This is the story of two men. One of them is Luka Modric. His name is known all over the world as Real Madrid's midfield lynchpin, orchestrator of the side that has won three of the last four UEFA Champions League titles and is gunning to retain its crown this season. The other man is a mentor to him. His name is Zdravko Mamic, the most powerful man in Croatian football.
Part of the story involves a transfer between Modric's former teams—Dinamo Zagreb, the most successful club in Croatian history, and Tottenham Hotspur, one of England's grandest outfits—and a court case that has captivated Croatia. The transfer, for a fee reported by Marca to be €21 million, happened in 2008, four years before Modric was bought by Real Madrid.
The transfer saga is a sticking point in a legal case brought against Mamic, a former director of Dinamo Zagreb and ex-vice president of the Croatian Football Federation. Mamic was arrested in July 2015. He is accused of corruption and tax fraud along with his brother Zoran, a former teammate of Modric at Dinamo Zagreb, and two other men. The scale of the embezzlement has allegedly cost Dinamo Zagreb more than €15 million, per the BBC.
Mamic has pleaded not guilty, dismissing the judicial process as "a wicked lie," per Balkan Investigative Reporting Network. Modric was called to testify in Mamic's case, but his testimony in court didn't match up with previous accounts he provided to state prosecutors, and he was charged with perjury in March 2018. The charge carries the risk of a five-year prison sentence.
Modric's life took an unwelcome turn when he was five years of age. His country became engulfed in Europe's nastiest conflict since the Second World War. The Balkans War dragged on through the 1990s, with Croatia achieving independence in 1995. Modric's father fought in the Croatian Army; Modric's grandfather Luka was killed in cold blood by Serb rebels in the hills by his farm in December 1991, per Aleksandar Holiga for the Guardian.
As a kid, Modric was one of more than 2 million people who became displaced as a result of the war, according to the Clem Watkins book The Balkans. Large chunks of his childhood were passed kicking a football around a car park at the back of one of the hotels he was holed up in with the rest of his family; he spent seven years living as a refugee in one hotel before moving on to another one.
Football offered Modric structure and a ticket to an unimaginably better life. Mamic was the man who mapped out the route.
Modric joined Dinamo Zagreb aged 14, according to Index, a popular Croatian news website. Mamic acted as his unlicensed agent and indulged his gifted prodigy with luxuries, per Croatian daily newspaper Jutarnji list. He gave him sports equipment and shoes. His apartment in Zagreb was paid for until the age of 17. For his 18th birthday, according to Modric's testimony in court, Mamic got him a car—a secondhand Volkswagen Golf V. Modric put total faith in Mamic. "I signed everything he told me to sign," Modric said in court.
On the field, Modric was tearing it up. Initially, Dinamo farmed him out on loan to get some experience. He went over the border for a season to play in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and for half a season back in Croatia he shined with NK Inter Zapresic. Dinamo gave him his first professional contract, which he signed on 10 July 2004.
It's this date in 2004 that all of Modric's trouble hinges on. As part of his contract, Modric signed an annex that enabled him to receive half of his next transfer fee, the majority of which—the investigation has established—he passed on to Mamic's family. Modric testified in court about the payment procedure. For each lodgement, either Mamic's brother or son accompanied him to a bank, where Modric withdrew cash from his personal account and handed it over to the bagman.
Of the €10.5 million Modric received as his cut from the transfer to Spurs in 2008, he only held on to 14.5 million Croatian Kuna (approximately €1.95 million). The rest went to Mamic's family. This is not disputed. What is contentious is the date Modric says he made the annex to his contract setting out these terms.
The state attorney office prosecuting the case says Modric told investigators in 2015 that he signed the annex after he was sold to Spurs in 2008. When Modric testified in court, however, he maintained he signed the annex four years earlier—in 2004.
What is troubling is that 50 per cent of Modric’s transfer fee was supposed to go to Dinamo—not to Modric (and subsequently to Mamic). By backdating the annex to 2004, it absolves Mamic—who negotiated the 2008 transfer in his role as an executive director for Dinamo—of including a self-serving clause in the contract entitling himself and Modric to this lump of money. Prosecutors argue Modric changed his testimony in favour of Mamic, and Modric was charged with perjury for making a false statement in court.
Modric was called as a witness in June 2017, although he has never been named in case proceedings, in keeping with Croatian law. He is referred to as "Croatian citizen born in 1985." Croatian media have revealed his identity, though, in their press coverage. Dea Redzic was one of the journalists in court that day. She has been investigating Mamic for over a decade for Index.
Redzic was troubled by one particular item in Modric's testimony. Modric, who will captain his country in this summer's FIFA World Cup finals in Russia, forgot the day he made his debut for the national team.
