Zagreb, June 2007, and a European Championship qualifier in the open-bowl Maksimir stadium. The night was humid, the place buzzed. Croatia, the national team as we know it, were less than 20 years old, but they had already lit up Euro 96 and France 98. Now they were leading Group E to get Euro 2008. A country of four million people felt represented by this team and its charismatic manage Slaven Bilic.
Four days earlier Croatia had won in Estonia to give themselves a cushion. But next came a greater challenge: Russia.
Then there was England, Steve McClaren's England, who were in the same group. You may remember now.
England had already lost 2-0 in Zagreb. The men who shape much of today's football conversation, Jamie Carragher and Gary Neville, both started. England were now playing catch-up.
It ended 0-0 in the Maksimir Stadium. Croatia deserved to win but Eduardo da Silva, the Croats' naturalised Brazilian about to join Arsenal, missed the best chance. Russia and manager Guus Hiddink departed relieved.
Ultimately both qualified. England came third. There was the dramatic exit on a rainy night at Wembley. McClaren’s umbrella and all that.
But as the months and years passed, the memory of Zagreb was not the result or its implications, it was Luka Modric.
This was a first sighting in the flesh of Modric, who was 21. He had made his international debut a year earlier. His midfield companions then were players like Nico Kovac and Nico Kranjcar. Kovac stopped playing in 2009 and Kranjcar in 2018, but here we are in 2022 and Modric plays on. He will soon be 37. His durability is almost as impressive as his talent. Almost.
On Tuesday night Modric refreshed the page. He did what he has always done, made the complicated simple. A son of textile workers, Modric irons out the wrinkles. He can stand still while others rush, a man beautifully out of time.
Essentially he is the same player we met at 21, the one Kevin Keegan wanted at Newcastle before Modric joined Tottenham, the one in whom Zvonimir Boban saw "sophisticated geometry, the harmony, the dynamics, the calmness . . . all the richness of Modric's footballing intuitions" .
On Tuesday at the Bernabeu, with Real Madrid out-passed, out-classed, out-everythinged by Chelsea, Modric came to the rescue. It was on more than one occasion - there were late tackles and extra-time defensive dashes - but it was the 80th minute bent cross with the outside of his right foot to set up Rodrygo to score that people will not just remember, they won't forget.
In a split second Modric altered the course of a Champions League quarter-final between two galactico teams. This was not done in training or in five-a-side, it was produced in the hottest of heat.
It is a coaches’ game now as we all defer to tactics and structure and thus enable Diego Simeone’s tedious, egotistical extrapolations.
Modric is not a coach. Modric is a player, capable of the acts of spontaneity some coaches want to control and thereby restrict. In his “zigzagging miniatures” – Boban again – Modric takes back the game for those who play it. He inspires. He does not conspire.
"I made him my target in 2011," Alex Ferguson wrote in a foreword to Modric's autobiography, "but Spurs wouldn't sell."
Manchester United’s reality post-Ferguson would have been different had Modric been at Old Trafford. “You cannot dismiss ability,” Ferguson said when referring to doubts about Modric’s physicality, and Ferguson must also have known there is also a formidable attitudinal quality within Modric that would surely have railed against the cultural nonchalance allowed to grow within Old Trafford.
Instead Modric moved from Spurs to Madrid, where he has won four Champions Leagues and two La Liga titles, with a third to come next month. In 2018 Modric also won the Balon d'Or, the first player not to be Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo to do so since Kaka in 2007.
Modric has been a serious force since around the time Kaka was winning that. Unfortunately, in part he has been made serious by history - his, Croatia’s and the Balkans’.
This is made clear in Modric’s retelling of the events of December 18th,1991, when, as he says, “the war had just flared up”.
Modric was born in 1985 in Yugoslavia, in Zadar, 170 miles south of Zagreb. He was turning six when Croatia declared independence from the old, dissolving state and the region was beginning to be engulfed in civil war.
His parents, Radojka and Stipe, worked in a clothes factory. They had named their son after Modric’s father’s father – Luka.
Luka senior was outside his rural house near the Velebit mountains on the morning in question. He had taken his goats out to graze and this was where the roaming Serbian soldiers – “Chetniks”, as Modric calls them – found him.
“Grandpa Luka was mowed down by machine-gun fire,” Modric says. “At close range. He was 66. My heart breaks every time I think of him dying, literally on his doorstep. What kind of people can coldly take the life of an innocent old man?”
Stipe Modric signed up after that, but, his son says: “I never felt hatred in his words.”
The family moved. For four months they lived in a refugee camp, then back to Zadar to live in one room in a hotel with other dislocated, relocated families.
Making new friends, playing improvised football on the street, Modric was enrolled in a local football scheme and from there he just kept on improvising – for Dynamo Zagreb, Tottenham, Real and Croatia, driving them to a World Cup final – right up to Tuesday night against Chelsea.
This has made Modric a Croat hero –- though many question his closeness to the Mamic brothers and the corruption within Croatian football.
Mainly, though, attention has focused on Modric’s on-field creativity and his remarkable internal engine. He could run forever and for Croatia he would.
But it has not forgotten the 1990s and once you hear of Grandpa Luke, you cannot think of Luka Modric in purely footballing terms.
Nor does he. Three days after Putin's invasion of Ukraine, Modric tweeted to his 2.2 million followers: "I grew up during war and I don't wish it on anyone. We must stop this nonsense where innocent people die."
The horrors of Ukraine and casual, callous murder had returned Modric to his grandfather. Russia is no longer just a team to be faced in Zagreb.
Thankfully Tuesday in Madrid restored other feelings and other Modric images. Happily, sadly, he is a man of our time.