PARIS • Luka Modric's journey from a Croatian child of war to the world's best footballer was celebrated on Monday when the Real Madrid player hoisted the Ballon d'Or award - ending the 10-year hegemony of Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi.
A national hero in his home country, the 33-year-old was rewarded with the accolade for his key role as captain in Croatia's historic run to the World Cup final as well as securing his club's third straight Champions League trophy.
Five-time winners Ronaldo and Messi had traded possession of the award in the past decade, but the former could only settle for second - his record sixth runner-up finish - while the latter finished fifth in the voting by football journalists.
Antoine Griezmann was third among the nominees for the award, which is organised by France Football magazine.
Modric's victory had been widely expected, having already been honoured by Fifa as the world's top player in September, and he is the first Croat to win the Ballon d'Or, with compatriot Davor Suker being the only other player to finish in the top three in 1998.
"As a kid, we all have dreams. My dream was to play for a big club and win important trophies," he said.
"The Ballon d'Or was more than just a dream for me, and it is really an honour and a privilege to hold this trophy. It's a unique feeling. I'm happy, proud and honoured."
The star-studded ceremony in Paris could hardly be further removed from his years as a child refugee, fleeing the burnt-out shell of a remote Croatian cottage where he spent part of his childhood.
Hidden in the folds of the Velebit mountain range, with the nearest neighbours several kilometres away, trees now grow where the ruins lie, with a sign warning people of mines - a stark reminder of how the area used to be like.
Luka, the player's grandfather, lived in that house which lay along a mountain road. But after he was killed by Serbian forces, the Modric family fled to the coastal town of Zadar, some 40km away.
It was there that Modric, then six, began his footballing odyssey, drawing attention for the first time to his budding abilities.
"I heard about a little hyperactive boy constantly playing with a football in the corridor of a refugee hotel, even going to sleep with it," said Josip Bajlo, who was then the coach at the Croatian club NK Zadar.
DREAM COME TRUE
As a kid, we all have dreams. My dream was to play for a big club and win important trophies. The Ballon d'Or was more than just a dream for me, and it is an honour to hold this trophy.
LUKA MODRIC, Real Madrid midfielder, on his Ballon d'Or win.
As soon as he saw Modric play, he signed the boy up for the club's football school, where he stood out immediately. "He was an idol to his generation, a leader, a favourite," Bajlo said.
BAPTISM BY FIRE
It happened a million times that we were going to training as the shells were falling and we were running to shelters.
MARIJAN BULJAT, Modric's childhood friend, on conditions in Croatia growing up.
The Croatian War of Independence from 1991-1995, during which Zadar and the surrounding region were heavily shelled, also toughened Modric, according to those close to him.
"It happened a million times that we were going to training as the shells were falling and we were running to shelters," said childhood friend Marijan Buljat, who played with Modric while growing up.
The midfielder eventually left Zadar, where he remains a legend, for Dinamo Zagreb in 2000 and then joined English Premier League club Tottenham in 2008.
After a bidding war, he was snapped up by European champions Real in 2012 for £30 million (S$52.1 million).
His popularity in Croatia and image as a modest family man did, however, take a hit after his testimony last year during the corruption trial of former Dinamo Zagreb chief Zdravko Mamic.
His support of Mamic angered many fans, who saw the case as a chance to clean up the country's corruption-ridden football league.
Prosecutors charged him in March for giving false evidence, although the case was dropped on Monday owing to a lack evidence.
But after Croatia's heroics in Russia in the summer, any lingering resentment against him evaporated, with more than 500,000 people giving the national team a heroes' welcome on their return to Zagreb despite the 4-2 defeat by France.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, NY TIMES