Luka Modric is Croatia’s greatest-ever player, but he was upstaged by arguably the best of all time, Lionel Messi, as Argentina crushed his World Cup dreams in Qatar on Tuesday. After orchestrating his country’s run to a second straight World Cup semi-final, 37-year-old Modric’s team were swept aside 3-0 by the South American side. Coach Zlatko Dalic boasted that Croatia — with Modric supported by Mateo Kovacic and Marcelo Brozovic — had “the best midfield in the world” after their shock quarter-final elimination of Brazil.
That midfield has enabled a nation of just under four million to consistently compete with the world’s strongest teams, but they ran out of steam against a combative Argentina.
“Argentina have an excellent team… and today they had four midfielders and closed the space and tried to play most of the game there,” said Dalic.
Croatia had fallen behind in their win against Canada in the group stage and overcame both Japan and Brazil in the knockout rounds on penalties, having conceded the opening goal in both matches.
Few teams are as dogged or durable as Croatia, but two goals in five minutes, the first a penalty from Lionel Messi and the second a scruffy Julian Alvarez strike, proved too great an obstacle to surmount.
More Messi brilliance led to a second goal for Alvarez, and Modric was withdrawn nine minutes from the end for Lovro Majer — receiving warm applause from the capacity crowd of nearly 89,000.
Real Madrid midfielder Modric, who made his international debut way back in 2006, is surely in the final phase of his brilliant career.
Croatia will play France or Morocco on Saturday in the third place play-off. They are also through to the last four of the Nations League, but that competition lacks the lustre of the World Cup and may not be enough to sway Modric to stay on.
The five-time Champions League winner, who has a record 161 caps for Croatia, will be almost 39 by the time Euro 2024 rolls around.
“Perhaps this is the end of the World Cup generation for a couple of them who have reached a certain age,” said Dalic, without specifying names.
“It would have been excellent if they’d won the trophy as a crowning moment.”
The 2018 Ballon d’Or winner has continued to catch the eye in Qatar — his longevity is highlighted by the fact that Mario Mandzukic, a year younger than Modric, is now part of the coaching staff.
It was Mandzukic’s goal that sent Croatia to the 2018 final. On Tuesday, he was red-carded for protesting Argentina’s opener on a rare night when Modric was unable to dictate the tempo or take his team any further.
“We’ve had a very good World Cup and it’s never a punishment to play for the national team,” said Modric.