"I couldn't stand it," she told Bleacher Report. "I shouted in the courtroom to help him remember the date. It was a big shame. Every fan knows the date that Luka Modric debuted for Croatia. We know the match."
And what a match it was.
As part of its warm-up for the 2006 FIFA World Cup finals, Croatia met Argentina on a cold March night in Basel, Switzerland. Only 13,138 people shuffled into the stadium to watch the match. The sides of the pitch were flecked with snow.
The game exploded into life. Argentina, one of the favourites for the upcoming tournament, had a fearsome attacking line-up, with Lionel Messi, Carlos Tevez and Hernan Crespo playing in front of Juan Roman Riquelme. But it was Croatia who slipped into the lead with an Ivan Klasnic goal in the third minute, the first the country had ever scored against Argentina, according to ITV match commentary.
A minute later, Messi stole the ball from a Croatian defender and played a wall pass with Riquelme that brought him into the box, where he slid the ball onto Tevez's toe for a tap-in.
Hardly two minutes had passed when Messi again nicked the ball from a Croatian defender by intercepting a sloppy pass on the right-hand side of the pitch, about 40 metres from goal. He cut back inside and, with that trademark jab with his left boot, arced the ball just inside the post and into the left-hand corner of the net from outside the box.
Six minutes in, three goals. Croatia drew level in the second half and, several minutes after Modric had been withdrawn, scored a last-minute goal to win the match 3-2. Modric, who later featured as a sub in two of Croatia's World Cup group games in Germany that summer, had fulfilled a life's ambition. It was an emotional day for him, as he explained afterwards in an interview, per Index: "This is the achievement of a boy's dream. The day I've been waiting for my whole life. The Croatian national team is a shrine."
When it came to recalling the "holy" day years later while testifying in court, Modric was at a loss to remember what year it happened. "In 2008," he said. "No, maybe it was earlier." It was at this point that the journalist helped jog his memory.
"It was a terrible day for fans of Croatian football because players don't forget the day they debuted for their national team," says Redzic. We can't stand the thought that our captain doesn't know the day he first played for Croatia."
Modric struggled in court to recall several details when questioned. His mind was a fog. Modric couldn't recall why he signed an initial contract with Dinamo Zagreb in June 2004 and added an annex to it at a later date. He couldn't remember if he gave the annex to his accountant, who happened to be his mother-in-law, Vesna Juraic.
"She is involved in the case as well. She was his accountant, so we have here a real family affair," says Redzic. Modric's mother-in-law is also suspected of giving a false testimony, per Index (h/t Total Croatia News).
A video of his court testimony has been posted online. Modric cut a nervous figure, shifting in his seat when the state prosecutor asked him about a written statement he had signed. Modric requested it to be read out again. He shook his head while it was being repeated and concluded: "That … That I've never said … that … that it was drawn up afterwards. I told you then that I couldn't remember when it had been done."
"Modric says he didn't understand the questions, that he was thinking about some other contract," says Holiga, editor of the Croatian website Telesport. "The thing is Modric was just a teenage boy when he was spotted by Mamic. At the time, Mamic had the power and connections and money to help players like Modric. I imagine in Modric's head, he's feeling thankful to Mamic for helping him during a key period in the career of a young player."
Modric isn't the only star Croatian player whose career Mamic guided through the transfer market. "Our players [spend time before] international matches very often in a courtroom mostly because of Zdravko Mamic and contracts with him," says Redzic.
Liverpool defender Dejan Lovren is under investigation for allegedly giving false testimony in the trial. Former Arsenal player Eduardo da Silva was also embroiled in a long legal battle with Mamic over contract obligations, which Da Silva won on appeal in 2014, per Hrvatski Information Center.
Ivan Bosnjak, who featured in the squad alongside Modric at the 2006 World Cup, "fell off the chair" when a prosecutor showed him he should've been entitled to 50 percent of the transfer fee Dinamo received from Genk for him in 2006, according to a report by Jutarnji list. "That annex I am seeing for the first time," he said. "We're talking about €750,000 that is owed. Ronaldo wouldn't have missed that amount of money."
Mamic is some cat. His life is full of melodrama. In March 2013, he was arrested on charges of hate speech and incitement to violence. During a radio interview on the eve of a volatile World Cup qualifier between Croatia and Serbia, Mamic made several slurs about the Croatian minister of education and sport, Zeljko Jovanovic, who is of Serbian ethnicity. This, of course, dredged up memories of the Balkans War. "Looking at his smile," Mamic was reported by Agence France-Presse to have said, "one can only see eye-teeth ready for slaughter" (h/t Radio Free Europe).
