There is an image of Luka Modric that sums up everything he has meant to Croatia in this World Cup.
He had missed a penalty against Denmark in the round of 16, squandering the chance to win the game in extra time before a shootout. In the shootout, his penalty was poor, nervously prodded straight down the middle. Luckily for him and Croatia, Kasper Schmeichel had dived, and the ball had just enough curl on it to evade goalkeeper’s trailing leg. He returned to the center circle, lips pursed with relief, but as teammates congratulated him, his eyes barely registered them. He was in his own world, perhaps already looking ahead to the next challenge, perhaps aware that had he missed–he of all people, the leader of his nation–it would all have been over.
This has been a tournament in which individuals who play as individuals, whether through inclination or thorough the dependency of teammates, have failed. Cristiano Ronaldo failed. Lionel Messi failed. Neymar failed. It has been a tournament that, in a football world increasingly dominated by celebrity, has reinforced the importance of team structure.
In that regard, Modric is a model. He is the most important player in this Croatia side, but he has placed his talents in the service of the team. No Croatian has scored more goals at this World Cup than Modric. No Croatian has played more passes. No Croatian has played more throughballs. He has completed 2.7 key passes per game, almost double the next highest figure for a Croatian. But he has also run further than anybody else in the tournament. He may be a supreme distributor, a player who keeps the ball moving, endlessly rotating possession, but he is also a grafter.
If Croatia does win the World Cup, if it does somehow find the reserves of spirit and endurance to hold off France in Sunday's final, Modric will have been the key player in a World Cup victory, having also been a major figure as Real Madrid won a fourth Champions League title in five years. If that occurs, and he does not break the 10-year reign of Messi and Ronaldo on the Ballon d’Or stage, then there is even more reason than usual to call for an increasingly celebrity-driven award to be scrapped.
And yet, it’s not so simple. There is another image of Modric that can't be ignored. He sits behind a desk, the corners of his mouth turned down, his long hair bunching around the collar of a navy blue suit. The collar of his white shirt is open and he wears no tie. He looks worried, perhaps even contrite, younger than his 32 years. If you were told he was a young offender pleading for clemency from a judge, you would not be surprised. This is why the love for Modric in Croatia is not unconditional.
In 2008, Modric left Dinamo Zagreb for Tottenham Hotspur for a fee of around $19.5 million. Roughly $12 million went to Modric rather than the club. But 80 percent of that was paid to Zdravko Mamic, then the president of Dinamo who acted as a sort of agent on the deal. This was fairly common practice for Dinamo players at the time, although exactly when the clause was inserted into the contract was for a long time disputed.
Mamic, who for a long time was the most powerful man in Croatian football and enjoyed a close relationship with the president of the football federation (HNS), former striker Davor Suker, was brought to trial. Last month, he was convicted of fraud and embezzlement and sentenced to six-and-a-half years in jail. By then, he had already fled the country for Bosnia-Herzegovina.
If that were all, it would be easy to see Modric as the victim, as to some extent he is, a young player whose desire to play in a major western league was exploited by a rapacious businessman. But Modric was called to give evidence, and he suddenly suffered memory loss on matters he had seemed quite clear on a few weeks earlier. In March he was charged with perjury, for which he faces up to five years in jail. For those Croatian fans who have campaigned against Mamic and his influence over Croatian football, running a campaign of disruption both at Euro 2016 and during the qualification campaign, it is hard to reconcile Modric’s performances on the pitch with those in the courtroom.
But that, in a sense, also sums up this Croatia. None of it makes much sense. This is not a simple story of a plucky underdog. It is a complex story of a national team that has succeeded despite chaos and corruption, despite struggling in qualifying and despite having to send one of its forwards, Nikola Kalinic, home for ill discipline.
Somehow, amid the mess, a compromised figure who happens to be a brilliant footballer has emerged as a leader and gathered around him a team that, in going behind in every knockout game, in playing extra time in every knockout game, has redefined resilience.