The former Tottenham midfielder has played a pivotal part in his nation’s route to the World Cup semi-finals and is in contention for the Golden Ball
This could be the year that the Ballon d’Or duopoly finally ends. For the past decade, the prestigious prize has been won either by Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo. This time, however, there might be a new winner.
With both Messi and Ronaldo knocked out of the World Cup in the last 16 and neither able to reproduce their very best on the game’s greatest stage, the opportunity is there for a different player to claim the Golden Ball in December.
Ronaldo remains the favourite in the betting odds, the Portuguese having helped Real Madrid to a third straight Champions League crown in May, before hitting a hat-trick for his national side against Spain in Russia.
And Messi, who won a Liga and Copa del Rey double with Barcelona in 2017-18, netted a fine goal against Nigeria and bagged a couple of assists versus France in a disappointing World Cup campaign for Argentina.
“It will be for Messi or Cristiano, it is written like that,” Belgium attacker Eden Hazard told beIN SPORTS on the eve of his side’s semi-final against France. “I remember a year in which [Franck] Ribery won everything and didn’t get it.”
Cristiano claimed the award that year (2013) and, like Messi, has now won the Ballon d’Or on five separate occasions. And although he is the favourite this time, 2018 has not been his finest year by any means.
In the Champions League final, the match-winner was Gareth Bale, with two goals in the final against Liverpool, while the Portuguese failed to convert in the semi-finals either and also faded in Russia after his superb hat-trick against Spain.
Messi, despite his Barca brilliance, looks unlikely to claim it this time and the World Cup looked to give Neymar an opportunity to win the Ballon d’Or, but the Brazilian is out of the running now after crashing out in the quarter-finals, having also missed the business end of his first season at Paris Saint-Germain through injury.
That leaves several other players still left in the competition. Kevin De Bruyne scored a fantastic goal against Brazil and was superb as Manchester City claimed the Premier League title last season, while Kylian Mbappe is starring for France in Russia after an impressive debut campaign with PSG. England’s Harry Kane, meanwhile, is the top scorer at the World Cup currently and scored 41 goals in all competitions last season for Tottenham.
However, there is no player more deserving than Croatia captain Luka Modric. The 32-year-old has been an inspiration in his side’s remarkable run to the semi-finals and along with Barcelona’s Ivan Rakitic, is the main reason that Zlatko Dalic’s men are in the last four.
Croatia, with a population of just over four million, is one of the smallest nations in the competition and has only been an independent state since 1991. And their national team is now on the brink of a historic achievement, with a place in the World Cup final up for grabs if they can beat England on Wednesday.
Modric has scored twice in Russia, with a penalty in Croatia’s group game versus Nigeria and a wonderful long-range effort against Argentina. And even though he missed a crucial spot-kick in the last-16 clash with Denmark, it was he who was driving the team forward in the final few minutes and he also netted in the subsequent shootout.
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More importantly, he is the man pulling the strings for Croatia, albeit a little further forward than at Real Madrid, where his signing in 2012 helped to bring about a huge change of fortunes in the Champions League, with four titles in five seasons for Los Blancos.
“He deserves all the accolades he gets, from the media and the public,” international team-mate Mario Mandzukic said this week. “He’s worked very hard to get to this point, he’s our captain and leader and if the team manages a great result and he gets the Golden Ball, he would deserve it.”
There is little doubt about that. But like midfield greats of recent times like Xavi and Andres Iniesta, he too may miss out to Ronaldo or Messi. A World Cup win to add to his Champions League crown at Madrid last season, however, and he would surely be the clear candidate to claim the Ballon d’Or in December.