Mamic has also been engaged in a long-running feud with Dinamo ultras Bad Blue Boys (BBB), one of football's most infamous ultra groups. In 2007, Mamic enraged the BBB by having the slogan "HDZ in the heart" stitched into Dinamo's jersey in support of Croatia's ruling conservative party at the time of national parliamentary elections, per Vice Sports. The BBB lifted their boycott of Dinamo's home games when Mamic was arrested in 2015, returning to Dinamo's stadium in droves.
"Mamic was the master of Croatian football," says Redzic, who adds that Mamic funded the HDZ. "He also organised a birthday party for the president, Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic," says Redzic, which was reported on by her news website, Index. "She didn't see any problem with that. She told me that Mamic organised a lot of dinners for her, and at the time Mamic was under serious investigations."
Redzic paints a picture of Mamic as a classic populist figure. He's generous. He dishes out money. He helps families. He gets guys jobs. "There are a lot of people who think that Mamic is a hero," says Redzic. "It's part of our mentality. People think he is a model for success. There are people who think there is a [witch-hunt] to put Mamic away."
In January 2018, Mamic called a press conference. He rambled for two hours, mixing biographical details (he used to play football barefoot in winter, he says) with a defence of his legal case: "Am I [Osama] Bin Laden? Am I the leader of ISIS? Give me life! Let me live! I have a family. Let me go. I'm innocent until proven guilty. I am the poorest man in Europe concerning the amount of money that has gone through my hands. I spent everything for Dinamo, for friends, for humanitarian purposes."
Mamic is running out of friends, however. He fired his legal team dramatically in court in June 2017, per the Associated Press (h/t SI.com). Now he defends himself. A few days before Modric gave his court testimony that same month, a 22-year-old man assaulted Mamic in Bol, a town on the island of Brac, punching him in the back of the head and then pushing him into the sea, per BIRN. In August 2017, he survived an assassination attempt, receiving a gunshot wound to the leg.
Now that he's in the firing line, Redzic says politicians are lining up to take pops at him. "He's become a problem for all those politicians who he was helping before because now he's a persona non grata," she says. "No one wants to be with Mamic anymore because he's fallen. He's lost his influence."
Modric, who declined to comment to Bleacher Report for this article, has stayed loyal to Mamic. His support of him has divided a nation. Modric is beloved by many Croats, particularly around Zadar, where he grew up from the age of six. A Balkans War widows' association published an open letter of support for Modric in Fenix magazine (via Index), which illustrated how Modric has become a lightning rod for left-right tension in Croatia. In the letter, "sports journalists to our left" are derided for being naive: "Anyone who is called a sports journalist should know how football transfers are done, not just in Croatia but in the whole world."
After Modric was charged with perjury, the Croatian Football Federation released a statement making clear it stood behind Modric. It said it was "deeply convinced of the correctness of Luka Modric's testimony before the court in Osijek, and especially because of Modric's behaviour since his first appearance for the Croatian U-15 team in March 2001 to date."
In swathes of the country, however, Modric is criticised for supporting Mamic. The Zadar hotel where Modric lived for several years with his family during the war has been daubed with anti-Modric graffiti: "Luka, you'll remember this one day!!!" On another is scrawled: "Mamic's bitch."
"It's difficult for Modric now," says Holiga. "There is graffiti appearing everywhere across the country insulting him. There are people at domestic football games shouting things like, 'Luka Modric, you little s--t.' Public opinion is very divided now.
"It's a very high-profile case, especially with Modric's role in it. People were expecting Modric to be the key witness that would put Mamic behind bars because that is what Modric initially testified. The change of heart when he committed the perjury he is being charged with came as a big disappointment [to many]. If he just repeated what he said at the original questioning, he'd probably be a hero."
Despite his struggles, Modric's form for Croatia is good, according to Redzic. His performances for Real Madrid this season, though, have been mixed. He is part of a Real Madrid team that has struggled domestically, going out of the Copa del Rey to Leganes and languishing 13 points behind Barcelona in the league table.
"It's true Modric is not at the level he was last year," says Juanma Trueba, a Madrid-based Spanish football writer. He stops short of suggesting Modric might be offloaded by the club in the off-season, even though he will hit 33 years of age after the FIFA World Cup finals.
"I'm sure Real Madrid won't sell him this summer," says Trueba. "Modric is integral to the team and loved by the fans. He's fundamental—a key element in the Real Madrid team that aspires to win the Champions League again, but it is possible [the perjury case in Croatia] is affecting him."
The case rumbles on. Holiga points out that court cases in Croatia as big as Mamic's tend to spin out for "years." Redzic doesn't think Modric will end up in jail. "It's hard to prove that he lied, that he changed his testimony," she says. "Attorneys following the case have told me that there is no big possibility of him going to prison, but who knows? Croatia could possibly go to the World Cup with two players—Modric and Lovren—accused of violating serious laws."
Follow Richard on Twitter: @Richard_Fitz