Croatia needed Modric, but his last World Cup game was one of the worst

AL DAAYEN, Qatar – When Luka Modric made his international debut for Croatia in March 2006, at the age of 21, Argentina and 19 year old Lionel Messi were his opponents. That day, Modric won the friendly 3-2, Messi scored his first international goal and it was the start of a career long rivalry for club (Real Madrid vs. Barcelona) and country.

Little did Modric know that 16 years later, his World Cup career (and possibly his international career) would end at the hands of the same players and opponents in a 3-0 semi-final loss. Even if he plays in Saturday’s third-place play-off against France or Morocco, his last big moment on football’s grandest stage – a finalist in 2018 against France and a semifinalist in Qatar – would actually be his 161st appearance on Tuesday night at the Stadium. Lusail icon.

Despite a solid start against Argentina, including a wonderful nutmeg on Alexis Mac Allister after 30 minutes, it became too difficult for Croatia to recover after Messi and Julian Alvaraz scored in spells five minutes before half-time. It wasn’t the right game for Modric to take off but, at 37 years old, he can’t always produce miracles.

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To qualify for another final, Croatia needs him to be at his best: to control things as he always has, precisely at set pieces, to create chances and bring fluidity to the game. But that’s not the case and the supporting cast is also below average.

Argentina and their four central midfielders sometimes make Modric look ordinary. Constantly under pressure on the ball, he made a number of wrong decisions after Argentina’s first goal and failed to make the impact on the game that many had hoped for.

With 86% pass accuracy, he completed 67 passes (despite 93 touches), with just five of those attempted in Argentina’s final third in 81 minutes on the pitch – his lowest figure at this World Cup. For comparison, against Brazil in the quarter-finals, Modric had 22 passes in the last third and even if he played 40 minutes longer against Neymar & Co., his impact on the match against Argentina was incomparable.

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Croatian manager Zlatko Dalic wanted Modric to play for the national team until Euro 2024 in Germany, but the midfielder’s body language at the end of the game showed no such thing. There was a standing ovation from the crowd when he exited with 10 minutes remaining, but the long goodbye – waving to the Croatian fans and hugging each of his team-mates – felt like this was his last big game for his country.

The 2018 Ballon d’Or winner could still be persuaded to extend his international career to take charge of the team within 18 months, with Dalic saying afterward: “We have a great team and this generation will end their careers at Euro 2024.” to do, with Croatia in the Nations League final next summer, it might not be the best idea.

Either way, it’s been a great journey. Modric led Croatia’s golden generation to new heights, matching (maybe even surpassing) the Davor Suker/Aljosa Asanovic era team that reached the semifinals of the 1998 World Cup to once again make the fans proud of their team. And for a country of only 3.9 million people, that’s an extraordinary feat.

Modric is not alone, of course, and this World Cup could also be the end of the road for Ivan Perisic (34 February), Dejan Lovren (33) and Domagoj Vida (33). But Marcelo Brozovic (30), Andrej Kramaric (31) and Mateo Kovacic (28) will continue and there is hope for the future with the arrival of a new generation including Lovro Majer (24), Josko Gvardiol (20) and Luka Sucic (20.)

With few resources and against all odds, this Croatian team managed to reach great heights without ever reaching the top. With their dream of reaching a second successive World Cup final crushed by Messi and Argentina, it will take them some time to get back to the top again without their lead.

Modric’s international career started against Argentina and could have ended against them too. The midfielder plays with so much talent that he feels almost Argentinian at times, like Juan Roman Riquelme or Ariel Ortega. He graced the World Cup with his skill, vision and distribution and his talent will be sorely missed in 2026.

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