PERHAPS THE most surprising aspect of last summer’s transfer window was that Luka Modric did not leave Tottenham Hotspur. That he wanted to go was obvious, as was Chelsea’s desire to sign him, but Tottenham, as they had vowed they would do, sat out the transfer window and refused to listen to offers. You wonder whether they will be able to show similar resistance this summer.
This, in a way, is modern football’s curse. The Champions League has raised on-field standards beyond anything imaginable when it began, but there is a cost and that is that teams who don’t compete in it regularly simply become suppliers, prep schools for the giants. Tottenham are one of English football’s biggest clubs. Historically, they are far bigger than Chelsea. They may even, if both could play in infinitely large stadiums, have more fans. But they have only competed once in the Champions League.
Modric is as decent and solid a professional as there is. He is calm, articulate and intelligent and gives the impression of taking everything in his stride. I first met him in 2007, when he was a highly-rated prospect at Dinamo Zagreb. I was shocked at how slight he was close up. Everybody I’d spoken to about him confirmed what I’d thought on the odd occasions I’d seen him play. He was, they all said with a proud smile, a classic Number 10 in the Croatian tradition.
I confess I heard those words and thought: museum piece. When I then dwarfed him in a hotel lobby in Slovenia, I couldn’t believe anybody could dream of sending him to the Premier League: it seemed akin to making a kitten play with slavering mastiffs. I asked if he thought he could cope with the physicality of English football. He gave a gentle smile and said, “When you’ve played in the Bosnian league you can play anywhere.”
His certainty was fleetingly impressive, but I remained sceptical.
He’s just a professional who, at 26, is getting to an age at which he needs – and deserves – to be playing regular Champions League football
Roman Abramovich first made inquiries about Modric that November. Dinamo’s then-vice president Zdravko Mamic visited Abramovich in London in the week before England’s fateful 3-2 defeat to Croatia at Wembley and Tomislav Marcinko, a member of Dinamo’s management committee, insisted Chelsea were determined to sign the player, saying, “Abramovich is ready to pay for every one of Modric’s kilos.” Which weren’t many and that, presumably, was why Chelsea didn’t follow up their interest.
It was only in that game at Wembley that I realised the reason that Modric can cope despite his lack of physique is that he barely gets hit during games. He is a master at moving into passes, receiving them on the half turn, both opening up passing angles and making it impossible for defenders just to give him a nudge or bump into the back of him. If they do try to make contact, they have to stretch and if they do that, it’s clear to referees contact is being made and they’re liable to be booked.
More significant, though, is that Modric seems not to care on the odd occasions when there is contact. He just gets on with it. As he did this season after his attempt to leave was thwarted. He is no mercenary, no whinging prima donna. He’s just a professional who, at 26, is getting to an age at which he needs – and deserves – to be playing regular Champions League football. It’s not clear Tottenham can offer him that; should they miss out and Chelsea take fourth place this season, Modric could hardly be blamed if he saw a side that has been in the semi-finals three times in the last five years as a safer bet.
And that’s the problem teams like Tottenham have. The players they need to make them regular Champions League participants themselves demand Champions League football. The hierarchy the Champions League creates isn’t just financial; it’s also to do with reputations.
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