AL RAYYAN, Qatar — Argentina coach Lionel Scaloni couldn’t hide his admiration for the superstar, the living legend, the icon trying to win his first World Cup in his last tournament appearance.
“I have to say it’s such a pleasure to see him play on the pitch — he’s a role model for so many of us not only because of his talents as a player but also his behavior,” Scaloni said the day before his team meets Croatia on Tuesday (2 p.m. ET, FOX and the FOX Sports app) with a place in Sunday’s World Cup final on the line. “We must enjoy him.”
Scaloni wasn’t extolling the virtues of Lionel Messi. He was talking about Croatia captain Luka Modrić.
Much of the focus at Qatar 2022 has been on the 35-year-old Messi, for obvious reasons. Not nearly enough attention has been paid to Modrić, 37, the magical little Real Madrid midfielder who was former Barcelona idol Messi’s longtime club rival and the only man other than Messi or Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo to win the Ballon d’Or award — given to the game’s best player — between 2008-2021.
Modrić led Croatia to the World Cup final four years ago. Now he’s gotten it almost all the way back.
“Many had already written him off, due to his age,” Croatia coach Zlatko Dalić said on Monday. “But he has led us to the semifinals.”
It’s tempting to think the journey will end there. Messi is on a mission to finally hoist the one trophy he hasn’t, and he finally has the surrounding team to do it. Argentina is the favorite. But Croatia wasn’t supposed to reach the final, which it lost to France, last time around. Croatia definitely wasn’t supposed to beat Brazil, FIFA’s top-ranked team, in last week’s quarterfinal, yet here it is. And it has a better chance than most believe.
“They are under greater pressure than us,” Dalić said.
Argentina will also be without two players, Marcos Acuña and Gonzalo Montiel, because of yellow card accumulation. Head-to-head, Croatia has been Argentina’s equal. In six total matches between the nations, the series is evenly split. Croatia has won two of the last three meetings and has outscored Argentina 7-5 in their three previous World Cup duels, including a 3-0 pummeling in group play four years ago, the Albiceleste’s most lopsided first round defeat since 1958.
Modrić scored this gem in that match:
Modrić was the undisputed catalyst then. He’s been Croatia’s driving force in Qatar, too, even if he has yet to register a goal or an assist, logging 485 of Croatia’s 510 minutes at this World Cup — including all 120 against Brazil. He also sank the winning spot kick in the tiebreaker.
What makes Modrić so good is his total mastery of the ball. It’s almost impossible to dispossess him without fouling, and he almost always plays the perfect pass at the perfect time. Keeping the rock was critical against Brazil.
“They’re simply not used to playing against teams that maintain possession,” Dalić said afterward. The same applies to Argentina.
Defensively, Modrić’s subtle positioning and ability to track back and break up plays is hugely underappreciated. He’s not flashy. But soccer aficionados like Scaloni can’t help but drool over his genius. Modrić thinks the game as well as anybody. Messi is widely considered the greatest of all time, but Modrić has a claim as the greatest of this generation after him and former Real teammate Ronaldo.
All three have a long history, and not just in El Clasico. Modrić made his international debut in 2006 against Argentina, the same game in which Messi notched his first international goal. Tuesday’s contest will mark the first time the two previous Golden Ball winners (given to the World Cup’s most valuable player) will face off at a subsequent tournament. It will be just the third meeting between Modrić and Messi while wearing their countries’ colors.
Both men have also played in and lost World Cup finals. After those matches, Tuesday’s is probably the most important of either’s career. Neutrals across the planet want to see Messi go out on top. Modrić might have something to say about that. After all, his goal isn’t just to survive this semifinal.
“He will definitely try to do his best,” Dalić said, “to win the trophy.”
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Doug McIntyre is a soccer writer for FOX Sports. Before joining FOX Sports in 2021, he was a staff writer with ESPN and Yahoo Sports and he has covered United States men’s and women’s national teams at multiple FIFA World Cups. Follow him on Twitter @ByDougMcIntyre.
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