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In the 99th minute of Croatia’s last-16 win over Japan, Luka Modric was substituted. “We have to take care of him,” manager Zlatko Dalic explained. But there was no room for such care against Brazil: this was not the moment to wrap up Modric in cotton wool and protect him from Casemiro’s flailing boots. This time Croatia wrung every possible kilowatt out of their 37-year-old totem as he steered them to another World Cup semi-final.
Croatia are making a handy habit of taking opponents to the death before killing them off - their past five World Cup knockout wins have all gone to extra time, and four of those to penalties - and so they will be deploying every ice bath and cryochamber to get their captain ready for Argentina and what could be another 12-round slugfest. Beyond the benched Cristiano Ronaldo, there are only two other Ballon d’Or winners at this World Cup, and they will go head to head at the Lusail Stadium on Tuesday night.
“We have four days to regenerate,” said Croatian left-back Borna Sosa after their win over five-time champions Brazil. “We are just celebrating a bit, then we go to sleep. This is the only way, because we don’t have 25 players playing in Barcelona, Real, so we have to be ready, everybody. Luka Modric is playing every game because he has to. There is no place for him to rest, because we need him every second on the pitch.”
Modric has not said whether this tournament will be his last, and on this evidence he might well swim against the tide a little longer, but he will be 40 in 2026 and so surely will not see him at another World Cup.
It has been a joy. Among those 160 caps have been some mesmeric displays, perhaps the high point that night in Moscow four years ago when Croatia fell behind to England only for Modric to take hold of the semi-final’s threads, gently weaving patterns out of the reach of England’s wearying midfield. It had all the measure of a Test match century, surviving the early onslaught, digging in, taking a stand and gradually seizing control of a game England thought they owned.
This is his gift, rarely to score the decisive goal or even to lay on the telling assist, but to mould games and shape them to his will, always just out of reach of the midfielders chasing his shadow. Modric’s impact is not a hammer blow but a chisel that chips away at a game and makes it his. He scuttles and scurries, determined off the ball and immaculate on it, a player who can get out of any terrifying crevasse, who could receive a pass at the end of the world’s longest corridor and return it without touching the sides. Had Casemiro had Modric alongside him on Friday night, as he did for so many years at Real Madrid, Brazil would surely not be going home.
“For me he’s in the top five midfielders of all time,” said Sosa. “Absolutely nobody performed on his level at 37 years old, and he’s showing from year to year how important of a player he is for us and Real Madrid. When it’s most important he gives us this experience, confidence, he’s really calm on the ball, and hopefully he will stay with us as long as he can.”
Modric has been at the heart of establishing Croatia as a modern footballing power. They are 12th in the world rankings and no one above them has close to as small a population as Croatia’s 3.9 million. The 2018 World Cup final felt like a one-off, yet now they go to their second successive semi-final and, after the way they came from behind against Japan, then can back from the dead against Brazil, who would dare dismiss them now. For all the talk of Messi’s destiny, that this is his time, there would be something equally poetic about Modric lifting the World Cup on 18 December.
“Everything is possible,” Sosa adds. “Semi-final, we are very dangerous like we showed. If it goes to penalties, everybody will have in their heads that we won many, many times on penalties, 100 per cent record now, I think four times [in the last two World Cups]. We’ll go all in again in four days and see what happens.”