BAL­LON D’OR

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IT WAS GO­ING TO TAKE A SPE­CIAL 12 MONTHS TO DIS­LODGE CRIS­TIANO RON­ALDO AND LIONEL MESSI FROM BAL­LON D’OR GLORY. LUKA MO­DRIC DE­LIV­ERED AND THEN SOME, WRITES FEARGAL BREN­NAN.

2018 ended as the year in which Real Madrid’s Luka Mo­dric broke the Cris­tiano Ron­aldo-Lionel Messi Bal­lon d’Or dom­i­nance, and it’s a mea­sure his im­pact for club and coun­try that he has gone where many of his peers have failed to. Mo­dric’s win was scru­ti­nised by cer­tain quar­ters, but he has been a rare ex­am­ple of match­ing do­mes­tic and in­ter­na­tional form within the same cal­en­dar year.

The year be­gan in low-key fash­ion for

Real Madrid and Mo­dric, fol­low­ing an in­con­sis­tent start to the 2017-18 cam­paign, with Barcelona 13 points clear of their great ri­vals. Zine­dine Zi­dane made clear his in­ten­tion to throw his weight be­hind a Cham­pi­ons League pur­suit, con­fi­dent they would get the points to­gether for a top four fin­ish.

A Euro­pean focus is cer­tainly not unique at the club, and Zi­dane’s con­fi­dence was backed up by a squad of play­ers that have been there and done it – with Mo­dric at the heart of it. Mo­dric started five of the six knock­out games on route to the Fi­nal, as Los Blan­cos saw off the do­mes­tic cham­pi­ons of France, Italy and Ger­many, with Mo­dric an­swer­ing a va­ri­ety of ques­tions on the way.

In each game he demon­strated his ex­pe­ri­ence and qual­ity in pos­ses­sion, but also his lead­er­ship, a skill which has been vastly un­der­stated dur­ing his ca­reer. Zi­dane utilised Mo­dric’s ver­sa­til­ity in the en­gine room in these games, as part of a deeply­ing pivot along­side Casemiro, or in an ad­vanced role to counter-press in away games. Along­side his fel­low su­per­stars, Mo­dric had to reg­u­larly call on his game man­age­ment skills to push Madrid on, hand­ing out lessons to some of the best young mid­field­ers on the planet along the way.

The fi­nal against Liver­pool typ­i­fied Mo­dric’s role in Madrid’s run, block­ing out the in­ten­sity and drama of the oc­ca­sion, to coldly make the crit­i­cal dif­fer­ence. It was Mo­dric that stead­ied the mid­field af­ter

Liver­pool’s high-pres­sure start, con­fi­dent in his abil­ity to pick the lock when needed. That duly proved to be the case as the

Reds suf­fered a death by a thou­sand cuts, even­tu­ally seal­ing the Croa­t­ian’s fourth Cham­pi­ons League ti­tle.

Madrid then ended the cam­paign in the black, seal­ing a top four fin­ish do­mes­ti­cally too. But many of their play­ers headed for the World Cup in Rus­sia only days af­ter the Cham­pi­ons League Fi­nal, leav­ing lit­tle time for respite.

This con­cern over burnout was a dom­i­nant theme sur­round­ing Mo­dric in the pre­tour­na­ment build-up. The ques­tion was asked: at 32, would he re­tain the dura­bil­ity for an in­ter­na­tional com­pe­ti­tion on the back of a long sea­son at club level?

With 2018 con­sid­ered the fi­nal chance for Croa­tia’s Golden Gen­er­a­tion to make a splash on the world stage, Mo­dric wasn’t the only one scru­ti­nised. There were con­cerns over Barcelona’s Ivan Rakitic, too, but the Croa­tia mid­field, mar­shalled by Mo­dric, proved to be among Coach Zlatko Dalic’s most re­li­able weapons. In­deed, Mo­dric’s per­for­mances verged on su­per­hu­man for stamina and men­tal strength.

Calm­ness, and a Mo­dric penalty, won the day in their opener against Nige­ria, be­fore a mas­ter­class against Argentina. With the ex­cep­tion of Messi, the Croa­t­ian camp were con­fi­dent that they could go toe-to-toe with the two-time win­ners, and they did just that with the stand­out per­for­mance of the group stages. Croa­tia pressed Argentina all over the park, with their abil­ity to ap­ply the ruth­less touch ap­par­ent, as Mo­dric scored and con­duct­ing things from mid­field. Dalic de­ployed Mo­dric as hy­brid of a No 6 and a No 8, pre­fer­ring Rakitic in an ad­vanced role, with the Madrid man al­lowed free­dom to dic­tate, in be­tween his Barca ri­val and In­ter’s Marcelo Bro­zovic.

In the knock­out rounds that Mo­dric switched into al­most robot mode, show­ing an in­de­fati­ga­ble de­sire and steely men­tal­ity to drive Croa­tia on. De­spite miss­ing a penalty in ex­tra time against Den­mark in the last 16, he re­fused to hide, and scored in the shootout to see Dalic’s side through. Against Rus­sia it was rinse and re­peat, with an­other marathon tie and an­other goal in a penalty de­cider, and Mo­dric’s com­ments ahead of Croa­tia’s semi-fi­nal with Eng­land dis­missed claims of Croa­t­ian tired­ness af­ter an ar­du­ous road to the last four.

And he was proved right. Mo­dric’s per­for­mance in the semi-fi­nal echoed many through­out his storm­ing 2018, punc­tu­ated with an in­nate abil­ity to tip the bal­ance of the game, not be cowed by op­po­si­tion blus­ter, and strike the killer blow in a game of im­mense mag­ni­tude.

Croa­tia came up short in the fi­nal against France, but not through lack of ef­fort or guile. It was Mo­dric who was re­warded with the Golden Ball for best player at the World Cup, over any of Les Bleus’ charges, for his in­spi­ra­tion and non-stop de­sire to push Croa­tia to un­touched heights.

‘Mo­dric’s World Cup per­for­mances verged on su­per­hu­man for stamina and men­tal strength’ ABOVE: Luka Mo­dric and his fam­ily at the Bal­lon D'Or ds.

‘Zine­dine Zi­dane utilised Mo­dric’s ver­sa­til­ity in the Cham­pi­ons League’

TOP RIGHT: Luka Mo­dric’s Bal­lon d’Or win was recog­ni­tion for his form for RealMadrid…TOP LEFT: …and his in­spi­ra­tional dis­playsas Croa­tia reached the World Cup Fi­nalBOT­TOM: Zine­dine Zi­dane used LukaMo­dric to great ef­fect to win RealMadrid’s third straight Cham­pi­onsLeague

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