Tragedy and rejection blighted the early years of Luka Modric, who will step out in Moscow on Wednesday night determined to end England’s World Cup odyssey and send his own proud nation into the final for the first time.
Plaudits are increasingly poured on the head of the 32-year-old Modric, who has played an integral role both in Croatia’s rise into global contention and in his club Real Madrid’s historic three-time back-to-back Champions League success.
Such fame and fortune is a far cry from the humble origins of Modric, whose family endured terrible suffering when the Balkan war erupted in 1991 and his tiny home village became targeted by Serbian troops.
When Modric’s grandfather, after whom Luka was named, was killed whilst tending his livestock, the family moved to nearby Zadar where they lived as refugees, the young Modric frequently risking his life by playing football with his friends in streets and parks often targeted by shells.
Modric’s nascent footballing abilities were evident to most who caught a glimpse of the elusive 10-year-old, but not one of the country’s biggest clubs, Hajduk Split, who rejected him after a schoolboy trial due to him being too small and slight.
Modric instead signed for his local club, Zadar, with whom he sought solace as the war continued to rage about them, and as it finally began to ease he was picked up by Dinamo Zagreb’s youth programme at the age of 16 in 2002.
Three years later Modric had sufficiently impressed to earn a 10-year contract with the club, proceeding to play an increasingly integral role in three consecutive league titles, until the clamour for his visionary and patient style of play became headline news.
Tottenham won the race for the Croatian in 2008, paying a then club record-equalling £16.5m for a player, who nevertheless initially struggled to adapt to the pace of the Premier League, amid fears his stature would work against him.
Hampered by a knee injury, and frequently being asked to shift roles as then Spurs manager Juande Ramos sought to cling on to his role, Modric might have struggled, but was clearly not the type to throw in the towel on account of the previous hardships he had endured in his life and career.
Ultimately, Modric would evolve into a hugely important and much revered figure at White Hart Lane, belatedly revelling under Ramos’ successor Harry Redknapp and playing an instrumental role in getting the club back into the Champions League.
But it was at Real, whom Modric joined for £30m after a drawn-out transfer saga in 2012, where Modric would put accusations of supposed physical frailty behind him once and for all and emerge as one of the greatest players of his generation.
Ironically, Modric’s ascent to the current pantheon came on the back of a style – rooted in elusiveness and adaptability – that was enhanced rather than hindered by his diminutive presence.
Now he stands two games away from walking taller than any other sportsman in his nation before him.