World Cup 2022 briefing: Modric, not Messi, could be the man to stop

Main event

“Messi may be the star of this summer” said Peter Drury in 2006 as a certain 18-year-old Argentinian skipped inside Croatia’s Stjepan Tomas before bending a beautiful shot inside the far post from the edge of the area. Messi’s first international goal came in his sixth appearance, in one of those meaningless mid-season friendlies organised in a neutral country (literally Switzerland in this case), and we know the rest of the story. He became not so much the star of the summer as the star of the century (so far).

But that snowy March night in Basel was also notable for another reason, one that wasn’t picked up by the highlights reel. On his international debut, Dinamo Zagreb’s Luka Modric held his own against Esteban Cambiasso and Juan Román Riquelme in central midfield, helping Croatia to a 3-2 win. The boy looked a bit special.

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Fast forward 12 years, to the 2018 World Cup and Croatia v Argentina in the group stage. Messi’s legacy is long assured, but it is this year where Modric elevates himself from simply ‘world class’ into the ethereal bracket that sits somewhere above. The summer started with a third consecutive Champions League title, and ended with a World Cup runners-up medal, with the Ballon d’Or to follow. Argentina were thrashed 3-0, with Modric running the show, and scoring a belting 25-yard strike past Willy Caballero for good measure. If Modric wasn’t the world’s best midfielder when 2018 started, he was by the end of it. This remains true even now, at the age of 37, and alongside Mateo Kovacic and Marcelo Brozovic, Modric leads a formidable trio into Tuesday’s semi-final. “Mateo, Luka and Marcelo are the best Croatia midfield in history,” said the Croatia defender Borna Sosa this week. “I don’t think it can be repeated. When you pass them the ball it is safer than having your money in the bank.”

All of which is to illustrate a point that you already knew – that Modric is very good at football – and maybe an idea that you didn’t: that Croatia back themselves to make the World Cup final. They don’t care about the bookmakers’ odds or the Messi GOAT narrative, this isn’t an underdog story. They are one of the world’s best international teams. Attention might be centred on how Croatia are going to stop Argentina’s No 10. It might be more prudent to focus on how La Albiceleste are going to stop Modric and co. MBu

Talking points

Atlas Lions on hat-trick mission
Morocco taking on former colonial rulers France makes for a semi-final loaded with intrigue on Wednesday. The north Africans have already knocked out their two former colonisers, Spain and Portugal, in the previous rounds so can complete a hat-trick of revenge. France occupied parts of Morocco until 1956 and tensions are ongoing in 2022 with a row over visa restrictions. However French language and culture still strongly influence Moroccan society. Two of the World Cup squad – Romain Saïss and Sofiane Boufal – were born in France, as was the coach, Walid Regragui, who describes the country as his second home. A complex relationship but if Morocco can secure a first win over France, expect wild celebrations from Rabat all the way to Paris. AR

Morocco 🇲🇦 took down 3 colonial European nations in 10 days.

Belgium 🇧🇪
Spain 🇪🇸
Portugal 🇵🇹

If they defeat France 🇫🇷—they’ll win something bigger than the WorldCup; the hearts of formerly colonized people everywhere.

— Khaled Beydoun (@KhaledBeydoun) December 11, 2022

England have reason to cheer after dust settles
There was very little of the traditional English gloom when Gareth Southgate’s side lost to France. They played well and the majority on the pitch will be even better in four years. Phil Foden and Bukayo Saka will be 26 and 24, respectively, when the next World Cup comes around. Jude Bellingham will be legally allowed to buy alcohol in all the potential host states in America, what with him celebrating his 23rd birthday during the tournament. There is plenty to be positive about when a team’s best players are years away from their peak. Others will need to be replaced in the meantime, likely after the Euros in 2024, to start a new international cycle for England. The fact that England’s most exciting players have their best years ahead of them will make a call-up a more attractive prospect to newcomers, knowing they are joining a setup with world class talent, not something that could always be said of an England squad. WU

England’s journey in Qatar began under a cloud when the team backed down from wearing the OneLove rainbow armband after Fifa threatened sporting sanctions on the morning of their opening match. As the squad head home, Joe Lycett has hit out at the FA, accusing the English governing body of “pretending to be allies of the LGBT community” until it became inconvenient.

The comedian told Times Radio, in quotes published by PA Media, that he held “some conversations” with the English governing body after announcing a stunt in which he threatened to destroy £10,000 of his own money unless David Beckham pulled out of his own deal with the World Cup hosts. Lycett called Beckham “a perfect kind of emblem” of the way “a lot of brands and institutions pretend to be allies until it’s inconvenient for them”.

