It has been an unforgettable 2018 for Luka Modric. Champions League winner, World Cup finalist and the man who finally ended the decadelong stranglehold of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo on the Ballon d’Or.
It could have been better, of course. With every individual award — Modric also won the Golden Ball as the best player at the World Cup, and was voted as the No. 1 central midfielder in the ESPN FC 100 — the 33-year-old has insisted that he would swap them all for a World Cup winners’ medal, having inspired Croatia to the final before going down to France in Moscow. But after a career as arguably one of the most under-rated players in the world, Modric has now received the acclaim his talents deserve. (Modric also made ESPN the Magazine’s Dominant 20 list for 2018, a testament to his form and awards won.)
His ability to dictate the tempo of a game and pick holes in opponents’ defences came to the fore with both club and country this year.
At Real, Modric’s performances were crucial in their run to a third successive Champions League triumph. But it was at the World Cup where he owned the stage by outlasting both Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo in Russia as Croatia made it all the way to the final, with Modric’s displays against Argentina and England underlining his class.
And as he looks back on 2018, ESPN FC has spoken to players past and present, who have seen Modric close up both as teammates and opponents, to discover what makes the former Dinamo Zagreb and Tottenham midfielder one of the best in the world.
RYAN GIGGS | MANCHESTER UNITED MIDFIELDER, 1990-2014
“When he came to the Premier League, he looked quite timid, and you felt you would be able to get at him. But you never could. His decision-making was top class. In a sprint over 30 yards, you’d beat him, but in a small, confined space, he was very quick, both in thought and movement.
“A standout memory is when he scored against us in the Champions League for Real Madrid in 2013. We had just had Nani sent off, and Jose Mourinho, the Real manager at the time, put Modric on. It was a key change because of his ability to control possession. Within minutes, he scored a great goal that won Real the game.”
HARRY WINKS | TOTTENHAM MIDFIELDER, 2014-PRESENT
“He was one of the greatest midfielders to ever play for Spurs. When you play against someone like that, you really learn. He’s always thinking two steps ahead. He can pick a pass and get himself out of danger in tight situations.”
LEDLEY KING | TOTTENHAM DEFENDER, 1999-2012
“One thing you always look at with players — especially small players — is their legs, and Luka has huge calves. He can twist and turn and keep the ball very well, and he’s one of the best I’ve seen at receiving the ball from the defenders, wriggling away and coming out. I’m sure managers will say you drop a No. 10 deep to stop Luka from picking up the ball from the back. But he’ll find a way to get on the ball and dictate play. He was a really good lad. He taught us some naughty words in Croatian. Every time I see him, it’s the first thing I’ll say to him.”
DAVID SILVA | MANCHESTER CITY MIDFIELD, 2012-PRESENT
“Well first I’d say that we’re quite different in terms of our roles. [Modric] tends to run things from a little bit deeper and I’m a midfielder that likes to get forward, a bit more forward-thinking, but no, he’s qualities are undoubted. I know him from his time here at Spurs what a top, top player he is and he’s got a lot of excellent qualities.
“The fact that he plays for Real Madrid and runs that midfield, you’ve got to be a good player.”
With additional reporting from Ben Pearce