Transfers, bungled testimony and old friendships - how Luka Modric became Croatia's public enemy number two

The Real Madrid midfielder has the world at his feet but his country up in arms

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The Independent Football

For a man who is one of Croatia’s most successful exports, it is a curious quirk that Luka Modric has never been universally revered in his homeland.

Indeed, many people have resented his connection with Zdravko Mamic, the most powerful man in Croatian football, but this week that indifference turned to indignation - an instant fall from grace and one captured on camera, no less.

As the prosecutor Tonči Petković presented him with an earlier statement of his own on Tuesday, Modric first asked for it to be repeated. 

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Luka's on-field successes haven't made him popular in his homeland (Getty)

While it was being read again, he first released a nervous sigh and started to shake his head; then he wiggled a bit in his chair, put his hands on the table and stuttered: “That… That I’ve never said… that it… that… that it was drawn up afterwards. I told you then that I couldn’t remember when it had been done.”

And at that moment you knew nothing in Croatia was ever going to be the same for Luka Modric, the national team captain who won his third Champions League title with Real Madrid earlier this month. 

That same day, just hours later, there would be a crowd of Hajduk Split fans chanting “Luka Modric, you little sh*t” as they walked to a club members’ event. The next morning, messages started to appear on the streets of Croatian cities – one, on the front of the Hotel Iz in Zadar, where the Modric family use to live as war refugees in the 1990s, ominously warned “Luka, you will remember this one day”.

So what exactly did he do?

The former Tottenham man is one of the key witnesses in the trial of Zdravko Mamic, a former chief executive at Dinamo Zagreb, where Modric played before joining Tottenham in 2008. Among other things including embezzlement and tax fraud, Mamic is charged with illegally keeping a big chunk of the transfer fee from Spurs for himself rather than for Dinamo. The investigation showed he did keep it and the defence is not even trying to deny that, but they claim there was nothing unlawful about it.

Early in the player’s career, Modric received financial backing from Mamic – who was not a Dinamo executive at the time – and signed an agreement obliging him to share his future income with his benefactor. That was one of many similar agreements that Mamic reportedly signed with promising youngsters, although he never was a licenced agent. Some, like ex-Arsenal forward Eduardo da Silva, have been obliged to share their income with Mamic as long as they are playing professionally, but in Modric’s case it came down to one big payoff.

So when Dinamo sold him to Tottenham for a reported €21 million, half of that money went to Modric directly. Later, the investigation showed and Modric testified, he would go to a bank accompanied by Mamic’s son or brother, withdraw the funds from his personal account and hand the cash to either of the two men. 

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Modric's move to Tottenham made Mamic a very rich man indeed (Getty Images)

The procedure was repeated after each installment of the transfer fee reached Modric’s account. Of the complete amount Modric received (€10.5m), he was allowed to keep just 14.5 million Croatian Kuna (about £1.7m pounds) for himself. The rest went to the Mamic family.

Now, everything up to this point has been established and confirmed by all parties in the court case. The disputed part, however, is the contract between Dinamo and Modric. Very conveniently for Mamic, who became the club’s chief executive and negotiated the sale to Spurs himself, it contained an annex specifying the fee was to be shared on the 50-50 basis between the club and the player. What the prosecution is trying to demonstrate is that the annex was only signed and backdated after the player had already been sold.

In his questioning last year, Modric said that was the case. 

Now, however, he claims he never said that; upon being confronted with details of his initial statement, he explained he got confused. 

“When speaking about that, I was talking about a personal contract between Mamic and me, which regulated the split of the transfer fee,” he said. Modric also failed to remember other details, even including the year of his debut for the national team.

His changed testimony enraged football fans in Croatia, because Zdravko Mamic is generally seen as the number one villain in the domestic game, someone who controls both Dinamo and the federation with his web of influence, even now that he has officially departed from executive positions in both institutions. 

His influence, however, transcends football – the trial, originally scheduled for Zagreb, was relocated to Osijek because Mamic is close friends with some of the Zagreb judges. Many would like to see him behind bars and just last week, on the Croatian coast, he was attacked by a passer-by who punched him in the back of the head, causing him to fall into the sea.

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Zdravko Mamic is standing trial in Croatia (Getty)

Modric has previously been called “Mamic’s cash machine”, but now, with him denying the prosecution the very essential element of his testimony, he’s about to become a despised figure by large sections of football fans.

The trial was supposed to continue after Modric’s testimony with Liverpool’s Dejan Lovren, another one of ‘Mamic’s players’, testifying. 

However, Mamic made a big scene in the courtroom on Wednesday morning, quarrelling with his own lawyers before firing them in front of everybody, saying he’ll defend himself. 

After the incident, the judge ordered a recess until further notice. The case continues…

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