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All hail Luka Modrić! Still Croatian king at 35

As Luka Modrić prepares to lead Croatia against adopted home Spain in the last 16, EURO2020.com reporter Elvir Islamović pays tribute to a player he has followed for nearly 20 years.

Luka Modrić at Croatia's Rovinj training base on Thursday
Luka Modrić at Croatia's Rovinj training base on Thursday AFP via Getty Images

Luka Modrić. A footballing magician as shy and polite off the pitch as he is bold and prominent on it. What can you say that hasn’t already been said?

Live build-up: Croatia vs Spain

I have known Luka many years now. I’ve witnessed first-hand his progress, his success, his greatest achievements. From Dinamo Zagreb to Tottenham to Real Madrid; always Croatia. "Luka is every manager's dream," his Spurs manager Harry Redknapp said back in 2010. "He trains like a demon and never complains." As true now in 2021 as it was then.

I once asked him what his secret was.

"Secret? There is no secret. It's my dedication to work, my sacrifice, the fact I've been giving 100% to it ever since I started. I am still 100% focused on it."

Luka Modrić speaking to Elvir earlier in the tournament
Luka Modrić speaking to Elvir earlier in the tournamentUEFA via Getty Images

Like fine wine, he has got better with age. He has collected honours throughout his career but 2018 was his annus mirabilis, when he won his fourth UEFA Champions League, inspired Croatia to the FIFA World Cup final and grabbed every major individual honour going. He was, by then, 32.

He is now 35. Croatia’s talisman came into UEFA EURO 2020 as Real Madrid’s player of the season.

"I still feel the same passion and motivation to be playing for my team," he told me on the eve of the tournament. "I carry that passion into every training session and game."

A few days later, he scored one of his best goals for Croatia against Scotland, one of the most important too as it set up a win that took Vatreni through. Thirteen years after becoming his nation’s youngest scorer at a EURO finals, he became the oldest.

Luka Modrić for Croatia

Games: 141
Goals: 18
Debut: Croatia 3-2 Argentina (01/03/2006)

Modrić fires in against Scotland
Modrić fires in against ScotlandGetty Images

Before one interview at the beginning of this championship, we were chatting about our kids – he has three, the eldest just turned 11. "Time flies," he observed. "Kids grow up so fast."

Opponents could be forgiven for complaining that the opposite appears to be true of Modrić. Time for him seems to have stopped. So what has changed in the 15 years since he made his Croatia debut?

"I have achieved a lot since then at the highest level, both collectively and individually. I am captain now. As for the rest, things haven't change too much. My passion, my love and my drive for all this is the same as the first time."

Off the pitch, Modrić appears to be unchanged too. He is the refugee who became a global star but remains polite, kind and a bit shy. He inspires those around him and often emphasises how important family is to him.

Family first: Modrić and two of his children
Family first: Modrić and two of his childrenFIFA via Getty Images

After he surpassed Darijo Srna's Croatian record of 134 caps in March, there was a touching moment at full time when he celebrated with friends and family that he had picked out in the crowd. "When will you stop playing?" wife Vanja asked.

"I don't know, my love," came the reply. "You know how much this means to me, how happy I am when I go to play for Croatia. You'll have to be patient for just a little bit more."

For how much longer, nobody knows. In the meantime, we Croatians have to treasure every game.

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