It began in Basel, an era ago, with a Lionel Messi goal. Only Luka Modric will know whether it wound down, in this monstrous and dystopian supplement to Doha, with exactly the same thing. At the end there was a hug from an old clubmate, Ángel Di María; then a more meaningful conference, arm around the younger man’s shoulder, with his dear friend Mateo Kovacic. Neither of them had been able to do quite enough this time and that is an achingly rare lament.
Modric and Croatia have long exceeded whatever should naturally be expected and, when the dust settles, they will know the same was true in Qatar. If his 81st‑minute departure turns out to have been a final action at this rarefied level, it was still some way to go.
Modric was not under the same pressure to win this tournament as Messi.
Croatia are not Argentina, a point that was eventually pressed home here, and nor is there any demand on him to settle questions about all-time greatness. Falling short will sting but the past three weeks have served only to enhance an already unimpeachable legacy. The World Cup has seen few midfielders such as Modric; it has seen few small nations quite like Croatia; it has never seen a player harness the collective spirit and footballing knowhow of such a country and lead it to the top twice over.
Runners-up in 2018, fourth place at worst here: finishes achieved in the winter of Modric’s career with two sides that are different yet exactly the same. Both have played to his rhythm, been underpinned by the glances, sidesteps and half-movements that buy him room to call the tune. He and Messi are not so different these days, at least in their manipulation of space, and while this semi-final spiralled into a non-contest there was still something sublime in witnessing them stitching a game’s fabric between them one last time.
They both had cause to remember the first, in March 2006, when a 20-year-old Modric made his Croatia debut and Messi, who was 18 and nearing the end of his breakthrough campaign with Barcelona, got off the mark for Argentina. Modric came out on the victorious side but, 16 and a half years later, he could not repeat the feat in Messi’s cathedral. Even if this was not quite the swirling, vibrant cauldron of Argentina’s previous visits to Lusail, the influx of more casual punters had, in many cases, draped themselves in light blue.
The occasion was everything this tournament has now become: primed for Messi to win. There was always the sense Croatia would, for all their best efforts, ultimately be the supporting act.
The frustration for Modric will be that, for just over half an hour, his celebrated midfield troupe had Argentina locked down. They were the better of two sides high on structure but deficient in attacking spark, Croatia’s limitations made clear when Kovacic broke the lines three times only for nobody to go with him.
Modric had begun to play the hits: three whip-smart, angled passes in the opening 10 minutes; an easy, caressed ball round the corner to Kovacic as any surprise caused by Argentina’s midfield diamond dissipated; a burst past Alexis Mac Allister, befitting a player in his sharpest years, that earned a corner.
At that point it was tactile, light but deadly serious football. During one of Croatia’s warm-up drills he and Kovacic would pass back and forth before the chosen player sent a long diagonal out wide. For Modric, that inevitably meant deploying the kind of luscious outside‑of‑the‑boot switch he has made his own; his radar was on point from the beginning and, when a nutmeg was followed by another turn of pace that opened up Argentina’s half, there was a sense he had the run of things.
But sport is savage. At this stage in its most gripping competition, it should never be anything else. That move ended with an Ivan Perisic chip that Croatia believed had been deflected for a corner, but Argentina were granted the restart and within moments a loose Modric touch had let Enzo Fernández release Julián Álvarez. A penalty; Messi; confirmation of the night’s narrative; a slippery slope that soon became yet more treacherous.
A minor error indirectly brought significant consequences but the bigger factor was that, in Álvarez, Argentina had the player capable of running in behind that Croatia sorely lacked.
There were to be no more miracles for Modric but he has already conjured plenty, by footballing deed and through the quiet authority that keeps this squad running at a disciplined, contented hum. Perhaps his late replacement by Lovro Majer was a changing of the guard; maybe it simply banks up a few more minutes for use when, shortly before he turns 39, the European Championship kicks off in Germany.
After Croatia returned from Moscow four and a half years ago, Modric bought their players and support staff a Rolex watch each. There were around 50 in total and it was no attempt to be flashy: he was simply showing his appreciation for the setup, many of whose personnel had guided him through the previous decade and more, that had written a place in history. A glance at those timepieces this winter might have told a tale. Modric cannot hold back time forever but here, in a phenomenal last act on a world stage that became his own, he managed to make it stand still.