When Real Madrid take on Ajax in the Champions League tonight, Luka Modric will strut his stuff in a stadium that so nearly became his home ground 12 years ago.
At the time, he was a 21-year-old making a name for himself at Dinamo Zagreb, where his style of play - which did not take long to draw comparisons with Ajax great Johan Cruyff - quickly attracted the attention of the Eredivisie club. Sporting director Martin van Geel flew to Croatia to seal a deal for the midfielder, only for it to fall through at the 11th hour, because of... Arsenal.
Curiously, Modric would end up going to North London, but to join arch rivals Tottenham. Getting back to summer 2007, though: it was the Gunners who scotched his hopes of playing at Ajax. When they submitted an unexpected offer for his club-mate Eduardo da Silva, the striker moved to the Emirates Stadium in a 17m-euro deal that brought a much-needed injection of cash into Dinamo's bare coffers, and allowed the Croats to pull the plug on selling Modric.
The magazine Panorama has this week revealed details of the backstory to Ajax's failed pursuit of a footballer who was eager to pull on the red and white shirt. "Luka was dubbed the 'little Cruyff' in Croatia, and he'd ask me about Ajax all the time," explained former international team-mate Joey Didulica, who spent four years at the 33-time Dutch champions between 1999 and 2003. "He wanted to know everything he could about the club," said Didulica, who was sure to make Ajax aware of this. "They wanted him and he wanted to go, but it wasn't to be."
The fine performances that Modric would subsequently deliver in the Champions League - of which one, much to Ajax's chagrin, came in Amsterdam - merely served to push his value through the roof, and out of the club's reach. In a 21m-euro transfer the following year, Spurs finally secured the services of a man who would go on to Ballon d'Or glory at the Bernabéu.