Why surviving Croatia’s bloody past will keep team strong against England

England may have finally broken their penalty curse, but it is their next World Cup opponents who have emerged as the masters of the spot kick in Russia.

Maybe this should come as no surprise, as many of Croatia’s senior players survived far tougher times of tension as children during the bloodbath that was the Balkans War.

That was the latest in a series of conflicts which has moulded this young nation into the hard men of Europe. And Croatia’s biggest star, Luka Modric – ironically just 5ft 5in in this team of giants – suffered horrors worse than his teammates.

The Real Madrid midfielder, who helped his team to four Champions League victories in the past five years, was just six when his remote hamlet of Modrici in central Croatia was plunged into civil war.

Modric, now 32, was named after his grandfather Luka, who cared for him while his father and mother worked long hours in a jumper factory.

In December 1991, Serbian militia rampaged through a nearby village and cornered Luka Snr, who was walking his cattle.

He was executed with five other elderly locals. The surviving members of the Modric family fled for the relative security of Zadar on the Adriatic coast. Their home was burned to the ground by the Serbs.

Even their new surroundings offered no guarantee of safety.

Thousands of grenades rained down on Zadar, bullets tore through the air, and there were land mines buried in the streets.

Modric and his sister Jasmina spent seven years living in cheap hotels with no electricity or running water. It was a world away from his life now as a multi-millionaire with a stunning wife and three adorable children.

Modric passed the days kicking an old, punctured football around hotel car parks, wearing shin pads made of wood.

He recalled: “These were tough times. I remember them vividly, but it’s not something you want to think about. The war made me stronger.”

The Balkans War between 1991 and 2001 claimed the lives of 140,000. Modric’s former Tottenham Hotspur teammate and best friend Vedran Corluka, also 32, saw his small town of Modran in modern-day Bosnia torn apart.

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His family fled to the Croatian capital Zagreb in 1992, where his mother Anda became a judge.

He said: “There was death and destruction. When you have done that, other problems seem so small.”

Another player familiar to English football fans, Liverpool defender Dejan Lovren, was just three when his family fled the country to join his grandfather in Munich. Lovren, 29, can still recall the nights of terror in his home village of Kraljeva Sutjeska.

He said: “I remember the wail of sirens. I was frightened of a bomb falling on us. One of my uncles was slaughtered with a knife.

“We were lucky grandfather had the papers and we could move to Germany. If we hadn’t, my whole family might have ended up in the ground.”

Croatian goalkeeper Danijel Subasic, 33, the hero of their penalty triumphs, was seven and growing up in Zadar when the war began and has recalled hiding as bombs fell.

Meanwhile two of the team’s other star players, Juventus striker Mario Mandzukic and Barcelona’s Ivan Rakitic grew up in exile – in Germany and Switzerland – after fleeing. Rakitic, 30, received death threats when he chose to play for Croatia rather than
Switzerland.

Today Croatia is a beautiful country, its population of just over four million outnumbered by the number of tourists who flock each year to see its beautiful mountain resorts, lakes, and the magnificent Dalmatian coastline.

But the nation has been carved up and reborn several times out of bloody wars in the past 1,000 years.

Scientists have found Croats to be among the tallest nationalities, reinforcing their reputation as the hard men of Europe. Men are 5ft 11in on average and women 5ft 5in. In the town of Drnis, men average 6ft 1.5in.

Croatia’s most infamous period of violence came during the Second World War, when Fascist leader Dr Ante Pavelic turned Croatia into a German puppet state. He mobilised Ustasha paramilitaries “who made the Nazis look like boy scouts”.

They have been blamed for massacring 500,000 Serbs, gypsies, and Jews.

After the war Croatia was part of Yugoslavia until the death of Marshal Tito. It then declared independence.

Conflicts have cast a long shadow of poverty on the country – even affecting super-rich footballers.

Croatia believe their golden ­generation can now complete their rags to riches story by reaching the World Cup final – but this is a nation that has not always found itself on the right side of history.

England fans must hope that is the case again on Wednesday night.

Croatia facts

  • The population is 4.17million.
  • Croatia enjoys 2,715 hours of sun each year, more than Sydney.
  • A pint of beer costs £1.80.
  • The town of Hum has the world’s smallest population of just 17.
  • Croatia joined the EU in 2013.
  • Actors John Malkovich and Eric Bana, pop star Lorde, and footie legends Maradona and Zlatan Ibrahimovic have Croat ancestry.
  • Croatia’s best finish at a World Cup was third in 1998.
  • The Dalmatian Coast often features in Game of Thrones.
  • The average salary is £7,620 a year after tax.

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