David Beckham feels the wrath of Joe Lycett.
David Beckham feels the wrath of Joe Lycett. Photograph: Channel 4

“I would add the FA into that group, actually,” Lycett added. “I had some conversations with the FA and they had sort of directed me to their statement about the OneLove armband and how proud they were of all that. We know where we got to with that, don’t we?” Representatives of Beckham and the FA have been contacted for comment by PA. NMc

Global media-watch

No media outlet can overlook an omen going into a World Cup semi-final, and Argentina’s press is no different. Olé is slightly concerned that to avoid a colour clash with Croatia’s shirts, Emiliano Martínez “will be all in green and will not wear the historic red shirt with which he became a hero against Louis van Gaal’s team”. However, the sport journal notes that “Dibu (Martínez’s nickname) wore green in the decisive matches against Mexico and Poland, two duels in which La Scaloneta beat their respective rivals 2-0.”

The Buenos Aires Times says Argentina have been helped by “hordes of travelling fans that have transformed each of their matches in Qatar into virtual home games”. It says: “That passion is evoked in two songs that have regularly reverberated around Qatar’s stadiums – ‘Vamos Argentina’ and ‘Muchachos,’” a de facto national anthem of the national team which name-checks Messi, Diego Maradona and the 1982 Malvinas/Falklands war between Argentina and Britain. “Argentina is a complex, politically fractured country. There are few subjects that unite the country – but the Malvinas and the football team do,” it quotes Edgardo Esteban, director of the Malvinas Museum in Buenos Aires as saying.

Argentina fans pay homage to their heroes during the quarter-final match shootout win against the Netherlands.
Argentina fans pay homage to their heroes during the quarter-final match shootout win against the Netherlands. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

In Clarín the talk of the town remains firefighters in Esquina, the home town of Diego Maradona’s mother, who listened to Argentina progress against the Netherlands while actively fighting a fire. One eof them, 27-year-old Roberto Cardozo, told the press: “When we got to the field, the owners were waiting for us and we went in to fight the fire. When I returned to refill the water, my girlfriend sent me a WhatsApp message notifying me of Argentina’s first goal. I let my teammates know that we were winning. We even filmed ourselves at the moment Messi scored the penalty to make it 2-0 because we already had the situation under control.” Lionel Scaloni’s men will hope they similarly have Croatia under control at the Lusail on Tuesday night. MBe

The internet reacts

Check this out for a costume. An outstanding (and a bit terrifying?) effort that doesn’t get any easier to process the longer you look at it, like a CGI Pelé that has stepped out of the video game. Incrívil.

Today’s match

Argentina v Croatia (Semi-final, 7pm GMT, ITV1) Having knocked out one South American giant in the quarter-finals, it’s Groundhog Day for wily Croatia as they aim to upset Argentina. Both sides came through draining penalty shootouts in the last eight, as a result of which Argentina are without suspended full-backs Gonzalo Montiel and Marcos Acuña. Ángel Di María is fit, however, and may return to the starting XI to take some of the creative burden from Lionel Messi’s shoulders. Croatia have looked on the brink three times in this World Cup (1-0 down to Brazil, 1-0 down to Japan, while they could have gone out in the group stage if Belgium’s Romelu Lukaku had taken his shooting boots to Qatar). However the 2018 finalists are the ultimate competitors – and have won four shootouts in the last two World Cups alone. Argentina may be best advised not to settle for penalties no matter how tight this gets. AR

Player to watch

Josko Gvardiol With his face mask and a bushy black beard that most 20-year-olds could only dream of growing, Croatia’s all-action centre-back looks every inch the super-villain. Apt, because he’s likely to be vital in thwarting Argentina’s superhero, Lionel Messi. The Argentina captain wanders the pitch seeking opportunities, making it near impossible for one player to track him – but as Croatia’s breakout defensive star, Gvardiol is a crucial cog in a disciplined backline. His coach, Zlatko Dalic, is not one to talk Gvardiol down, saying: “He’s the best defender in the world. Even if he’s not currently No 1, he will become No 1.” The future best defender in the world against the greatest player of the past 20 years? Bring it on. AR

Josko Gvardiol beats Neymar to the ball during another impressive display in the World Cup quarter-final.
Josko Gvardiol beats Neymar to the ball during another impressive display in the World Cup quarter-final. Photograph: Adrian Dennis/AFP/Getty Images

And finally …

If you were ever in the Scouts or Girlguiding, you were almost certainly taught to be prepared. But there is such a thing as being too prepared … and no we are not thinking of Luis Enrique’s insistence his players practise 1,000 penalties with their clubs before failing to convert a single one in the shootout with Morocco. Instead, we are thinking of the unfortunate business person who invested in 18,000 T-shirts carrying the message “England, cup winners 2022, it’s finally home” prior to England’s meeting with France on Saturday.

The company is still hoping to flog them at a discounted £9.99 rather than the planned £29.99 – possibly to amused Scotland fans. We won’t mention the name of the company to spare its blushes, as it does seem to be very unlucky. Why, only earlier this year it was all over the newspapers for having a supply of royal memorabilia that unfortunately said “Platinum Jubbly” by mistake, and before that, last Christmas, it had excess stock of a Christmas jumper whose snowflake design unfortunately resembled childish graffiti of the male genitalia. What are the chances of so many misfortunes getting the name of a wholesale company into the newspapers in such a short space of time, eh? MBe

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