Modric set to receive the recognition he deserves
Saturday, November 17, 2007 and the pitch at the National Arena in Skopje is a bog. Incessant rain has caused severe waterlogging and put Macedonia's hosting of Croatia in a Euro 2008 qualifier under threat. The game goes ahead, and the hosts win 2-0, but it's a poor contest as players on both sides struggle to control the ball, let alone do anything with it.
Amid the sodden muck one player does catch the eye. Croatia's No 14, a small and wiry midfielder who, despite the conditions, looks to use possession intelligently and precisely. Sometimes he fails but he continues to try, continues to trust in his technique, and what makes his display even more impressive is he is 22.
Reporters double-check the player's name on the team sheet: Luka Modric. Plays for Dinamo Zagreb. Definitely one to keep an eye on. Could be a serious talent and that is precisely what he became.
A little under 11 years on, Modric remains small and wiry but professionally he is now a giant: a four-time Champions League winner with Real Madrid and the captain of his country as they face Denmark today in their first World Cup last-16 tie in two decades. Modric has impressed in Russia and is key to Croatia's hopes of progressing. From an individual point of view, these finals offer the 32-year-old a chance to establish himself as the finest midfielder on the planet.
It is somewhat odd that Modric is not spoken of in those terms already. He has been a key cog in the most successful European club team of the past 10 years and is a player whose ability to dictate the tempo of top-level matches with brain as well as feet cannot be beaten. There have been others of a similar ilk, most notably Xavi and Andrés Iniesta, but they have at least had their moments in the sun: they are fully recognised and celebrated for their brilliance. Modric operates in relative darkness, passing, moving and gobbling up winner's medals with barely a nod of approval in his direction.
In part, that is down to Modric's unassuming nature. He is a subtle operator who physically gets lost among the game's honed and toned superstars.
"We are all football lovers and we know Modric is an incredible player," said Dejan Lovren on behalf of his Croatia team-mates, all of whom leant heavily on the man with No 10 on his back as they went about topping Group D with a 100 per cent record to head into this evening's contest in Nizhny Novgorod as favourites to progress to the quarter-finals.
No Croat has completed more passes at this World Cup than Modric (143), or received more (124), highlighting the level of trust the midfielder's colleagues have in him to do the right thing at the right moment. And it is not just with his use of the ball that Modric has made a telling contribution. He is also second for greatest distance covered (26.09km), third for most sprints completed (93).
The captain is here, there and everywhere, having also scored twice at these finals, following up a penalty in the opening game against Nigeria with that twisting, turning howitzer in the 3-0 victory against Argentina. It reflected his capacity to keep a clear head in the most pressured situations, a somewhat remarkable feat given the player travelled to Russia with a possible five-year prison sentence preying on his mind .
The sanction stems from Modric's involvement as a witness in the criminal trial of the former Dinamo Zagreb director Zdravko Mamic, following which he was charged with perjury. A trial is due to take place after the World Cup and it would not have been a surprise had Modric, who denies wrongdoing, performed like a troubled soul at the tournament.
Instead he has flourished in the centre of Croatia's midfield, dictating play with calmness, precision and robustness.
For a man who is 5ft 6in (1.68m) and 10st 3lb (66kg), Modric is incredibly strong, using every element of his frame to hold off more imposing opponents in order to receive and use the ball. It was a trait that was fully on show during Real's Champions League final victory over Liverpool and something Harry Redknapp noticed on becoming Tottenham manager in October 2008, six months after Modric joined the club from Dinamo.
"Luka is as brave as a lion," said Redknapp, having overseen the flourishing of a player who had struggled to adapt to life in north London. "He can make things happen - he has that ability to open the door."
They have also seen that at Real, where Modric suffered early teething problems. He was voted the worst signing of the 2012-'13 La Liga season by Marca, the Spanish daily sport newspaper, having arrived for £30m a few weeks before the start of the campaign. He refused to crumble and, having moved from a No 10 role into centre midfield, became integral to Real's success on the European stage.
Now he plans to help Croatia reach grand heights, potentially emulating or even surpassing their success at France '98, when a team which included Robert Prosinecki, Zvonimir Boban and Davor Suker reached the semi-finals. Do that and Modric will well and truly stamp his mark on the global consciousness.
"Because we are a small country, Luka gets less attention than he deserves," Lovren said. "He is one of the best in the world. Maybe even a Ballon d'Or winner."
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