As Luka Modric exited the Copenhagen pitch in the second half of extra-time, he did so with his head down, aware that the 5-3 scoreline would see his beloved Croatia out of Euro 2020. It also felt significant - this was a 35-year-old, still capable of running a game at the highest level, who may well have just played his last ever game for his country.
It may not have been the high of the 2018 World Cup final, but Modric leaves the international stage as one of the greatest midfielders of his generation. He's the only man to have stopped Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi from winning the Ballon d’Or since 2007, an achievement that simply cannot be overlooked when playing in the same era as arguably the two greatest footballers to have ever graced the game.
Given the bitter rivalry between fans of Messi or Ronaldo, it is difficult to think of a player who garners such worldwide respect as the long-haired Croatian. The way he caresses the ball is an art form in its own right, while his passing range and ability to control the game is comparable with two greats that came before him, Paul Scholes and Andrea Pirlo.
All three of these players just give you a different feeling than a relentless goalscorer and allow you to appreciate the game from another perspective. In a generation obsessed with statistics, Modric gave you those inexplicable tingles every time he got the ball. He doesn’t get the most goals or assists, but every team in the world would have him in their midfield.
Talking about goals, of which there have been some absolute crackers at Euro 2020, none of them brought out an impulsive moan quite like the Croatian captain’s beauty against Scotland. On the edge of the box, with the outside of his right foot, he curled the ball into the top left corner. The ball began outside the post and bent inside the upright, but it was the way he struck the ball first time that just satisfied the football purist that lives inside us all.
Modric is, and has always been a fantastic footballer and unlike some of aforementioned midfielders, we have been able to fully appreciate his talent while he is still playing the game. Former teammate Peter Crouch said that at Spurs he was “the best player in training every single day” while playing in a team that contained Rafael van der Vaart and Gareth Bale and it was in North London that we all became aware of his supreme talents.
The Croatian always seemed destined for bigger and better things and it has come as no surprise that he has been a key cog in Real Madrid’s midfield in one of their most successful eras, winning four Champions League titles.
However, despite all the adoration and club success, Modric’s heart has always lay with his country. The 2018 World Cup, in which he won the Golden Ball, was the pinnacle of his international career that has spanned 15 years. Just as Messi experienced four years earlier, the best player came so close to getting hands on the biggest prize in the sport, but instead had to settle with an individual award.
Despite his huge array of trophies and individual accolades, sport at its core, is about the emotions certain players can provoke. Even amongst neutrals in the footballing community, Modric was able to make you smile, and bring out feelings of immense joy whenever he had the ball. Players like him are what football is all about.
The World Cup is only 18 months away which could potentially tempt Modric into one last tournament, but if this was the last time we got to see him in a Croatian shirt - Hvala Luka, you gave us inexplicable tingles.