All his life Luka Modric had been told he didn’t have the frame and stature for football. Then he busied himself in ruling the midfield, strumming the unceasing refrains and riffs of setting up goals for his team-mates at Real Madrid. So he was told he didn’t have the goals. But over a glorious 2018 summer, the tireless Croat tuned himself into an irresistible earworm that grew hard to ignore as he won the Champions League with Madrid and made the finals of the World Cup. That’s when FIFA decided to tell the interchanging incumbents, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, that they didn’t have even the World Cup final to stake claims on the FIFA Player of the Year. Modric broke through the eternal flutter to be named 2018’s best male player.
The Catalan media and Messi maniacs can keep telling themselves that he’s the uncrowned best, every single season that he doesn’t win. But in the year of the FIFA World Cup, where Modric took the second smallest country right up to the finals, while Messi and Ronaldo took turns floundering, the decade-long duopoly was ripe for the breaking. It was the shrugging off of the trappings of hype and glamour, and rewarding of an earnest workrate. A player, who isn’t even amongst the Top 25 of football earners, beat Ronaldo and Mohamed Salah to be recognised as the best in the world. Behind galactic Madrid’s glitter there’s always been that one unsung player of grit, the engine for the Bentley, the Claude Makelele for Zidane, who ensures that there’s depth behind the dazzle. Modric and Tony Kroos had been the dual motors pushing the Madrid juggernaut as it completed its three-peat at the UEFA to go with his first title in 2014. With more metres run than anyone else, more steps per match, more passes and more assists to construct goals, Modric was logging in the silent numbers, each footstep inching towards history.
The debate ought to have been a non-starter really, after Mbape and Griezmann were out of the picture and it was down to the three finalists from Champions League shortlisted for the honour. Only one of them also fetched up at the World Cup final — taking a bunch of hardworking and talented Croats to the most inspiring over achievement of the year. In Russia, Modric led like an ace, lingering behind with the promise of making things happen every passing moment, leading firmly from the front.