Abu Dhabi: They started the year in a Croatian courtroom and end it in a Fifa Club World Cup final.
Al Ain coach Zoran Mamic and Real Madrid midfielder Luka Modric go back a long way.
Mamic was the coach of Modric’s former side Dinamo Zagreb before the latter moved to Tottenham in 2008.
However details of Modric’s transfer were called into question during Mamic’s trial for embezzlement and tax avoidance earlier this year.
Mamic along with his brother Zdravko, a former director at Dinamo, were accused of corruption dating back from their time as coach and director of the club, and Modric was caught up in the middle.
Called in for cross examination, Modric was then charged with perjury for allegedly lying on oath — a charge that has since been dropped.
Mamic and his brother were sentenced to prison in absentia, a verdict they call invalid and are challenging on appeal from abroad, while maintaining their innocence.
Fast forward six months and Modric is the Ballon d’Or winner who led Croatia to this summer’s World Cup final before defeat to France, and Mamic has just led his Al Ain side to an unthinkable Club World Cup final against Real Madrid where he will be reunited with his former player.
Beyond the obvious stress of the past year, this reunion in Abu Dhabi on Saturday is a testament to the pair’s mental strength and resilience.
Their re-emergence not only mirrors that of their country — with Croatia having battled back from the horrors of a mid-nineties war — but also that of their own personal plights having grown up and lived through these circumstances.
Al Ain has played an unusually large part in this tale too as aside from their coach Mamic and his association with Modric, Croatia’s coach during this summer’s mesmerising World Cup run, and until now, is Al Ain’s former manager, Mamic’s predecessor, Zlatko Dalic.
Even among Al Ain’s current coaching set-up their remains a total of 14 Croatian staff including Mamic.
Modric may be the only Croat on Real’s team in the UAE this week, what with compatriot midfielder Mateo Kovacic on loan to Chelsea, but 15 involved in a final says quite a lot about the country. Especially in a year where they were also present in a World Cup final for the first time with newly-crowned world’s best player Modric now being their ultimate flag-bearer.
A lot will be said around the prematch handshake or post match commiserations between Mamic and Modric, but if it’s all just because of the trial that would do an injustice to the obvious relationship between the pair of a man who launched the other’s career, and a player who can only look back gratefully.