AL RAYYAN, Qatar — Argentina coach Lionel Scaloni could not hide his admiration for the superstar, the living legend, the icon who is trying to win his first World Cup in his final appearance at the tournament.
“I have to say it’s a pleasure to watch him play on the pitch – he’s a role model for many of us not only because of his talent as a player but also because of his behaviour,” Scaloni said the day before his team meets Croatia. on Tuesday (2 p.m. ET, FOX and the FOX Sports app) with a spot in Sunday’s World Cup final online. “We have to enjoy him.”
Scaloni did not extol the virtues of Lionel Messi. He was talking about Croatia captain Luka Modrić.
Much of the focus at Qatar 2022 has been on Messi, 35, for obvious reasons. Not enough attention has been paid to Modrić, 37, Real Madrid’s magical little midfielder who was Messi’s former club rival Barcelona idol and the only man other than Messi or Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo to win the Ballon d’Or, given to the game’s best player: between 2008-2021.
Modrić led Croatia to the World Cup final four years ago. Now he’s made it almost all the way back.
“Many had already written him off, because of his age,” Croatia coach Zlatko Dalić said on Monday. “But it got us to the semifinals.”
It’s tempting to think that the journey will end here. Messi is on a mission to finally lift the one trophy he doesn’t have, and he finally has the team around him to do it. Argentina is the favorite. But Croatia were not to reach the final, losing to France last time out. Croatia definitely wasn’t supposed to beat Brazil, FIFA’s top-ranked team, in last week’s quarter-finals, but here it is. And it has more possibilities than most people think.
“They are under more pressure than us,” Dalić said.
Argentina will also be without two players, Marcos Acuña and Gonzalo Montiel, due to accumulation of yellow cards. Head-to-head, Croatia have been Argentina’s equal. At six games in total between the nations, the series is evenly split. Croatia have won two of their last three meetings and have outscored Argentina 7-5 in their three previous World Cup meetings, including a 3-0 drubbing in a group game four years ago in of the Albiceleste the most lopsided first-round loss since 1958.
Modrić scored this gem in that match:
Modrić was the undisputed catalyst then. He has also been Croatia’s driving force in Qatar, although he is yet to register a goal or assist, logging 485 of Croatia’s 510 minutes at this World Cup, including 120 against Brazil. He also sank the game-winning point in the tiebreaker.
What makes Modrić so good is his total command of the ball. It’s almost impossible to strip him without missing, and he almost always makes the perfect pass at the perfect time. Keeping the rock was essential against Brazil.
“They’re just not used to playing against teams that keep possession,” Dalić said afterwards. The same goes for Argentina.
Defensively, Modrić’s subtle positioning and ability to follow up and break plays are sorely underappreciated. It’s not flashy. But football fans like Scaloni can’t help but drool over his genius. Modrić thinks the game as well as anyone. Messi is regarded as the greatest of all time, but Modrić has a claim to be the greatest of this generation after him and former Real teammate Ronaldo.
All three have a long history, and not only in the Classic. Modrić made his international debut in 2006 against Argentina, the same match in which Messi scored his first international goal. Tuesday’s contest will be the first time the two previous Ballon d’Or winners (awarded to the World Cup’s most valuable player) have met in a subsequent tournament. It will be only the third meeting between Modrić and Messi while wearing the colors of their countries.
Both men have also played in and lost World Cup finals. After those games, Tuesday’s is probably the most important of his career. Neutrals all over the planet want Messi to come out on top. Modrić might have something to say about that. After all, their goal is not just to survive this semi-final.
“He will definitely try to do his best,” Dalić said, “to win the trophy.”
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Doug McIntyre is a football writer for FOX Sports. Before joining FOX Sports in 2021, he was a writer for ESPN and Yahoo Sports and has covered the US men’s and women’s national teams at multiple FIFA World Cups. Follow him on Twitter @By Doug McIntyre.
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