Luka Modric lives, dies and lives forever on night of Croatia's swan song

  • Croatia likely to exit Euro 2024 at group stage following 1-1 draw with Italy
  • Luka Modric credited for near-match winning performance
  • 38-year-old could be playing at last major international tournament
Croatia could be heading home
Croatia could be heading home / BSR Agency/GettyImages

"Football was merciless, football was cruel," was Luka Modric's main takeaway from Croatia's 1-1 draw with Italy on Monday night.

It seemed for all the world that Croatia had done enough to secure their place in the last 16 of Euro 2024, despite opening the tournament with two subpar performances and results - a 3-0 hammering by Spain, followed by a 2-2 draw with Albania.

Modric went from zero to hero within the span of 57 seconds early in the second half. His woeful penalty was shoved aside by Gianluigi Donnarumma, only to turn in the rebound as the Italy goalkeeper saved from Croatia's very next cross back into the box with graceful aplomb, off-balance and with his weaker left foot, the new oldest scorer in European Championship history.

It was the shot in the arm Croatia needed. It was the shot in the arm Modric himself needed. Through two-and-a-half games at Euro 2024, he looked like Ric Flair on his last legs before he was knocked out one last time at Wrestlemania 24. The agonising minute between his penalty miss and subsequent goal felt like the death of Modric as the player and persona everyone knows and loves, yet here he stood renewed and refreshed for a short while longer, perhaps the king of the mountain at least for another day.

A goal to the good and with Italy shellshocked, Croatia allowed themselves to sit off and take a needed breather. Their wily veterans looked their age, increasingly tired. Modric himself was hooked on minute 80 to a standing ovation. As it was happening, it didn't feel like that would be his last action at a major international tournament.

All of a sudden, Croatia were counting down the seconds and minutes to victory as if the clock were in reverse like in American sport. On the bench, Modric looked more animated and emotive than he had ever done on the pitch, living and breathing every tackle, every pass, every clearance, every cross.

Eight minutes were added on at the end of the 90. Croatia were nearly there. They should have been there.

And then they threw it away.

Whatever tactical plan head coach Zlatko Dalic had drawn up fell to pieces. The match was no longer about who was better at football, but who was going to survive. Without as much veteran presence on the right side of those white lines, Croatia crumbled.

Italy, on their part, could have settled for the loss and rested on a third-place group finish knowing it would probably be enough to still go through. But the defending champions finally got out of first gear to keep progression in their own hands.

The last kick of the game came from Mattia Zaccagni, whose looping shot arced up and over the outstretched arm of goalkeeper Dominik Livakovic into the top corner. Down went the ball, down went the men clad in the red-and-white checks.

Luka Modric, Zlatko Dalic
The end of an era? / Chris Brunskill/Fantasista/GettyImages

Modric fronted up for the media post-match. Of course he did. He was the story and the protagonist, the writer and the publisher. And ultimately, the winner before becoming the loser. Europe toasted him, but it mattered little to him.

Croatia need England to obliterate Slovenia on Tuesday night or else their Euro 2024 campaign, and with it the run of their golden generation, will be over.

This prospect had been coming. Through their impressive 2018 and 2022 FIFA World Cup runs to podium finishes, Croatia relied on four penalty shootout victories plus one other win in extra-time. They were torn to shreds by a fitter and younger Spain on matchday one this month before unforgivably drawing to Albania, again their ageing legs on show with a last-minute sucker-punch.

But whatever asterisks you want to put next to Croatia's name and achievements, they are still the greatest over-performers in the modern history of international football. Throughout this glorious run, Modric was crucial to everything, beginning with the swooning of the world at Euro 2008 and peaking with a Ballon d'Or a decade later.

Croatia's younger contingent will need a miracle to even get a whiff of the same achievements of their predecessors. A spell in the wilderness likely awaits, but it's testament to this legendary team from a country with a population under four million that they have been able to put this off for so long.

If this was Modric's last stand on the international stage, it was a fitting one. A blaze of near-glory, one final lap of universal appreciation.