Luka Modric: Madrid maestro
Not our words (though we agree), but Zinedine Zidane’s – and the Croatian’s importance to 2017’s Champions League winners simply cannot be overstated
Your Whatsapp status says quite a lot about you. “Updating my Whatsapp status,” for the banter merchants, “Terrible chat guaranteed,” for people keen to impress and “Hey! I’m using Whatsapp,” for those of us too bored, busy or technologically incompetent to change it. Luka Modric, however, has got something altogether different on his – a mission statement.
“We are what we repeatedly do,” reads the Real Madrid midfielder’s bio. “Excellence then, is not an act, but a habit.”
First coined by American philosopher Will Durant in 1926, the phrase epitomises the meticulous way in which Modric can control a football match. Simple, unfussy, yet routinely brilliant. Cristiano Ronaldo may provide the killer instinct, or Isco a sprinkle of playmaking stardust, but it is the pint-sized Croatian who gets the European champions going.
May’s Champions League semi-final second leg against neighbours Atletico Madrid was a case in point. Playing on the right of a midfield diamond, Modric was superb, like King Canute holding back the seas of Rojiblanco attacks in a thrilling 20-minute spell at the Vicente Calderon. Except he succeeded.
Over 90 minutes Modric had 103 touches, more than anyone else on the pitch. He had the most dribbles. He made the most interceptions. During his four-season spell at Tottenham from 2008-12, the general consensus had been that he needed a destroyer to hold his hand. Even Arsene Wenger once dismissed Luka as being “too lightweight”, but the 2017 Modric is another beast entirely.
He is stronger and dictates the pace of a game, whether alongside Casemiro and Toni Kroos or just next to the latter as a more creative midfield pair for Los Blancos.
Come the final, Modric was no less effective. The week before facing Juventus, Zinedine Zidane had repeatedly worked on his team cutting the ball back from the byline to circumvent the Old Lady’s back three. The third goal in Madrid’s 4-1 win in Cardiff owed everything to Modric.
“I won the ball back, gave it to Carva [Dani Carvajal] and he put the ball into space, and I knew that something good was going to happen from that situation so I gave it everything I’d got,” Modric explained. “Cristiano was there and we all know what happened next.”
They became the first side to retain the Champions League since its change of format in 1992, that’s what.
“What if Modric gets a cold?” one columnist said earlier this year. It all makes the fact that he topped a Marca vote of the worst summer signings shortly after moving to Real Madrid in August 2012 seem all the more ridiculous.
“The way he plays the ball with the outside of his foot… Pffff,” coach Zidane has said about his midfield metronome. “When they applaud you, especially the rival supporters, it is not usual. We know that Luka is fundamental for us. He handles game situations very well and, off the pitch, he’s a sight to behold because of his professionalism. I don’t often say it, but his team-mates love him very much.”
No one more than captain Sergio Ramos. The duo are the heartbeat of the Real dressing room as well as providing the ballast which sealed Los Blancos’ first La Liga and Champions League double since 1958. They are uña y carne say the Spanish – literally like toenail and meat but meaning as thick as thieves. They are always the last to leave the training ground every day. Their families socialise, they often holiday together and have visited each other’s hometowns.
It all started because of a trait inherent in Modric’s personality. Yes, he is quiet, but also direct. Unhappy with Ramos’ tendency to perform any underhand trick in the book to get ahead, Modric told his skipper what he thought, face to face. In an instant, he had Ramos’ respect. “What Luka brings to the game is a must,” Ramos has said about his team-mate. “He’s never marked out that much but he’s the backbone of this team.”
They also share an unwavering desire to lift trophies. “When you win something once, twice, three times and you have that feeling … that pushes you forward,” Modric said in the aftermath of May’s European triumph. “You want to win more, more and more and you never tire of winning. We are at a club which always wants to be the best – to win everything possible.”
He was able to do that thanks to the rotation policy which ensured Ronaldo arrived at the campaign’s denouement in tip-top condition, despite a troublesome groin problem, which preceded a knee injury. “It’s normal when you have an injury that another follows soon after, but I knew I’d get my form back,” said Modric. “I spoke to the gaffer, the staff and the fitness coaches to improve my fitness. I didn’t doubt that I’d get my form back because I knew they’d help me get there.”
If excellence is a habit, then Luka Modric has turned the everyday into an art form.