A video clip has gone viral in the last few days. It’s of a five-year-old boy shepherding his father’s cattle back to the shed in their village, on the slopes of the Velebit Mountain. Just then, a pack of wolves surrounds them. An attack is imminent, but the boy does not panic. He pauses, looks for the safest passage and calmly guides the herd home, averting any danger.
There couldn’t have been a better metaphor to describe the kid in the documentary, Luka Modric. The fact that all this unfolded by chance when the movie was being shot makes it even more captivating. The filmmaker, Pavle Balenovic, intended to show the relationship between man and the wild. Inadvertently, it’s turned out to be a study of Modric and his sensibilities.
This facet of Modric’s game has been the key to Croatia reaching the final of the World Cup. It might be tough to see that in the immediate aftermath of a 4-2 humbling to France in Sunday’s final in Moscow. But when the pain of this gut-wrenching defeat will abate, the footprint Modric leaves behind on this World Cup — not just on his team but the tournament overall — will be prominent. The golden boot he was awarded only asserts this point further.
Over the last month, the Croatian playmaker has run more than any other player, has seen more of the ball than any of his teammates, and is behind only the Spaniards in the number of passes completed. But it is through his simplicity and sensibility that Modric has had the most profound impact on his team.
At a time when football has become so numb and obsessed with the otherworldly statistics of Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, players like Modric often go unnoticed. In that sense, one of the best things about this World Cup is that Modric’s genius, always understated, has been brought to the fore. This moment has long been in the making. Fifteen years, to be exact. Now that it has happened, it feels the most natural thing ever.
Incidentally, the film resurfaced on the web following Croatia’s quarterfinal against Russia — the 120 minutes-plus-penalties that arguably swung the momentum in favour of the second-smallest country to ever play in the World Cup.
Modric is being manhandled by the Russians. They snap at his heels and wrestle him out of possession. Artem Dzyuba slides in from behind, nearly catching his ankle. Denis Cheryshev pulls him by the shirt and brings him down. They’ve tried everything to stop Modric — he is the most fouled player on field. And it works, too. After 31 minutes, Russia have the lead and are marching into the semifinals.
But this is a scrappy game, lacking rhythm and a cohesive narrative. So Modric does what players like Modric do in situations like these – take control. He is now running the match in more elegant ways, escaping tackles, passing and dribbling, gliding over the neatly-trimmed Sochi grass, creating space for himself and his teammates.
It’s barely his fault that the forwards — Mario Mandzukic and Andrej Kramaric — are unable to find the back of the net, a persistant problem that very nearly cost Croatia a spot in the World Cup itself. But Modric saved them back then, just as he rescues them in front of 48,000 partisan fans in a World Cup last-eight match, no less. By the end of that psychotic evening, Modric is so exhausted he collapses on the ground.
The only thing more beautiful than Modric’s performance that night was the tribute paid to him by Jorge Valdano in his column for The Guardian. “I could have cast a mould of him right there… with a simple quote: ‘This is how you play football, this is how you feel football’,” gushed the Argentina legend, who writes as eloquently as he played.
Such effusive praise has been rare for Modric and it has only started to flow now. He reacts coldly to it, perhaps because of the years of rejection and ridicule he has been subjected to, not just by fans but his peers as well.
Those who now claim to have spotted the spark in him early aren’t telling the truth. Modric grew up at a time when the Balkan war was at its peak. A year after that video of him herding the cattle was shot, his grandfather — after whom he is named — became a victim of the Balkan war when he was murdered in cold blood, allegedly by the Serbians. The war had reached his doorstep and Modric was forced to vacate his home and village, his friends and family in search of safer havens. All he carried with him was a football.
But when he tried to join the youth academy of Hajduk Split, the Croatian club he supported as a kid, Modric was spurned for being too slight. It’s a tag that would stay with him seemingly forever. Arsenal, Barcelona and Bayern Munich rejected him, saying he was too small and fragile. When he signed for Real Madrid in 2012, the fans turned him down. That year, he was voted as the worst La Liga signing. “My whole career people have questioned me, saying I wouldn’t make it. I wasn’t good enough because I wasn’t big and strong… It just gave me an extra incentive. I wanted to prove them wrong,” he told Daily Mail back then.
And prove them wrong he did. Be it for club or country, Modric is the engine that powers the machine as his stats show. But numbers aren’t the correct way to measure his greatness. Modric, like Andres Iniesta, makes football look simple: he does things that, while watching, you believe you can do too. But few actually can.
Watching Modric play is like listening to slow, soft music on a rainy afternoon — easy and comforting. He doesn’t indulge in the extravagant. But it’s the little things that he does. Like his touch, so smooth that he can control the ball first-time even in the most crowded spaces. Or the ability to create angles so acute, even Pythagoras would scratch his head in bewilderment.
The case is now building for him to end the Ronaldo-and-Messi dominance over the Player of the Year award. The evidence is strong: just two months ago, he was the architect of Real Madrid’s Champions League triumph, a three-peat that no team since Bayern Munich of the ’70s has achieved. To follow it up with a World Cup final makes his case even more special.
Modric, however, might still not win football’s ultimate individual prize, just like Xavi or Iniesta before him. But that’s not for him to worry. Modric will still continue to face the wolves and herd the cattle home. Just like the five-year-old kid in the Velebits.