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Luka Modrić deserves his place among the soccer gods

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Luke Modrić’s Ballon d’Or wasn’t a repudiation of Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, but a celebration of soccer’s underrepresented geniuses.

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England v Croatia - UEFA Nations League A Photo by Catherine Ivill/Getty Images

After he became the first Croatian player to ever win the Ballon d’Or, Luka Modrić said:

“History will say that a Croatian player representing his small country, won the Ballon d’Or after Cristiano Ronaldo & Lionel Messi, who are players at another level. Nobody has the right to compare themselves to them. They are the best in the history of this sport.”

Modric dedicated his award to players like Xavi, Andres Iniesta, and Wesley Sneijder, midfielders like him “who could have won the Ballon d’Or ... but it didn’t happen,” players who never got to be praised on the grandest award stages because they were unfortunate to play in the era of the Ronaldo-Messi duopoly. He suggested that his victory might be an indication that, after ten years, people are in the mood for someone new.

There will be obvious debates over the validity of Modrić’s victory because, even as he admits, Ronaldo and Messi are on another level. As individuals, they were still the two best players in the world last season. Ronaldo finished with 48 goals in 48 appearances for club and country, with 10 assists. Messi ended with 47 goals in 54 appearances, with 21 assists. The award is arguably skewed towards forwards, but the fact remains that we’re still in the era of the two best players in soccer’s history.

What seemed to push Modrić above them was a combination of voter fatigue and the heroic story of Croatia’s World Cup journey. Argentina and Portugal lost in the first round of the knockout stage, while Croatia went to the World Cup final for the first time in its nation’s history.

Croatia was the best story of the tournament. They were an underdog that exemplified hard work, persistence, and a little bit of talent — everything that appeals to our most optimistic ideas about individualism and meritocracy. Faced against bigger countries — teams with more resources and talent, the superpowers who had won World Cups before — Croatia were the hope that privilege and circumstances are not the defining factors of how far one can go, that limits can be broken by individual quality, fight, and belief.

During the summer, Modrić showed the whole world that even if he is not on the same level as Ronaldo and Messi, he is the player closest to them. He was the best player all tournament, but I think it was in Croatia’s victory over England that his claim to being the best player in the world was solidified, both in performance and in story.

When Croatia met England in the semifinals of the World Cup, many of Croatia’s players were either injured or hobbling. Croatia had already played and won two extra-time games in the knockout stages. England’s loss against Belgium in the last game of the group stages meant that they were able to avoid the stronger half of the bracket that included Belgium and France. They looked like the favorites to make it to the final on the side where they had to face Colombia, Sweden, and then Croatia.

England scored five minutes into the game, and looked composed against a tired Croatian team. But Croatia, full of players who never seemed to give up, equalized in the 68th minute through Ivan Perišić. The game went to extra time, and somehow the team full of players who could barely walk, let alone run, and playing its third extra-time game in a row, won through a Mario Mandžukić strike in the 109th minute.

Croatia’s made its first-ever World Cup final because Modrić dominated the midfield against England, as he had against every opponent all tournament. He ran circles around England’s midfield even while he was visibly exhausted. Modrić at his most fatigued was still several levels better than everyone he faced. Not because his opponents were that bad, but because Modrić was that good.

There were so many instances when he would find small opportunities to catch his breath because he and his partners in midfield, Ivan Rakitić and Marcelo Brozović, had run themselves into the ground to stay alive.

Sometimes when he was taking a corner, Modrić would lean against the advertisement boards as players set up in the box. When he went into a slide tackle and missed, or whenever he hit the ground, he stayed down for a few extra seconds, breathing hard, before getting back up and continuing his work.

Once in the second half against England, a Croatia cross was headed out to the edge of England’s box. The ball bounced once, and as it was coming down again, and with Harry Kane tracking back to win it, Modrić jumped for the header. Kane slide under him. The foul was called against Kane, but immediately after his foul, Kane was fouled himself and stayed down from the pain. The referee stopped play, and as Ashley Young conversed with the referee about the incident, Modrić put his hands on his knees and took deep breaths. He looked completely worn out.

Then on his next touches on the ball, Modrić bamboozled Dele Alli and broke England’s pressure by one-touching the ball back to Brozović, floating behind his man and between the wall that Alli and Kane had formed, and receiving the ball back between them.

Modrić made England’s press look amateurish. He does things like that so casually that it can be mistaken for being easy. He exploits space so well that he seems to be everywhere at all times. He’s technically perfect, able to play any pass with both feet with the vision to see the pass as soon as it’s possible. Modrić’s first touch always leads to his next move, and he hardly ever has a bad touch.

My personal favorite aspect of his game is his dribbling and close control, which involves a lot of feints since he’s not the fastest or trickiest player. It’s ridiculously fun to watch him avoid multiple defenders while barely touching the ball.

Modrić is also a factory worker as much as an artist — an everyman who also happens to be an exceptional genius. As much as he is pleasing to the mind, in terms of beauty, he is also pleasing to a heart that appreciates passion and persistence.

Modrić works just as hard as anyone, if not harder. Against England, he constantly needed to catch his breath because as soon as play restarted, he was sprinting all over the field, intercepting passes, sliding into tackles, and committing the odd cynical foul on Alli to prevent a goalscoring opportunity. Early in the second half against England, a commentator described him as “Modric, who never stops running.”

When he was subbed off in the 119th minute, the whole stadium applauded him. He didn’t score any of goals, but everything positive for Croatia had gone through him. Before Croatia played France, it was a foregone conclusion that he was going to be named the best player of the tournament. Combined with his success at club level, he was in pole position to be named the best player in the world.

It’s ridiculous now to think that in his first season at Real Madrid, Modrić was once voted as the worst signing of the season. Now he’s the player who won three Champions League titles in a row, took Croatia to the World Cup final, and finally broke the dominance of Ronaldo and Messi for the Ballon d’Or.

In his acceptance speech for the award, Modrić added, “I consider myself a normal person and act that way ... I am happy that someone normal is able to win the Ballon d’Or.” This past season, Modrić proved that even mere mortals can become football gods, too.