Welcome to the 2018 World Cup in Russia: a tournament of stories.
Football has definitely happened along the way, too — just don't mention anything about something coming home — and it’s created a fresh wave of heroes, villains, and newborn babies undoubtedly christened with names like Jordan, Harry, and Raheem.
However some heroes were born into worlds of conflict and poverty — and two former refugees are set to start in the biggest stage in sport: the World Cup final.
And now, with half the world watching, they’re transforming perspectives on what it means to be a refugee in the 21st century — and changing the hearts and minds of football fans across the globe. But they're not alone.
1. Luka Modric
Six weeks ago, Luka Modric kissed the elusive silver of the Champions League trophy for the fourth time in five seasons, and third in a row, as Real Madrid beat Liverpool 3-1 in Kiev, Ukraine.
He called their record-breaking victory “a dynasty in football.” That’s an understatement — it’s unlikely anyone will ever be able to repeat their success. Only Real Madrid have ever won back-to-back Champions League titles — and nobody has even come close to three.
Modric has played every second of those four finals — and now, against all odds, will captain Croatia in the final of the World Cup. Teammate Ivan Rakitic calls him the “best Croatian player ever.” But his childhood was a parallel universe; he grew up among landmines, gunfire, and war crimes.
After Croatia declared its independence from Yugoslavia in 1991, local Serbian forces captured the area where Modric grew up in the Velebit mountains. He was 6 years old when his grandfather was murdered there — and his family fled to the coastal town of Zadar to live in a hotel for refugees.
For years the playmaker trained in the shadow of war.
"We were always afraid, that's what I remember the most," said Tomislav Basic, one of Modric's first coaches at NK Zadar and “second father,” in the Guardian. "Thousands of grenades, fired from the surrounding hills, fell on the training pitch in those years, and we were always racing to reach the shelter. Football was our escape from reality."
2. Xherdan Shaqiri
On June 25, 2016, Xherdan Shaqiri turned his back to goal and closed his eyes.
His delicious bicycle kick against Poland at Euro 2016 was widely lauded as the goal of the tournament. The Swiss forward is renowned for conjuring up the most outrageous screamers — and carried his form into the World Cup with a winner against Serbia that thrust Switzerland into the knockout stages.
The Swiss flag is stitched onto the heel of his match-winning left boot. But his right bears the flag of Kosovo — and tells a very different story about his upbringing.
“When I run onto the field at the 2018 World Cup, I will have the flags of both Switzerland and Kosovo on my boots,” he said in an interview with the Players Tribune. “Not because of politics or anything like that. But because the flags tell the story of my life.”
Shaqiri was just four years old when his family fled their home in Gjilan on the cusp on the Kosovo war. They settled in the Swiss village of Augst, near Basel, over 1,000 miles away.
“My family did not have much,” Shaqiri said. “My uncle’s house burned down and our house was left standing but everything had been stolen or broken and the walls were sprayed. I am really glad that we found in Switzerland a safe country where we could live our lives in peace.”
Even now there is still political tension — and alongside teammate Granit Xhaka, the conflict has been thrust back into public consciousness.
3. Granit Xhaka
When Xhaka hammered home a stunning equaliser against Serbia, he crossed his hands in celebration to form an imitation of the Albanian eagle.
Heavy criticism followed the final whistle from Serbians across the globe. Serbia does not recognise Kosovo’s self-proclaimed independence — and years earlier had launched a “brutal crackdown” on Kosovo’s Albanian population after the breakup of Yugoslavia, until NATO intervened in 1999.
Xhaka’s father spent three-and-a-half years as a political prisoner in Yugoslavia, and his family left for Switzerland to flee the Kosovo war.
Both Xhaka and Shaqiri — who joined Xhaka in the eagle gesture — were fined £7,600 for “unsporting behaviour.” They reportedly could have faced bans for breaking FIFA rules on “political or offensive messages,” too.
Kosovo Albanians have a history of remembering their roots. Those living in Switzerland and Germany make up most of Kosovo’s overall income — with an estimated £133 million sent back every year. Arsenal midfielder Xhaka reportedly still sends 80% of his earnings home to his family.
4. Dejan Lovren
Welshman Gareth Bale could have scored a hat trick against Liverpool when he came off the bench in May’s Champions League final, but an expertly timed lunge from centre-back Dejan Lovren snatched the ball away from him at the very last moment.
Of course, it wasn’t enough — Lovren could only watch in envy as Luka Modric and Read Madrid lifted the trophy.
But just a week later, Lovren and Modric trained side by side; united both as key men in Croatia’s national team and as former refugees who found sanctuary in the country they’ve lifted into the World Cup final.
Lovren grew up in Kraljeva Sutjeska, a village in Bosnia, and at three years old he fled a civil war that killed 100,000 people. His uncle’s brother was murdered in public — and after a night hiding from bombings in an underground basement, his family left everything behind for a new life in Germany. When the war ended, they were told to leave; and aged 10, Lovren finally settled in Croatia.
The moving story is told in an LFCTV documentary called “Lovren — My Life as a Refugee.”
“When I see what’s happening today [with refugees] I just remember my thing, my family, and how people don’t want you in their country,” Lovren said in the documentary. “I understand people want to protect themselves, but people don’t have homes.”
“It’s not their fault; they’re fighting for their lives just to save their kids,” he added. “They want a secure place for their kids and their futures. I went through all this and I know what some families are going through. Give them a chance, give them a chance. You can see who the good people are and who are not.”
5. Victor Moses
Victor Moses was the epitome of cool when he calmly slotted home an equalising penalty for Nigeria against Argentina on June 26.
Two steps, right foot — and two twisting somersaults in celebration. Eventually, Nigeria were beaten by a superb swinging volley in the final five minutes. As Moses reacted to the loss, he said “everything happens for a reason.”
In 2002, Moses arrived in London as an asylum seeker. He was 11 years old, alone, and didn’t know any English. His family had sent him away from Nigeria just a week after his mother and father were killed in their home as religious riots hit Kaduna — all while Moses was playing football in the street.
Moses was placed with foster parents and sent to a school in south London. It was a difficult start in an unfamiliar culture, but within two years “word rapidly spread about [his] dazzling African talent,” according to BBC Sport.
"It has been a long journey [from Nigeria] and I just want to keep strong and work hard for myself, whether it's football or not football," Moses said in an interview with the Guardian. "I have to thank God for being where I am, it's like a dream come true and, if I keep working hard, who knows, I'll probably end up in Barcelona one day."
Then 15 years after leaving his family in Nigeria, Moses wore the Premier League trophy on his head like a crown. He started 22 games in a row for Chelsea in their title winning 2016-17 season — and has been an immovable object for both club and country ever since.