In the last article I wrote, I started by shooting the bull about actor Marlon Brando, so I fancy, “Hey, what if I do that exact same thing this time as well?” But what could I tell our readers about him? Remembering that my generation doesn’t know the first thing about the man—perhaps with the exception that he played the godfather in The Godfather and ruined butter in Last Tango in Paris—I figure I might as well kick off this thing by introducing the late actor for the heck of it.
Forgive me for scribbling; all you have to do is to trust that all of this will lead to something.
CONSTITUTION OF GREATNESS
With an immeasurable influence on modern cinema, straight-up idolization by the likes of James Dean, Jack Nicholson, and Johnny Depp, as well as outrageously eloquent anecdotes and opinions about him to back up his legacy, Brando is widely regarded as one of (if not) the undisputed greatest actors of all time. One ought to know this.
Born in 1924, Brando largely benefitted from the dawn of method acting in the United States and hence became the instigator of its popularization (even if he loathed to be identified with this approach). He also had the right habitus to personify the new radical, rebellious attitude of American youth and the differences and conflicts between generations in the 1950s; the perfect pop icon for a time. A healthy competition against his friend and fellow Omaha native, Montgomery Clift, ensured that he stayed somewhat removed from lethargy throughout the first decade he hit the scene.
This leads us to a phenomenon I’ve been lately thinking about.
Every influential commodity in entertainment, including football, became what it became because it spoke to a certain zeitgeist. It answered needs it didn’t specifically look to answer, and in another place, in another time, it would still have been very good, but not great.
Let me give you examples.
To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), an enduring classic of American literature and one of the most popular works ever written, got its lucky break through the paperback revolution. In Joseph Flora’s words, it also “arrived at the right moment to help the South and the nation grapple with the racial tensions [of] the accelerating civil rights movement”. Today, I’d argue it would never see the light of the bestsellers list.
The release of The Tales of Ensign Stål (1848–1860) by Johan Ludvig Runeberg, the first major military fiction in Finnish literature and the magnum opus of the country’s national poet, coincided with the awakening of political nationalism in Finland. The cult of Runeberg ensued. Even though the author himself denounced such nonsense, the poetry collection would come to define the local genre of the war novel for the following century, and its unprecedented effect also buttressed the nation’s ideological and political landscape. Today, the work would perhaps be deemed a juvenile abstraction.
This applies to football as well.
Enzo Scifo was misused and misunderstood, and he never fully realized his potential.
Samir Nasri, a generational talent, was born a decade too late. Injuries and the first signs of his physical decline occurred in the mid-2010s, around the same time when the emphasis on athletic standards accelerated.
And Luka Modric, the only player not named Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi to receive the Ballon d’Or in the last 12 years, won the popularity award, according to author Michael Cox, because “everyone had simply become sick of giving the award to the usual two.”
IT CAN’T BE TRUE
Now, this last remark by Cox strikes me as hyperbolic, but even more so, it makes me wonder how much of Modric’s Ballon d’Or victory was actually down to luck and how much of his annus mirabilis was down to consummate skill. Considering that he was up against the marquee statuses of Messi and Ronaldo, I had always been more inclined to believe that Modric’s win was a result of freakish form.
Messi and Ronaldo have become synonyms for GOAT, and superlatives describing them have been clichéd for a few years now. Even if defensive standards have dropped in recent times, they are exalted by fans and the media to such an extent that it’s almost as if the sport was execrable until the curtain lifted before them. They are two of the select few professionals in the world whose expertise in their field makes everyone else’s perfectionism rather de trop.
This means that to beat their prime versions, one presumably had to break the Sisyphean cycle. One had to climb the beanstalk and outpace the hare all in the same year.
And this was exactly what Modric did.
A focal point of both Real Madrid’s and Croatia’s historically successful seasons, the Zadar-born 32-year-old was the best player for a World Cup finalist and for a Club World Cup winner, as well as the best midfielder for not only Real Madrid’s Champions League-winning side, but of the entire competition. His club attained four titles, a feat only once previously matched by Real. (Raphael Varane, 25 at the time, also won the Champions League and topped it up with a convincing World Cup triumph with France. However, at Madrid, Varane played second fiddle to his defensive partner Sergio Ramos, and for his country, Kylian Mbappé and Antoine Griezmann were far more valuable. Hence Varane never seriously competed for the Ballon d’Or.)
What my research reveals is that Modric’s achievement was a result of individual brilliance and ideal circumstances (read: dumb luck); an imperative combination in completing the upset. Modric was at the right place at the right time and did all the right things.
CATCH ON A POPPED-FLY BALL
When running up the myth of Real Madrid’s Champions League three-peat, it is often overlooked that they were a touch fortunate in their last title run. Unarguably inferior in the semi-finals, Bayern Munich amassed a combined 4.9 expected goals against their 2.9. Los Blancos were only bailed out by Keylor Navas’ incredible display in the second leg and by a now-forgotten Sven Ulreich howler, which would be overshadowed by Loris Karius’ and Hugo Lloris’ equivalents later that year. The game was a fitting sequel to previous year’s Bayern v Real Madrid.
