It is time, finally, for Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi to step aside, and applaud Luka Modric as he strolls to collect the Ballon d’Or this December. Time for the little Croatian with the biggest heart to put on his bow tie and tuxedo and mingle as his two rivals try to avoid eye contact.
They’ve had their decade. They’ve shared five each. It would almost be wrong after all the debate about who is the better, divided roughly down the middle, to let one win more than the other. And anyway, it’s just getting unfair now. There are so many players who have been deserving but had the misfortune to be born within five years of the pair. Xavi and Andres Iniesta, spring to mind.
The World Cup final marked the moment 19-year-old Kylian Mbappe confirmed his future ascension to the Ballon d’Or throne by matching Pele from 60 years before, but there should yet be time for the turn of a 32-year-old with the gaunt look of a man who has played his entire career in the shadows, just catching the glow of the burning supernova surrounding former Real Madrid team-mate Ronaldo.
Maybe Modric has preferred, even subconsciously, a life out of the intense glare of his counterparts; quietly, calmly and modestly allowing everyone else to harness his power. But time has come, before he enters football’s richest retirement home, to step into the game’s mighty light.
When deep thunder exploded over the Luzhniki Stadium close to half-time of the World Cup final, it could conceivably have been the old Gods applauding Modric’s passing and movement, his incision and execution. When lightning flashed, was it an enraged Zeus railing at the awful VAR decision to award France a penalty, blowing his acca on Croatia to win the World Cup and Modric the Golden Ball?
If anything, the fabulous World Cup which unfolded across Russia for the past five weeks has reminded everyone how blinded they have been by the glitz and glitter of overhyped club football. Modric has been Russia’s shiniest star, brighter than the endless Saint Petersburg light.
In a World Cup year, the tournament has to be taken into consideration in determining the world’s best player. The Champions Leagues, La Ligas, Premier Leagues, Serie As, Bundesligas and Ligue 1s should pale in significance to the greatest prize in football.
Including the World Cup, Ronaldo concluded the season with 54 goals in 54 games. Immense, no doubt. Messi 49 in 62. He did not hit his usual level until later last season. But neither progressed past the World Cup last-16, Portugal exiting to Uruguay, Argentina to eventual champions France, each with better players surrounding them than Modric.
Last year, he came fifth in the Ballon d’Or. But now it is time to look beyond the goals; to take a step back and admire the art. Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola, when citing the example of his midfielder Kevin De Bruyne, is adamant that the Ballon d’Or winner has to have some kind of success in the Champions League to convince voters they are worthy. Modric has won three in a row.
This could’ve been Mohamed Salah’s year had he dominated in Russia like Modric. Neymar was an early contender. De Bruyne will feature in the top 20. Eden Hazard will be up there. Messi and Ronaldo will be in the top three. French heroes Antoine Griezmann, Paul Pogba and Mbappe will feature. Yet none have reached Modric’s footballing heights of the past five weeks.
It is pretty cliché to call players such as Modric a wizard; but Modric actually looks like one. He has the long hair of Gandalf and a mysticism and intrigue will forever drape around his football like a great cloak. In a sport where, increasingly, brawn and muscle are a prerequisite of any player, however skilful, when Gareth Bale and Ronaldo are the superhuman, carefully crafted builds to aspire, Modric is childlike in comparison physically, but a father of football in his wisdom.
His contribution in Croatia’s run to the World Cup final cannot be underestimated. Given that Diego Maradona went one further and hauled an average Argentina squad to the 1986 World Cup, it should not be placed quite on that level, but neither is it far off.
He is the player who stepped up to score a crucial penalty after missing one in extra time against Denmark, whose goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel became a penalty-saving octopus for half-an-hour. Modric cannot do everything. He cannot go in goal for a seemingly injured Danijel Subasic and stop the last two goals from Pogba and Mbappe, both of which were savable, even if he would likely have saved them. He cannot peer over the shoulders of the VAR officials and point out that there was no way Perisic could possibly have known that France corner was going to strike his hand, nor move it out of the way.
But he can, and should, win the Ballon d’Or.