Luka Modrić should be a national hero. The Croatian midfielder has been a regular for several seasons now on Real Madrid, one of the most famous teams in world soccer, and he’s appeared in nearly 100 matches for his nation. Modrić has been one of the most consistent players of his generation, and he’s been honored in the FIFA World XI each of the last two years. But during the embezzlement and tax fraud trial of a powerful Croatian soccer executive, a few words from Modrić may have destroyed his entire reputation in his home country.
The Independent has a thorough write-up of what happened. Zdravko Mamić formerly ran Dinamo Zagreb, the biggest soccer club in Croatia and where Modrić came up as a young player. Mamić is allegedly corrupt in several different ways, but the biggest issue here is a supposed agreement, from when Modrić was an up-and-comer, that Modrić would split future income with Mamić in exchange for immediate money.
Modrić, who came of age during the Croatian War of Independence and spent time living in a hotel as a refugee, accepted Mamić’s support. When Modrić was transferred from Zagreb to Tottenham in 2008, Mamić allegedly illegally enriched himself by clandestinely taking a large chunk of Modrić’s payday. Modrić himself had testified in a previous statement that he would travel to the bank with a member of Mamić’s family, withdraw a chunk of his transfer money and give the cash directly to Mamić’s son or brother.
As the Independent notes, the transfer of money isn’t being debated. What’s under question is a clause in Modrić’s transfer agreement that allowed these actions:
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.
Modrić’s original statement confirmed the prosecution’s version of events. However, in open court Tuesday, Modrić claimed both confusion and memory loss, testifying that he got confused by the questioning and was unable to remember details. Obviously, this lack of memory would be enormously beneficial for the highly influential Mamić:
As the prosecutor Tonči Petković presented him with an earlier statement of his own on Tuesday, Modric first asked for it to be repeated.
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.”
The article notes that Modrić’s relationship with Croatian fans has always been slightly marred by his clear connection to Mamić, who is widely hated for both his alleged corrupt dealings and hostile rantings. Now, as Modrić appears to be not just quietly complicit, but actively aiding Mamić as he tries to evade justice, uneasiness has turned into hatred. His image in neighboring Bosnia* has been defaced by graffiti, while even the hotel where he once stayed as a refugee hung a banner outside that read, “Luka, you’ll remember this one day.”
While Modrić’s part appears to have been played, the trial is still ongoing. On Wednesday, Mamić berated and fired his lawyers in court. He now says he will be representing himself.
Correction: A previous version of this post misidentified the location of the graffitied image.