A World Cup used to be a festival of exotica. In a time before blanket TV coverage and access to foreign football at the flick of a button, players from far-flung countries could become household names for a month and recalled thereafter as cult legends.
Players like Grzegorz Lato, Poland’s monk-like goal-machine winger, and Teofilo Cubillas, El Nene of Peru, decorated World Cups in the 1970s. The 1980s brought players like Belgium’s Enzo Scifo and Russia’s Igor Belanov to the fore. And in the 1990s audiences were introduced to the likes of Romania’s Gheorge Hagi, ‘the Maradona of the Carpathians’ or Hristo Stoichkov, ‘the Dagger’ of Bulgaria.
Were he a player in such sepia-tinged, more innocent times, Luka Modric would be just such a player, a magician that viewers would tune in just to watch twinkle in midfield, and would be the talk of the school playground the next day.
These days, though, where each match he plays for Real Madrid can be caught, his understated brilliance has lost its novelty value, even if it is a relative rarity to catch him in a Croatia shirt. Thursday night, however, and his display while Argentina were put to the sword was a powerful reminder, a restating of his genius.
In Nizhny Novgorod, Modric sprang to the fore just as star players are supposed to. His was an exhibition of the big-name player inspiring those around him, driving them to success. As Lionel Messi by contrast sulked throughout his team’s 3-0 disastrous defeat, he doubtless wondered how much easier life in an Argentina shirt might be were someone like Modric supplying him from midfield instead of a struggling Enzo Perez and an ageing Javier Mascherano.
For a player who will not often look to play easy, obvious balls, a passing completion rate of 83% over 90 minutes was immense. Even before the thunderous, superlative, victory-clinching goal he scored to send Messi into an even deeper decline by making it 2-0, Modric’s prompting and probing had been driving Argentina’s defence towards the disorganised chaos that eventually subsumed them. Usually so modest, Modric accepted in the aftermath of victory that he and his team-mates had played a “perfect match” and that his strike had been “one of the best goals I have scored”.
Central defender Dejan Lovren, who had succeeded in keeping Messi quiet, handed full credit to his captain. “He has this calmness, so much experience in his career,” said the Liverpool man. “He knows how to play these big games. As I said, it’s a joy to play with him.”
Nobody who has been paying any attention to European football for the last decade would doubt the quality of that impish playmaking. Tottenham, to whom he has lately been linked with an emotional return, enjoyed four years of him after he had come into the limelight at Euro 2008.
Then the call of Real Madrid came. Six years on, he remains the midfield player whose scheming makes the multiple Champions League winners tick. While Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale and the like might take the headlines for their spectacular goals, Modric is the creative inspiration, working the angles onto which such players can explode.
A birdlike physique masks a player of immense moral courage, someone unafraid to dart through the heavy traffic of midfield, always available to receive a pass, and constantly looking to drive his team forward from a usually deep-lying midfield role; Croatia tend to push him a little further forward. The intelligence of his play is of the level that Paul Scholes once exhibited for Manchester United and Xavi for Barcelona.
At 32, 33 in a couple of months, this is likely to be his last chance at a World Cup finals, and his remaining chance of emulating his country’s heroes from 1998, when a new nation playing in its first ever finals reached the semi-finals and claimed third place with Davor Suker, Zvonimir Boban and Robert Prosinecki as its stars.
Croatia are one of those teams who have travelled to the finals with the label of “golden generation” attached to its players, and in qualifying for the last 16 have already progressed further than Modric’s previous two World Cups.
In 2006, when he played in two matches as Dinamo Zagreb’s 21-year-old starlet and four years ago in Brazil, his tournament ended at the group stage.
With the likes of Barcelona’s Ivan Rakitic, Inter Milan’s Ivan Perisic and Juventus’ Mario Mandzukic to work with, he has quality for company, but Nizhny confirmed his primacy among his colleagues. It also announced Croatia are an opponent to be feared in the competition and that Modric at his throwback cult-hero best is an unmissable spectacle.