From worst signing in La Liga to the best midfielder in the world: How Real Madrid's Luka Modric proved them all wrong

When Cristiano Ronaldo was unveiled to an adoring Madrid public in 2009, 80,000 fans turned up to watch a glitzy choreographed presentation led by Florentino Perez and Alfredo Di Stéfano. For Luka Modric things were significantly more understated, with fewer than 100 attendees turning up to the Bernabéu on an idle Monday afternoon.

In many ways, the audience, (or lack thereof in Modric’s case) hinted at the expectation of both men. When the Croat relocated from White Hart Lane the question was not so much where he would play, but rather if he would play. The man himself, humbled, and completing a childhood dream of playing in Spain, opted to be respectful and sure-footed during his first press conference.

"I'll be happy wherever the manager puts me." Modric said. "I like to play technical football. I can play in all of the midfield positions, but at Spurs, I played mainly as a central midfielder. I feel best in that position and I hope to get a position there.”

Modric called it a ‘challenge’ to get into the team, but stressed he was ready. The man with three Champions League crowns and a La Liga title to his name has proven that fact, even if his career at Los Blancos has not been without obstacles.

At one stage, a poll ran by a Spanish newspaper saw the Croatian top the list as the, ‘worst signing of the season’.  Such a title seems laughable when you consider how influential Modric has been in Real Madrid’s recent success.

During the 2014 Champions League final against city rivals Atletico, with the grains of sand almost all collected at the bottom of the hourglass, it was Modric that planted a sweet delivery onto the head of Sergio Ramos for the equaliser. "Yeah, he likes to claim an assist, Luka," Gareth Bale joked recently. "To be fair, he delivers a good ball.”

The Croatian delivered another good ball on Saturday in the 4-1 victory over Juventus. This time it was a killer blow rather than an equaliser, with his delightful cross to the near post giving Ronaldo his second goal of the evening.

To evaluate Modric’s season is to see only a few goals and assists. However, if you speak to his teammates, or even Real Madrid fans, you’ll hear about a player that is so much more than two columns on a stat sheet. Few are more willing to eulogise about Modric than coach Zinedine Zidane. "The way he plays the ball with the outside of his foot," Zidane said, "pffff ... .”

A fancy technique is just one of his many assets though. Modric is the conductor, he controls the play. He knows when to run, and when to pass. He creates, and even though he may not apply the killer touch or the final ball, he often plays a part. “Modric is the best central midfielder in the world," teammate and compatriot Mateo Kovačić said in the build-up to the final.

Kovačić may be bias, but his statement is not as outlandish as one may think. Even opponents have indulged in admiration of Modric. Ahead of last year’s Champions League final, Atletico midfielder Koke was asked which player from the club’s fierce rivals he would take for his own team. Perhaps Ronaldo, Gareth Bale, or Sergio Ramos? "I like Modric a lot,” he said.

Zidane likes him too, as did his predecessor Carlo Ancelotti. "He can do all the things that a central midfielder has to be able to do," the Italian said. "But perhaps the most important thing is penetration with the ball; he has that pass that opens up the opposition."

That is perhaps why Ancelotti’s side struggled without Modric in the team, and why the Croatian was so key on Saturday night when a dogged and experienced Juventus rode up to Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium. Ahead of Saturday’s final the Italians had kept nine clean sheets in the Champions League.

Yet Zidane, like Modric, saw space where others did not. "Zidane and his staff detected Juventus' defensive weakness, so throughout the week, in preparation for the final, we practiced return passes," Modric told Croatian TV afterwards. "That is what we worked on and that is how we scored three of our goals in the final. Congratulations to the coach for that detail, which was the key in the final.”

The Frenchman knew he could trust Modric to do what was asked. By Zidane’s own admission his instructions to Modric tend to be, ‘two or three small defensive things’.

Such trust highlights his status at Real Madrid. Zidane trusts and values Modric, and even though his unveiling at the Bernabéu was understated, his legacy once he leaves the club should not be.