ZAGREB • Croatia will hope Real Madrid star Luka Modric can carry the nation to the World Cup finals as they go into the first leg of a tricky play-off with Greece today.
The 32-year-old captain has had a tough year, with his shining reputation tarnished by a scandal in June over an allegedly false testimony he gave at a major corruption trial.
But anger from the fans seemed to be forgotten after his star performance in last month's 2-0 victory against Ukraine which secured Croatia their play-off spot.
The national team now hope the midfielder will be at his best to help them beat the 2004 European champions and secure a place in the tournament in Russia.
Modric is the biggest star Croatia have produced since 1998, when they surprisingly reached the World Cup semi-finals before losing to eventual winners France.
Last month, Modric was named, for the third time, in the Fifa FIFPro team selected by thousands of professional players. In 2015, he became the first Croat to be voted into the FIFPro XI.
Modric grew up during Croatia's 1990s independence war as a refugee in Zadar on the Adriatic coast. There he played football in the corridors of a hotel-turned-shelter and in its parking lot, as the city was shelled.
His talent was spotted by a scout for NK Zadar, whom he signed for. He left for Dinamo Zagreb in 2000 before joining Tottenham Hotspur in 2008. He was the subject of bids from many big European clubs before picking Real Madrid in 2012.
Modric was highly popular in Croatia until he testified in the multi-million euro corruption trial of former Dinamo Zagreb boss Zdravko Mamic.
WORLD CUP 2018, EUROPEAN QUALIFIERS
QUALIFIED (10 SPOTS)
Belgium, England, France, Germany (holders), Iceland, Portugal, Poland, Russia (hosts), Serbia, Spain.
PLAY-OFFS, FIRST LEG (4)
Croatia v Greece
Northern Ireland v Switzerland
Sweden v Italy
Denmark v Ireland
Mamic, considered the most powerful man in Croatian football, is accused - along with his brother Zoran and two others - of abuse of power and corruption.
They allegedly deprived the former Croatian champions of more than €15 million (S$23.7 million) and the state of €1.5 million. Cash was allegedly embezzled through fake deals related to player transfers, including Modric's to Spurs.
While testifying, Modric was visibly uncomfortable and confused, unable to even remember the year he made his debut for the national squad.
After prosecutors said his statement differed from the one he gave during investigations in 2015, Modric went from being a witness to a suspect. He is being probed over alleged false testimony, which is punishable by up to five years in jail.
The prosecutors accuse Modric of wrongly saying that he had signed an annex to a contract with Dinamo, over conditions for future transfers, in July 2004. During earlier questioning, the player said that the annex was signed after he joined Tottenham.
Modric's testimony infuriated many Croatian fans as it could undermine the charges against Mamic, who they believe has abused football for personal gain.
Fans criticised Modric on social media, calling him "Mamic's puppet", while some even wanted him kicked off the Croatian squad.
Modric told Spanish sports daily Marca in July that people were criticising him "without really knowing how things are", although he appeared to be forgiven - at least for now - after the Kiev match.
Ahead of today's contest, Modric said: "We have confidence but also a difficult rival" in Greece.
Croatia are at home in the first leg of the play-off, which will be played at the Zagreb Maksimir stadium.
The return fixture is on Nov 12 in Piraeus.
The football federations of the two countries have agreed that, for security reasons, both matches will be played without visiting fans.
CROATIA V GREECE
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