At the beginning of September, less than a day before its Euro 2008 Group E opening game against Russia, the Croatian team arrived at the Dinamo Moscow stadium for its final training session. Zvonimir Boban, not so long ago a star for Milan and one of Croatia's all-time greats, and now a TV commentator, joined in with the players. Boban was in extraordinary spirits, had his picture taken with the fans and even agreed to venture a prediction on the outcome of the game. "To tell you the truth, thanks to its talent, even without eight first team players, Croatia would be better than Russia, and the result is up to us," Boban told me. "It may not be the team that took third place at the 1998 World Cup, but it is a team that is enjoyable to watch. Look out for Luka Modric. He is very young, but he is incredibly talented and efficient at the same time."
A Croatian journalist joined in the conversation between us. "Listen to Boban," he said. "Getting a compliment from him is like winning the World Cup."
The next day I took Boban's advice, and focused on the visiting team's No. 14. The first half was dazzling. Croatia, Israel's opponent in its upcoming Group E game next Wednesday, completely shut down the Russian game and left its coach Guus Hiddink awestruck. Modric stole the ball off the Russians six times and on four occasions his work led to a threat on the Russian goal. The 21-year-old looked as if he could read his opponent's thoughts and his movement seemed to start before the opposing player had tried to free the ball. The game deteriorated in the second half, because of poor weather conditions and Croatia lay back, content with a goalless draw. Modric was the best player throughout.
Three weeks earlier, in a warm-up match against newly crowned world champion Italy in Livorno, Mordic scored a goal and led the way as Croatia scored a prestigious 2-0 win.
To his credit, Croatia coach Slaven Bilic had no hesitiation in taking the youngster in to his first team. Bilic, perhaps the most intelligent coach Croatia has ever had, has been careful to avoid showing favor to any particular player. But in Modric's case, even Bilic could not avoid making his feelings heard. "Luka Modric will change the balance of power in the qualifying tournament. With him, our chances of reaching Euro 2008 are excellent," Bilic said in semi-private conversation that was meant to reach journalists.
Modric made his Croatia debut under Bilic's predecessor, Zlatko Kranjcar, in an exhibition game against Argentina in Switzerland. Kranjcar brought the youngster in as a second-half substitute, and Modric repaid him with an outstanding game, as Croatia won 3-2. But Kranjcar didn't give Modric a first team place for the World Cup and the Croat press accused him of family favoritism for picking his son, Portsmouth star Niko, over Modric.
"Modric got the green light to show off his talent from Slaven Bilic," says Croat sportswriter Anton Samvoiska. "Croatia's offensive midfield is the driving force of the team today, thanks to Modric and Niko Kovac. Modric, despite his young age, not only reads the game wonderfully. He is talented, he is technical, and defense isn't a dirty word for him. One-on-one, Modric is a fantastic player, even at the highest level in Europe.
Just over a year ago, Modric signed a new contract with Dinamo Zagreb, which supposedly leaves him there until 2015, but with leading clubs on the continent on his trail he is unlikely to see that contract out.
The top candidate to secure his services is Bayern Munich, although Arsenal is also hot on his heels. Four weeks ago, when Croatia humbled England 2-0 in its second group game, Bayern coach Felix Magath was in the stands to personally take a look at Modric. When the transfer window opens in January, Modric could well be headed on a one-way ticket to Munich. Zagreb has touted 10 million euros as a price tag for its young talent, but he is expected to go for around 7-8 million.
In an interview with Haaretz this week, Modric spoke about next Wednesday's game against Israel.
"It is a very important game, at the moment perhaps the most important of our campaign," Modric said. "A win will put us on the way to the European Championship. If we win we will qualify. That's clear."
Before the game against England, you were quite contempuous of Steve McClaren's side, and it turns out that to an extent you were right.
"They have big names, but even before the World Cup, I said they aren't a very good team. Names don't mean anything. We don't have big names like they do, but we beat them. Israel doesn't have big names either, but it is an excellent team and has proved so."
Are you going for a win? Your coach said last week he would be happy with a draw.
"I always want to win, but I agree that a draw away from home is a good result. It was a great feeling to beat England, but it was a home game. If we beat Israel we will have three much more important points."
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