You might not see his face on magazine cover pictures or Times Square billboards, but Luka Modric, as this World Cup should drive home, is a credit to this sport and Croatia.
For someone who speaks so little, Luka Modric is a man of tremendous conflict. Brought up in shrapnel-and-mortar-perfused backyards, but exuding peace like a monk from the mountains of Tibet. He’s 5’7” and plays in central midfield, a personal property of big, burly men. Often the deepest man in his team’s midfield, sometimes even tasked with retrieving the ball from opposition midfielders and forwards; yet he has the touch, vision and passing range of a number 10. His last two clubs have been Tottenham Hotspurs and Real Madrid, and he couldn’t have been better suited for Arsenal and Barcelona even if he tried. Inconspicuous in his appearance and style, he plays a brand of pass-and-move that’s best viewed in monochrome. Luka Modric is everything you think he’s not.
Modric thrives when the spotlight falls elsewhere. At Real Madrid, he has the Ronaldos and Bales to absorb most of the lustre, and their instincts to stay upfield allow him the mental and physical space to quietly lay out his canvas. As a young kid in Zadar, when the earth beneath his house shook and trembled from the impact bombs and grenades, Luka was always in search of a moment of silence when he could open his creaky door and go out to play football. Empty, quiet spaces are Luka Modric’s choice of aesthetic.
This World Cup, neutrals longed for few things more than Messi and Iceland to succeed, such was the pull of the greatest beast and the pluckiest underdog narratives. Winner and arguably the architect of four Champions League victories in the last half a decade, you’d forgive Modric an early exit, just as you had at the last World Cup, where a 21-year-old Neymar’s and Guillermo Ochoa’s reflexes dominated all the airwaves from their group. 9 points from 3 games, including a ninety-minute exhibition against Argentina, wasn’t even in the most optimistic of plans.
And yet, even in the middle of a tournament where every other team has been attempting either a low-block counter-attacking strategy or a surge of manic pressing, Modric and Croatia have found a way to play simple, unfazed football and still be lethal. One could turn around and validly point out that even against seemingly weaker opposition in Denmark and Russia, they needed penalty shootouts to progress, but you can only play the opponents you’re given. Both Denmark and Russia played, as every team should, like their lives depended on the match, and in that attempt, were willing to sacrifice on the quality of football just so that Croatia didn’t get too big a gap in the doorway to barge in.
It takes tremendous mental fortitude to succeed in consecutive penalty shootout matches. With the opposition defenders constantly snapping at their ankles to break their play, Croatia had Modric to maintain order in their world. Every time an attack was met with the blunt force of a defensive wall, the Modric-Rakitic axis became the bottomless reservoir of possession that long-drawn, physically challenging knockout matches often hinge on. Many members of Manchester United’s famed late ’90s and early 2000s squads have spoken about the importance of Paul Scholes and his ability to keep possession for them to execute the sheer volume of late-match surges and Fergie-time miracles that they did.
By the 93rd minute of the Champions League final at Lisbon, Atletico Madrid were worn out, and Luka Modric was there to spot the gap in the watertight defense that had blunted Real so far. There was no hastily taken short corner, trying to draw defenders out of the penalty box, but a regulation, in-swinging cross that was placed perfectly for Sergio Ramos to do the rest. In the extra-time, Real ran riot. It wasn’t the last Champions League final where Real had to play 120 minutes of football and emerged more energetic at the end of it. Luka Modric has made a career out of masterminding marathon conquests of tough opposition defences.
After having two more of those for dinner, the world’s most nonconformist footballer finds himself in a World Cup semi-final against a team which has reached this far purely because of their nonconformance with what their predecessors had told them – England.
Modric has played in many big semi-finals for his club, but this one must count as something beyond what he would’ve ever imagined. He comes from a country that’s still young and has the scars on its skin to show for the decade of bloodbath preceding its independence; they are yet to conceive a generation for whom war will be limited to television and history books. Success at a far-reaching event like this is Croatia’s chance to stamp their global presence. Franjo Tudjman, in many ways the man who dragged them to independence, was a fierce football man and a member of Partizan Belgrade when Yugoslavia still hadn’t broken into pieces.
“After war, sport is the first thing by which you can distinguish nations. it is politics, which should decisively influences sport because everything is politics [and while] they say sport should be separated from politics, that economy should be separated from politics. I am telling you, such a thing does not exist.”
Twenty years back, Modric was yet to enter his teens when Davor Suker almost took Croatia to the finals, losing out closely to home nation France. As he shapes up to play the most important game of his life so far, a single pocket of space might be enough for Luka Modric, recipient of the appropriately named Croatian Hope of the Year award in 2004, to stop football from going home, and in that space, inspire another generation of footballers to live their dream.