The last time Croatia played an international tournament, Luka Modric went on to win the Ballon d’Or, becoming the only player since 2007 to beat Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo to football’s most prestigious individual award.
He won both the Champions League and Club World Cup with Real Madrid in 2018 but it was his instrumental role in inspiring Croatia to the World Cup final, for which Modric was named player of the tournament, that deemed him better than all the rest.
Aged 32 in Russia, Modric will be two months short of 36 when Euro 2020 is over but this is no swansong for one of the greatest, most decorated midfielders of his generation.
Modric will be looking to lead again, on the back of a dazzling season in which he was arguably Madrid’s best player, perhaps behind only French striker Karim Benzema.
He played more minutes than any outfield player except Benzema and defensive midfielder Casemiro, and has enjoyed his best ever scoring season in La Liga.
But Modric’s output has never been accurately measured by goals and assists. He is the metronome from deep, a conductor who dictates the tempo and angle of attack, his ability to pass or dribble through gaps allowing his team to move up the pitch without a moment’s thought.
“People are always more focused on the players that score a lot of goals or make assists and if they’re not watching matches they need time to notice the players who aren’t doing those things,” Modric said in an interview with AFP last year. “But I think over time the recognition comes. In the end, people notice.”
Croatia’s golden generation may not have aged so gracefully — Modric’s long-time midfield partner Ivan Rakitic, back at Sevilla, is now a fading force — but they should make it into the knockout stage, with England, Scotland and the Czech Republic their foes in Group D.
‘From a different planet’
Modric’s time in the English Premier League with Tottenham Hotspur proved a formative moment in his career as he began to prove wrong all those who said his talent with the ball would be diminished by his diminutive stature.
“Always around me there were a lot of doubts,” Modric said. “They said ‘you are too weak, too fragile, you will not reach the top’. But this didn’t affect me at all. It just motivated me even more.”
Even at Real Madrid, Modric needed time to convince, the results of a Marca poll concluding he had been the club’s worst signing in his first season. “It’s not nice in the moment to see it but I didn’t care much,” Modric said. “I believed in myself.”
That resilience perhaps has roots in his childhood, when Modric was used to running from bombs, his daily life shaped by the chaos of the Croatian War of Independence, which forced his family to leave their home just outside Zadar in 1991 and live in a hotel for seven years.
“Two or three times a day it happened,” said Modric. “I’d be outside the hotel or training with my team and you would hear the alarm and you would run to the shelter for protection. You wait for the sound to stop and then you can go out again.
“It was not comfortable but we had people and coaches around us who told us it would be okay.”
Modric has always treasured his experiences with the national team, choosing not to retire after the World Cup, which might have a been a natural time to step back and save his energy for the demands of being a key player at Real.
Instead, he will be there again this summer and perhaps next year too, at his fourth World Cup in Qatar. “I want to play in the Euros. The World Cup? Let’s see,” said Modric.
Croatia will cherish every last moment. “He’s like my big brother,” said Rakitic in Russia. “It’s like he’s from a different planet, down here playing with us mortals.”