SOCHI, Russia (Reuters) - Luka Modric has already done enough at the World Cup to upstage some top names in contemporary soccer but when he steps into the Fisht Stadium by the Black Sea on Saturday against Russia, he will have a chance to become part of Croatia’s folklore.
Ever since a talented Croatian side reached the 1998 World Cup semi-finals in their second major tournament as an independent nation, subsequent generations have been under pressure from the country’s fans and media to emulate the feat.
The ‘Class of 1998’ lost to hosts France in the semi-finals, then beat the Netherlands 2-1 in the third-place playoff, inspiring many in the Balkan nation including a then 12-year-old Modric.
Now 32 and one of the biggest names left in Russia given the early exits of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, Modric came to global prominence when he joined Tottenham Hotspur in the Premier League in 2008.
A visionary passer and fleet-footed dribbler, he has kept his form with Real Madrid’s multiple Champions League-winning sides since joining them in 2012.
Modric was devastating in the group stages and scored one of the goals of the tournament, upstaging Messi and Argentina by leading his team to the top of their group.
He was poised to hog most of the limelight in the knockouts with the departure of Ronaldo and Messi after Portugal and Argentina lost in the round of 16 but was mostly subdued during the match against Denmark.
Modric, however, put the win in Croatia’s grasp minutes before the end of the second half of extra time with a sumptuous through ball that Ante Rebic ran on to before being felled by Mathias Jorgensen in the penalty area.
The Croatia captain, widely respected by his fellow players for being a complete team man, took the penalty but his weak shot was blocked by Denmark keeper Kasper Schmeichel to send the match into a penalty shootout.
Modric returned to the spot about 15 minutes later and got the better of Schmeichel with Croatia’s third attempt as his side won 3-2 to keep his dream alive of surpassing the Croatian ‘Class of 1998’.
“Since 2008 we have never gone beyond this first knockout game and it was very important for us to get that monkey off our back,” Modric told the FIFA website.
“I was calm and focused. I embraced the responsibility as a captain and I had to do it. As a result I was very emotional after the game.
“I wanted this Croatia to confirm their talent, to take that step further. The game was not an enjoyable one, but our goal was achieved.”
The hard-fought win over Denmark put Croatia one win away from their best-ever showing in 1998 and if they are able to reproduce their free-flowing football from the group stages on Saturday, the hosts would find it tough to stop them.
Davor Suker came closest to winning the golden ball, awarded to the best player of the World Cup, in 1998 when he finished second behind Brazil’s Ronaldo.
Modric will be a strong contender to surpass Suker but he is waiting for an even better “fairy tale”.
“To be at this World Cup is a great privilege,” he said.
“Playing for my team is a great honour and a pleasure, but to win the World Cup with Croatia is almost unthinkable, like the most beautiful fairy tale! It would be incredible to lift the trophy as captain.”
Reporting by Sudipto Ganguly; editing by Christian Radnedge