The World Cup final between France and Croatia will be spoiled with once-in-a-generation talent, most of which will be wearing blue. But keep an eye on Luka Modric. Croatia’s diminutive playmaker may look like a freshly hatched warbler, but he has a knack for being the most effective player on the field no matter who he shares it with, a skill that should come in handy against the heavily favored French. Seriously, keep your eyes on the little guy in the red checkerboard jersey and you may come away convinced he’s the best soccer player on Earth. Hell, he just might be.
Modric rarely does anything wrong, even though he has to do a little bit of everything. When Croatia doesn’t have the ball, he buzzes around the full width and length of the pitch to get it back. Once in possession, he’s the team’s driving force, responsible for either picking out a perfect pass or dribbling through the defense himself. He sneaks in and out of tight seams with ease and always appears at the center of the action. It’s as if he takes advantage of his small stature to shuffle between blades of grass. I imagine they have to vacuum him out of the turf after matches.
Modric’s performances in Russia have been heroic in the comic book sense of the word. No one’s played more minutes or covered as much ground as the 32-year-old Croatian, and, despite his iron man workload, he keeps on sprinting. Just look at this play against Iceland, in which Modric appears out of nowhere to win the ball and wiggle his way through the box.
The only thing more impressive than his quickness is the fact that his teensy little headband stays put as he charges forward at wind-tunnel speeds.
Modric has an illusionist’s sense of misdirection, which he uses to create attacking space from otherwise benign positions. Should he pursue a more literal outlet for his magical touch, his goal against Argentina could work as the finale for his Las Vegas stage show.
At Real Madrid, where he’s played since 2012, galácticos like Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale have hogged the spotlight. This is no fault of Modric’s, as Ronaldo could overshadow a supernova, but the little Croatian is happy to pull the strings from midfield. When Madrid won its third straight Champions League final in May, Modric was the team’s best and most magnetic player. Sure, Bale scored a bicycle kick and Ronaldo pouted his way into the headlines, but Modric had more to do with the 3–1 scoreline than anyone else (except, perhaps, Liverpool’s goalkeeper).
Former Liverpool great Steven Gerrard, who was working as a TV analyst for BT Sport during that game, couldn’t contain himself when it came to Modric. “That performance today was stunning,” he said. “Is he the best midfielder in the world right now?” (Maybe!)
“I have the best players and we could talk about any of them,” France legend and then–Real Madrid manager Zinedine Zidane said last year, “but if you ask me about Luka, I have to talk about his calmness with the ball at his feet. … He makes the rest play.”
Long an underappreciated superstar, Modric is no longer just your favorite soccer player’s favorite soccer player. He may be the ghost in Madrid’s machine, but his transcendent work for Croatia in this World Cup has been evident to anyone watching. He has led a country that is younger than he is—a nation of just 4.1 million people—to the brink of the greatest prize in soccer. His secret is out.
Despite all this, Modric’s reputation has taken a hit in Croatia due to his role in a controversial financial case involving Dinamo Zagreb, the country’s most storied club. In 2008, Tottenham Hotspur of the English Premier League paid roughly 23 million euros to Dinamo for the midfielder’s services. A large portion of that fee went directly to the player, and he allegedly funneled much of the money to the club’s chief executive Zdravko Mamic. At a 2017 trial, Modric testified that he could not remember the arrangement. He was slapped with a perjury charge in March and, if found guilty, could spend up to five years in prison. (Mamic, meanwhile, fled to Bosnia.)
Modric’s legal issues may land him in hot water, but at least he has company. Ronaldo and Lionel Messi have each run afoul of the law with tax and financial issues of their own, so congratulations to Modric for being in their elite company. Unlike his esteemed peers, however, Modric still has a shot at winning a World Cup.
When Modric missed a late penalty against Denmark in the Round of 16, commentators were quick to point out the knife’s edge upon which Croatia’s captain is perched. It was perhaps his only mistake of the entire tournament, but it threatened to send Croatia tumbling home. The match went to a shootout, and Modric cooly converted his attempt.
“I am fascinated with his determination to shoot after he missed in extra time. … Can you imagine if he had not scored?” Croatia coach Zlatko Dalic told reporters after the Denmark match. “He took the responsibility as a true captain, and it speaks volumes for Luka.”
Modric has since carried Croatia on his narrow shoulders all the way to its first World Cup final. Croatia will be an underdog against a loaded French squad, but if anyone can tip the scales toward the little country on the Adriatic Sea, it’s Luka Modric—all 145 pounds of him.