Since 2008 only one player has breached the duopoly created by Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi at the annual Ballon d’Or award ceremony – that man is Luka Modrić.
While the Real Madrid man’s feat in prising the gong away from the vice-like grip of two of the greatest footballers ever is already impressive, but to consider the era in which he has done it in is even more extraordinary.
Never more so has football been a game driven by statistics; every facet of a footballer’s game is scrutinised, with their goal and assist output ultimately being the stat by which most midfielders and forwards either flourish or fall.
With the footballing world transfixed by numbers, when Modrić’s mere 15 goals and 38 assists in eight La Liga campaigns are reflected upon, the phenomenal talent of the man to receive said accolade becomes clear.
Despite his 2018 Ballon d’Or win, Modrić’s trajectory towards the upper echelons of world football hasn’t always ran smoothly.
Upon his arrival in Spain, Marca voted the Real Madrid man the worst signing of any La Liga club in 2012, pipping Barcelona’s Alex Song to the unwanted gong. With the Madrid faithful becoming restless at the time being taken by their new signing to settle, many could have crumbled – but Modrić is made of sterner stuff.
Born and raised in war-torn Croatia, the former Dinamo Zagreb man is no stranger to overcoming adversity in the struggle to prosper. Since a tough opening few months in Spain, he has displayed the character and drive which embodies his homeland, and now proudly sits at the apex of the footballing world.
The turning point in Modrić’s Madrid career came in El Clásico of March 2013, producing a sumptuous performance to help his side to a 2-1 victory in undoubtably his best game of his maiden season in Spain.
Sergio Busquets couldn’t get near the midfield maestro, as time and time again Modrić danced away from challenges while dictating the pace of play, while acting as a metronome and displaying the poise and balance which had seen him become a Premier League superstar.
After fleeting glimpses of the player Madrid shelled out £30m for, the 2014 Champions League campaign was where Modrić truly proved his worth. The former Tottenham Hotspur man played an instrumental role in the club’s route to the final, providing assists in both the quarter and semi-final.
Not content with orchestrating Los Blancos’ route to their first major European final in twelve seasons, the diminutive Croatia international produced a stellar performance in UEFA’s blue riband event to secure La Décima.
In hindsight, the performance was a microcosm of Modrić’s career – while Ronaldo and Gareth Bale stole the headlines with late strikes, it was the unassuming magician at the heart of the team whose endeavour and guile laid the foundations for the famous victory.
Eyebrows were raised prior to kick-off as Carlo Ancelotti’s men lined up with a three-man midfield (one of whom was winger Angel Di Maria) against newly-crowned La Liga champions Atlético Madrid’s-midfield quartet.
Ancelotti’s side had failed to beat their city rivals in both league encounters that season, and against Atlético’s industrious, workmanlike engine room, they were in severe danger of being overrun – Modrić had other ideas.
He produced an absolute masterclass to not just match but exceed the work rate of Atlético’s-midfield four, regularly out-muscling the combative Tiago and showing the class to nonchalantly caress the ball with the outside of his right boot around the pitch as though playing with his mates.
The clash was – as expected – a blood and thunder affair, with 12 yellow cards brandished; yet in typical Modrić style, he kept his cool while others around him were beginning to become overawed by the occasion. His pinpoint delivery for Sergio Ramos in the 93rd minute typified the composure and class of the man.
Perhaps the biggest compliment that can be paid of Modrić is his consistency amid the lunacy of Madrid. With constant big-money signings and innumerable departures – not to mention the six different managers since his arrival in 2012 – one of the few common denominators at Santiago Bernabeu remains the midfielder.
One of the oddities of the Croatia captain’s career is – despite being voted the best player in the world in 2018 – he’s rarely mentioned in the same glowing terms as Xavi and Andrés Iniesta.
Between the three midfield geniuses they share just one Ballon d’Or award; yet when tasked with naming a World XI from the past decade, most football fans would afford the Barça pair the central-midfield berth.
While the Spanish duo’s genius cannot be understated, their footballing careers lead somewhat of a privileged life – raised in the Barcelona academy, born in an era of Spanish international dominance – something they were no doubt integral in.
Modrić hasn’t enjoyed nearly the same fortune, and yet he almost singlehandedly took his team to a World Cup final and has defied the odds in reaching the top – that’s something which deserves recognition.
Often in football there’s a tendency to look back on a player’s career with rose-tinted glasses. Nostalgia is a wonderful thing, and some footballers only truly receive the acknowledgement they deserve once their playing days are condemned to archived footage – Luka Modrić shouldn’t be one of those cases.
A genius of a footballer whose prodigious talent deserves to be recognised.