic would come into contact with a unique talent.
One was at the beginning of a stellar career, the other – a World Cup 1998 semi-finalist – was back home after a near decade in German club football.
“He [Modric] was always a great player, but not like today,” Mamic tells Sport360 while preparing Al Ain for Wednesday’s 2018 Club World Cup-opener against New Zealand’s Team Wellington at Hazza bin Zayed Stadium. “He has improved, of course, in the Premier League and La Liga.
“He came from a poor family, after the war he had to escape from a small village and Dinamo Zagreb took him at 14-years old.
“It [the war] was a very hard time for him.
“You lose your house, you lose some member of the family. He saw when his grandfather was killed – it was trauma, big trauma.
“But with his hard work and strong mentality, step-by-step he deserved all these achievements.
“Always he wanted to win. In a training game, he always wanted to win.
“He is angry when he loses. He is angry.
“This is the winner’s mentality. And why he has been such a success.”
Mamic, 47, is intertwined in Modric’s early rise. First as a team-mate and midfield enforcer, then sporting director helping negotiate his 2008 switch to Spurs from Dinamo.
Did he predict that the dainty starlet, blessed with both divine ability and stubborn resolve, would go on to leave such gargantuan footprints upon the world’s game?
He replies: “In our history, there are lots of big players. But never anyone like Modric, with this success.
“It was a pleasure for me to play with him when I came back from Germany. We played in Zagreb from 2005-07 together.
“I was then sporting director with him and was involved in his transfer to Tottenham.
“He has an amazing character. Today also, even at 33-years old, he watches his games as soon as he gets home to analyse what he did good or bad.
“I don’t think in the next 50 years that someone in Croatia will do what he has done.”
Recent precedent points at a potential reunion between the pair this month. Modric was part of a Madrid XI that, staggeringly, fell behind to Al Jazira in last year’s CWC semi-finals at Zayed Sports City prior to Ronaldo and Gareth Bale’s second-half salvage act.
Al Ain are this year’s home representatives, courtesy of Mamic’s opening season as coach that contained an Arabian Gulf League and President’s Cup double.
“We have to respect the team in our first game and try to do our best,” says the ex-VfL Bochum and Bayer Leverkusen defensive utility player. “Of course, everyone wishes to play against Real Madrid.
“But we have to be aware that every other team is very strong. There is lots of quality.
“That is why we have to try and play the best possible way. If the results come, that will be great.
“If not, it is still a great pleasure to be part of this tournament.”
Before Modric, Croatian football was defined by 1998’s ‘Golden Generation’. Mamic – who would retire with six caps – was an unused substitute upon the way to last-four defeat, again at the hands of France.
Madrid striker Davor Suker top scored, while AC Milan’s Zvonimir Boban’s cerebral presence in midfield fuelled the teenage Modric’s dreams.
Remarkably, this charge to prominence came only three years after the nation’s fraught formation. The “emotion” of the time still lives with Mamic.
He says: “In the beginning of the 90s in Croatia, there was war. It was directly after this that this generation came together.
“Football presented Croatia all over the world. There were amazing players in this generation.
“From Suker, Boban, [Slaven] Bilic, [Goran] Vlaovic, [Aljosa] Asanovic, [Mario] Stanic… It was a pleasure to be part of this generation.
“It was a little bit different in this time, more emotional. This is because of the war, the people were very sensitive and they needed some happiness, to forget these problems from history.
“This two months in France, there were many, many stories. Unbelievable what happened.
“Our side played the World Cup and then when you came into the hotel, you thought ‘this is not a football team, it is some rock stars’.
“The hotel was full of family and friends, everyone wants a ticket. It was amazing.
“These players in this time, there was not so much money as today. Maybe, we played with more emotion.
“It was special motivation for us.”
Croatia seemed set for the final 20 years ago, only for right-back Lilian Thuram to come up with the only goals of a 142-cap Les Bleus career.
“His first two goals and his last two goals,” Mamic ruefully says, while laughing. “This is football.
“We played great, 1-0, and we controlled the match. Then, the guy who never scores scored two goals.”
From the joys of the past, comes the glittering potential of the present.
Mamic says: “It is a great pleasure to play in this tournament, it is one you don’t get the chance to play every year.
“We have to enjoy it and present Emirates football, our country, in the best-possible way and use this chance to enjoy.”
The 2018 CWC will bring together six continental champions – holders Real Madrid, Asia’s Kashima Antlers, Africa’s Esperance de Tunis, Central America’s Guadalajara, Oceania’s Team Wellington plus the eventual South American participant – and host team Al Ain. Tickets are still available at www.fifa.com/clubworldcup/, including ones beginning at Dh25, for the first three matches at Hazza bin Zayed Stadium.
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Ten Cate, 63, called time on his managerial career in May after a superb two-and-a-half-year stint with the Pride of Abu Dhabi that included the 2015/16 President’s Cup and 2016/17 Arabian Gulf League. The ex-Barcelona and Chelsea assistant then turned down the likes of Egypt giants Al Ahly last summer.
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They will now hope history repeats itself on the other side of the capital. Big-spending Jazira looked poised for a relegation battle when Ten Cate was hired in December 2015.
Unexpected success would follow, prior to the internal struggles of 2017/18.
With the UAE now set for their final training camp before January’s Asian Cup, his first fixture will be December 22’s trip to promoted Ittihad Kalba in the AGL.