Small shoulders, huge burden: Aging magician Modric worries Croatia

At the 2018 World Cup in Russia, Luka Modric led the Croatian national team to the final.

Small shoulders, huge burden: Aging magician Modric worries Croatia

At the 2018 World Cup in Russia, Luka Modric led the Croatian national team to the final. Now, four years later, you can slowly tell that he is 37 years old, and in the round of 16 he even allows himself to be substituted. How far will he be able to carry his team this time?

Sometimes one or two sentences are enough to understand what a footballer means to his national team. "Every word that describes his merits would still be one too few. As a footballer he stands for himself - and thus also above all players that Croatia has produced so far," ex-national player Mladen Petric paid tribute to his former team-mate Luka Modric Interview with the "Süddeutsche Zeitung". But Petric also admitted in the conversation that the age of the 37-year-old superstar from Real Madrid can no longer be completely concealed.

That's why there was a little drama in Croatia before the quarter-finals against Brazil (4 p.m. / MagentaTV and in the live ticker). A tournament in desert temperatures, being back on the pitch every three days: Even a Luka Modric can no longer play the full 120 minutes. In the round of 16 against Japan, he was substituted in extra time. After that, coach Zlatko Dalic had to explain himself. "It was almost 100 minutes when I took Luka out. I didn't make this decision alone. We discussed it. It was a very difficult match. We had to go a long way," said the coach.

The 37 years have left their mark on magician Modric. In Qatar, too, he repeatedly has great moments in which he hints at why he can continue to carry the weight of a country on his narrow shoulders. Then when he plays millimeter-precise passes across half the court with his famous right outside instep. But there are also moments when he seems sluggish and ponderous. He is still missing a direct goal participation in the desert tournament.

In Qatar, Modric is not the only world star who has probably passed his zenith. However, he is in a special situation. In Argentina, Lionel Messi can be seen slinking listlessly across the field. Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo can sometimes stay out of the game entirely. They only intervene in the important moments. But Modric faces a problem: Central midfield is too important to catch ten minutes.

Coach Dalic is aware that Modric's powers won't last forever. So also in the round of 16 against Japan. "In the last 15 minutes we wanted to bring in fresh energy again. It worked. Of course Luka will have a place as long as he wants, but we also have to take care of him," he said. On the field, his neighbors in the Croatian midfield take care of him. There's Inter Milan's Marcelo Brozovic, a tireless worker who clocks up the miles that Modric is no longer running. And also Mateo Kovacic from Chelsea: a dribbler who can always bring speed into play.

It's not just the playfulness that makes Modric so important for Croatia. But also the almost magical aura that surrounds him. "Seeing people like Luka running and dying on the pitch gives us extra energy as younger players," said right-back Josip Juranovic. For Andrej Kramaric, Modric is "one of the best midfielders of all time, maybe the best ever," Hoffenheimer said in the magazine "11Freunde": "I've never seen a 37-year-old play like that." Modric "has five solutions ready for every situation with his skills and experience before others have even thought about one," Kramaric explained.

Modric no longer has to prove himself, he already did his masterpiece in the national team at the 2018 World Cup in Russia. At that time he led the Croatian minimalists to the final. Only there did they fail with 2:4 at the French star ensemble. But today the situation is different than four years ago. The team has probably already passed the supposed peak of their career, apart from the 4-1 in the group stage against Canada, the performances in this tournament were not convincing. It is part of the truth that this is one of the reasons why there are particularly high expectations of Modric. His colleagues depend on him. More dependent than four years ago. Well-deserved supports like Mario Mandzukic are retired or, like central defender Domagoj Vida, are no longer used.

Instead, there are new, young faces. One of them is Josko Gvardiol, the RB Leipzig masked centre-back who has played a strong tournament so far. Or goalkeeper Dominik Livakovic, the penalty hero from the round of 16 against Japan. Not many would have expected to reach the quarterfinals before the tournament. "We've done great things. But we can't be satisfied with that, we want more," says Modric. "We want to show our best game against Brazil. I believe that great things are possible."

If everything goes according to plan, Modric will have three more games in the desert with the final. And then? The controversial World Cup in Qatar is arguably Modric's last major tournament. "I'm 100 percent focused on the tournament. After that there's enough time to think about it," he said recently. Maybe he'll take the final four of the Nations League with him in June 2023. When asked by a reporter about the 2026 World Cup in the USA, Mexico and Canada in a media round before the Brazil game on Wednesday, he only joked: "If you have a recipe for me how to stay young: Give you like me."