World Cup·Analysis

Fates of Modric and Messi show what makes World Cup so beautiful also makes it brutal

Tuesdays semifinal between Argentina and Croatia felt like a contest between two men, each wearing his iconic No. 10, each carrying the hopes of his country on his shoulders, each having announced that he will never play on the sport's biggest stage again.

One great denies the other chance to play for championship that has eluded both

Croatia's Luka Modric, right, reacts to his team's loss in the World Cup semifinal while Argentina's Lionel Messi, background left, celebrates. (Frank Augstein/Associated Press)

Chris Jones is in Qatar covering the men's World Cup for CBC Sports.

On Tuesday night in Doha, at a heaving Lusail Stadium, Lionel Messi and Luka Modric shared a hug before their men's World Cup semifinal. One would finish his great international career by moving on to the final. The other would be left to play for third place.

Ninety minutes later, after Argentina had beaten Croatia, 3-0, their respective fates had been decided — one partially, one more fully.

Messi, 35, might yet win the only trophy that has eluded him, when Argentina faces one of Wednesday's semifinalists, France or Morocco, in Sunday's final.

Modric, 37, will never win a World Cup.

The game didn't really feel like a showdown between two teams. It felt like a contest between two men, each wearing his iconic No. 10, each carrying the hopes of his country on his shoulders, each having announced that he will never play on the sport's biggest stage again.

When Messi lashed home a penalty in the 34th minute, Modric's head fell, as though he'd dropped something on the grass. After Julian Alvarez scored a wonder goal five minutes later, Modric looked up at the moonlit desert sky instead.

Messi, centre, and Modric, left, confront each other on the pitch. (Julian Finney/Getty Images)

'Fighting spirit'

When Messi and Alvarez combined for a third goal in the 69th minute, Modric put his hands on his knees, stood back up, and clapped once before tucking his long hair behind his ears.

He knew the fight was over.

It's unfortunate, and more than a little sad, that his last World Cup journey has been overshadowed by Messi's more popular navigation. Modric has been a fantastic player, and Croatia has been a remarkable team.

For a country with fewer than four million people to reach a men's World Cup final in 2018, and now a semifinal four years later, defies rational explanation. Even Zlatko Dalic, Croatia's serious-minded coach, put his side's success down to something ephemeral: its "fighting spirit."

In their six valiant games so far in Qatar, the Croatians have played 600 minutes of punishing soccer, plus added time. They held a lead for only 46 of those minutes, during their group-stage dismantling of Canada. The rest of the tournament, they were either even or behind. And yet they came within a game of consecutive final appearances, and on Saturday will play for third.

That requires some luck. It also demands some all-world will.

Finally, it takes a man like Luka Modric, the iron in the Croatian fire for what seems like forever.

He was born in 1985 in Zadar, in what was then Yugoslavia. He was named for his grandfather, with whom he was always close. His grandfather was "a tough guy," Modric has said, a man who maintained the road from the mountains to the sea and kept a herd of goats for pleasure.

He was also gentle and doting with his first grandson. "I felt his love in his kind-hearted reactions to my mischief," Modric wrote in his 2020 autobiography, "or when he took me to my bed and stayed there until I fell asleep."

Modric shoots but can't find the target in Croatia's 3-0 loss to Argentina on Tuesday. (Lars Baron/Getty Images)

Grandfather killed in war

Modric was six years old when Yugoslavia started to fall apart. Many of his neighbours fled Zadar in the early days of the Croatian War of Independence, after Serbian paramilitary groups had begun their raids. The Modric family did not.

On Dec. 18, 1991, Modric's grandfather went out in the morning to lead his herd to pasture.

He did not come home. His son, the younger Luka's father, went out to find him. A marauding gang of self-styled Chetniks had shot him with a machine gun at close range, next to his goats. One morning, Luka Modric had a grandfather he loved and who loved him. Hours later, he stood beside the coffin of the man who had given him his name.

This year's World Cup is a winter one, to avoid the worst of Qatar's heat. The final will happen to fall on Dec. 18 — the 31st anniversary of the first Luka Modric's murder.

Messi shows his joy after earning another chance to play for the World Cup championship. (Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

That evening, Lionel Messi will be the one who gets to return to Lusail, and much of the world, absent Brazil and Cristiano Ronaldo fans, is thrilled for him. In 2014, Argentina lost the final to Germany, and his unparalleled career has felt incomplete since. He will have a second chance to put on the performance of his life.

At the same time, it's almost impossible to imagine what it might have meant to Luka Modric, the adoring and adored grandson, to take the field in his place.

Modric didn't cry or linger after the loss of so many things. He thanked his teammates. He applauded Croatia's supporters. He hugged Messi again.

His hollow eyes and slumped shoulders still betrayed his feelings, as well as a hard truth: What makes the World Cup so beautiful also makes it brutal.

Only one story will get its happy ending here. On Sunday, only one dream will come true.


Chris Jones

Senior Contributor

Chris Jones is a journalist and screenwriter who began his career covering baseball and boxing for the National Post. He later joined Esquire magazine, where he won two National Magazine Awards for his feature writing. His work has also appeared in The Atlantic, The New York Times Magazine, ESPN The Magazine (RIP), and WIRED, and he is the author of the book, The Eye Test: A Case for Human Creativity in the Age of Analytics. Follow him on Twitter at @EnswellJones

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