Three years after captaining his small nation to the biggest match in world football and claiming the Ballon d’Or in the process, Luka Modric showed his class once again this summer with Croatia at Euro 2020 at the age of 35.
He almost single-handedly pulled them through their must-win match versus Scotland in the group stage, winning 3-1 to secure runners-up spot in Group D. He will be 37 by the time the winter World Cup comes around next year in Qatar, but his reliable close control and extraordinary passing and game-reading abilities means he does not need to depend on the speed and energy in his ageing legs.
Mario Mandzukic hung up his international boots following the World Cup final defeat to France in 2018, and despite leading them to the Euros this summer throughout qualifying, Modric’s midfield partner Ivan Rakitic opted not to stick around after it was postponed last year.
Despite being older than both Mandzukic and Rakitic, Modric has stuck around and his performance against Scotland at Hampden Park was one of the best by an individual in the tournament, and he capped it off by scoring one of the goals of the tournament too, a curling effort with the outside of his magical right foot from 20 yards out.
His artistry also started the fightback against Spain in the Last 16, staying calm in the area to set up the goalmouth scramble which ensued for their second goal as they fought back to draw 3-3 after 90 minutes.
Modric staying in the national setup means they do not need to worry about the middle of pitch for the foreseeable future and will allow them to try and sort out the glaring issues they have in other areas of the pitch.
Dominik Livakovic had replaced Danijel Subasic in goal following 2018 and proved he is capable and worthy of wearing the number one shirt for the side, but Croatia suffered heavily with the men in front of him all tournament.
Domagoj Vida and Dejan Lovren are both well into their 30s but are still the best options they have available, and Lovren’s injury and discipline problems saw him miss the start of the tournament before getting suspended after receiving a yellow card in both group matches he played in.
His direct replacement, Duje Caleta-Car of Marseille, hardly covered himself in glory when called upon and Josko Gvardiol had a woeful tournament at left-back.
Gvardiol’s calamitous errors for Spain’s second and third goals were mostly forgotten about, thanks to their dramatic comeback.
Their big game player Ivan Perisic is also the wrong side of 30 and he is their biggest goal threat since Mandzukic left, as Andrej Kramaric’s goalless tournament was summed up by the golden chance he squandered in extra time against Spain which would have put them 4-3 up.
Despite being a serial goalscorer in the Bundesliga, Kramaric has never quite shown it for Croatia, and that led manager Zlatko Dalic to utilise Bruno Petkovic, a man made in the Mandzukic-mould, up front.
It became apparent very quickly though that Petkovic is a long way off the quality Mandzukic used to show. Hardly prolific in Croatia’s domestic league with Dinamo Zagreb, he failed to make much of an impact here.
Nor did Ante Rebic who also had a very disappointing tournament, getting hooked at half time against Czech Republic before being dropped for the Scotland match.
He was given a start for the encounter with Spain after Perisic was ruled out following a positive Covid test, but another poor performance was quickly highlighted by the impact his replacement, Mislav Orsic, made in spearheading their late comeback.
The talent pool in the country is largely crowded with midfield players and there are a few candidates who could perform well in that position, but by showing he can still run matches on his own without the assistance of the equally talented Rakitic next to him, Modric is still the most important man in the squad, bringing calmness and composure to a squad full of players who lack those two attributes.
Rakitic stepped up and took the deciding winning penalties in both their Last 16 and quarter-final shootout successes at Russia 2018, and his calmness and composure with Modric aided them heavily in seeing off England in the resulting semi-final.
His replacement, Marcelo Brozovic, does not quite have the same ability on the ball in high-pressure situations so it is imperative that Modric stays in the midfield with him, otherwise Dalic and the manager who comes in after him, may need to move away from the possession based football that has worked so well for them over the past five years.
Having lots of the ball may be the go-to style at next year’s World Cup too. The winter backdrop should not persuade anybody into thinking it will not still be scorching and humid in the Middle East during matches.
Croatia have kept the ball better than most sides at the last two major tournaments, and making your opponents chase it for 90 minutes will be much more difficult for them in the desert, therefore showing the importance of a player like Modric.
In their brief existence as an independent nation, they have been perennial overachievers at major tournaments, and their performances in 1996, 1998, 2008 and 2018 all receive acclaim, and their ability to continuously produce a squad of players of such quality, playing all over Europe should give supporters a sense of excitement for the future even after the likes of Modric and Perisic also leave.
Of course though, they still have to qualify, but the strongest sides in their qualifying group alongside them are Russia and Slovakia, two sides who massively underperformed at Euro 2020.
With three qualifiers already played, they are top of the group with six points. A shock loss to Slovenia was quickly put right by beating the two minnows of the group, Cyprus and Malta.
They will return in September with a triple header including trips to Russia and Slovakia while they look to seek revenge over Slovenia at home.
Only twice in 13 attempts have they failed to qualify for a major tournament (2000 and 2010) and it will be a joy if we get to see Croatia and Modric in Qatar next year, at the age of 37, showcasing why he is one of the best players of his generation.