The last dance? Croatia braced for end of the Luka Modric era

Midfield icon will be 39 in September as he heads for possibly his last tournament but he isn’t ready to talk about swan songs just yet

Croatia's midfielder Luka Modric. Photograph: Patricia de Melo Moreira/AFP via Getty
Euro 2024 Group B: Spain v Croatia, Olympiastadion, Berlin, Saturday, 5.0 Irish time – Live on RTÉ 2 and ITV

Back in the day, you might not even have labelled Luka Modric as “one to watch”. The midfielder was in Germany in 2006 for his first major tournament but had only just squeezed into the World Cup squad. If you had to pick a rising star from that Croatia roster, you probably would not have gone with him.

Modric was 20 and had established himself at Dinamo Zagreb after loans at Zrinjski in Bosnia and Herzegovina’s Premijer liga and Inter Zapresic, a small club from a western Zagreb suburb. He had made his Croatia debut in March of that year in a 3-2 friendly win over Argentina, but anyone trying to identify the country’s next big thing was more likely to have settled on Niko Kranjcar.

Kranjcar was a year older than Modric and a regular starter in a Croatia team managed by his dad, Zlatko. While Kranjcar played all 90 minutes of the opening World Cup game against Brazil in Berlin, Modric remained on the bench hoping for a cameo role in the next match against Japan.

When Croatia were held in Nuremberg by Japan, Dario Simic, a rare remnant of the bronze-winning team from eight years earlier, made his 82nd appearance to become Croatia’s most-capped player. The number seems funny now. Modric, who replaced Kranjcar that day after 78 minutes, has more than doubled it. On Saturday against Spain he is in line to make his 176th appearance. Back in Germany, 18 years on.

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Every other player from the 2006 squad has long since retired. Even Kranjcar stopped playing more than six years ago. Some, such as Niko Kovac and Igor Tudor, are coaches with plenty of experience; others are football executives and some, including Kranjcar and the talismanic striker Dado Prso, feel more comfortable as far from the public eye as possible. Many others have passed through the team since and many of them have retired as well.

But Modric is ready for his fifth pean Championship and ninth major tournament. Surely it will be his last. “I wouldn’t bet on that,” says Slaven Bilic, who worked with Modric as Croatia’s manager between 2006 and 2012 and for two years before that with the under-21s. “You never know with Luka.”

Luka Modric of Croatia is tackled by Keiji Tamada of Japan during the 2006 World Cup. Photograph: Mike Hewitt/Getty

Bilic almost immediately made Modric a key player after taking over on the back of Croatia’s poor World Cup showing as he started to rebuild the team. Even though none of the other original Bilic boys, as they were affectionately nicknamed, are active with the Vatreni – Ivan Rakitic still plays but retired from international football five years ago – it feels as if that was the beginning of the “Modric generation” that brought massive success to a tiny nation on a global stage.

In fact, forget generation; a Modric era is what it is because it seems as if he has been around forever, everything revolving around him regardless of managers or team-mates who would come and go. There have been – and still are – other great players but he has become almost a synonym for Croatia.

The period has had its downs as well as ups. The 2008 s were Croatia’s summer of love. Never before or since have they looked so cool and sexy, a young and potent team who crushed England’s qualification hopes by beating them at Wembley even though their own place at the finals was secure; beating them just because they could. At the tournament Croatia started brilliantly, winning all three group games, with Modric shining brightest. It ended in deflation against Turkey in the second round.

The 2012 tournament was difficult, especially after the failure to qualify for the World Cup two years earlier and the backlash that sparked at home. Modric performed in a much more withdrawn role and although a weakened team fought bravely against two of the opponents they face again at Euro 2024 – Italy and Spain – and almost made it through the group, it was not to be.

If the 2014 World Cup in Brazil under Niko Kovac was largely forgettable for Modric and Croatia, some signs of hope started to emerge from the chaos of 2016. The team lost in the second round to Portugal but more significant were fan unrest and protests against alleged corruption in the national federation that threatened to overshadow and undermine on-field efforts.

What followed was the “Russia Of Our Dreams” – the title of the coach Zlatko Dalic’s book about Croatia’s path to the 2018 World Cup final – marked by peak Modric, who went on to win the Ballon d’Or. By then he was 33 and it felt almost like a lifetime award. He thought long and hard about retiring from the national team, especially after having to deal with the threat of perjury charges back home in relation to the trial against Zdravko Mamic, a former Dinamo Zagreb executive, who was found guilty of embezzlement and tax fraud.

Croatia's midfielder Luka Modric vies with France's midfielder Blaise Matuidi. Photograph: Franck Fife/AFP via Getty

But he soldiered on, playing one more European Championship, one more medal-winning World Cup, performing admirably, refusing to give up even as age finally caught up with the maestro. And now he’s ready to do it one more time.

Back home, he is an icon, albeit a tainted one as a result of the court finding in the Mamic case that he was unlawfully paid 50 per cent of the transfer fees that Dinamo received for him from Tottenham and forwarded most of that money to Mamic and Mamic’s family. After the supreme court confirmed Mamic’s sentence in 2021, the court has yet to decide whether to pursue perjury charges against Modric over statements he made in that case.

It is a reminder that there is a dark side to all this extraordinary success, even though many people choose to ignore it. The war child who as one of his early coaches, Tomislav Basic, said was “largely self-taught”, who banged the ball against the wall at a refugee hotel’s parking lot, practising the half-turn that would become his trademark move, has become one of the best midfielders of all time and marked a whole era of Croatian football.

“It’s not about being sceptical, just realistic,” Bilic says. “The decline will come and it’s inevitable. Once Luka leaves, it will be an irrecoverable loss for the team.”

It has been 6,571 days since Modric’s debut at a major tournament; 6,680 since his debut for Croatia. He’ll be 39 in September and has recently signed a one-year contract extension with Real Madrid.

So don’t ask him about swan songs and hanging up his boots until it’s all over, because there’s work to be done. – Guardian