In the final, Real struggled against Liverpool as well, before Mohamed Salah, and Karius running with scissors happened.
The 2019 champions had dominated and controlled the game prior to Sergio Ramos’ judo-style move that resulted in Salah dislocating his shoulder. The move hit two flies with one slap, as it essentially did it for Salah’s Ballon d’Or hopes as well. Following the injury and Egypt’s expectedly meek World Cup showing, his golden ball odds tanked and, in the final rankings, he ultimately finished sixth behind Griezmann and Mbappé, both of whom had seen quite underwhelming seasons with their respective clubs. Hence, also, the French were destined to be overlooked for the Ballon d’Or.
This meant that the only real contenders for the Ballon d’Or at that point were Ronaldo and Modric. Even though Messi would go on to play an almost parodically pivotal role in Barca’s system, scoring the most goals in 2018, with more goals, assists, key passes, chances created, successful dribbles, and free-kicks converted than anyone else throughout the 2017–18 season, Barcelona’s humiliating exit from the Champions League and Argentina’s meandering World Cup run would ruin his chances.
Initially, Ronaldo looked set to follow up previous year’s Ballon d’Or with a record sixth award. He kicked off the World Cup with a five-star spectacle against Spain and, versus Morocco, scored a lone strike so good the New York Times dedicated a whole article to it alongside Toni Kroos’ free kick for Germany. A decoy step back, a quick jink, to lose his marker had left the defender flummoxed on a set piece. Even Donald Trump got on the bandwagon, telling Portuguese President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa that, “they say [Ronaldo] is the greatest ever”. Talk about making waves. Ronaldo posed a constant threat on the pitch, he looked unbeatable, he was pure box office in the form of hegemonic masculinity.
That was about as good as it got, though. A clear turning point to Ronaldo’s eventual downfall in the tournament was the moment when he saw his penalty saved by Iran’s Alireza Beiranvand in the last group-stage match, even though he tried to surprise the goalkeeper by shooting the penalty to his right, instead of his evidently near-unfailing left.
As I already pointed out back in 2018, the penalty miss had far-reaching repercussions. First of all, had he scored, he would have equalled eventual Golden-Boot winner Harry Kane’s goal tally at that point. Now, following the dismal tie with Iran, Portugal were drawn to face Uruguay in the last 16 instead of a more familiar opponent, Russia. (From the 2017 Confederations Cup, Portugal would have already gained experience how to win against the hosts, having beaten them 1–0 through a Ronaldo header in the group stages.)
Minor underdogs, Uruguay were perhaps the most difficult opponent for Seleção, and by getting an early goal, they managed to shut the wicket, forcing the Portuguese to pass the ball outside of their shape. “Ronaldo desperately tried to invent something out of nothing but failed to breach Uruguay’s gritty defense, outnumbered and man-marked time after time,” I wrote two years ago and added, “Uruguay’s low block reduced Portugal’s opportunities to utilize that surprisingly blistering pace of his. Hence Portugal crashed out. 1–2.”
By comparison, Croatia had a seemingly easy path to the semi-finals. After waltzing past Nigeria, Iceland, and a limping Argentina, they only had to knock out Denmark and Russia, neither of whom were heavyweights in any sense. Croatia defeated both of these teams on penalties and, as we know, theoretically, teams start shootouts with equal odds of winning. Had Croatia lost to one of them, Modric probably would have not fancied his chances of winning his first (and only) Ballon d’Or. Especially when one considers that—while he had played exceptionally in his first three games—he seemed sluggish and off form against Denmark, which was only further emphasized by his late penalty miss before the end of extra-time. If this miss would have cost Croatia the game, it would have entirely altered the way Modric’s performances are looked back on, and probably altered the fate of the Ballon d’Or. Rather than a stream of plaudits, there would have been a fair amount of denigration.
Here, it must be pointed out that Modric regained his form in the next couple of rounds, against Russia and England; Alfredo Di Stéfano himself reincarnated as the diminutive Croatian. He was the oxygen of every promising invasion of Russia’s defensive third, dictating the game, caressing the ball, with Russia struggling to get anywhere near him. Even when he reprised his role as the virtuosic architect, his very passes were laced with information for his teammates.
In Russia, he really picked up where he left off in the Champions League final.
Modric’s relative success in the World Cup must be seen as the main reason for his Ballon d’Or victory. But, there’s always a but. Even though there could be a case made for saying that Croatia’s run to the final was the greatest international upset of the past decade, freak events of the tournament ensured that none of the teams that Croatia defeated, failed, not even England. Croatia were favourites to win in each of their World Cup matches, with the only exception being the final versus France.
Another fact that worked in Modric’s favour was that Ronaldo did, in Ben Hayward’s words, “little in Champions League semis or final, and […] in La Liga in which he was poor for half the season.”
There’s two things I’d like to point out here. First of all, Ronaldo finished the CL season as the top scorer, netting 15 goals as Real retained their Champions League title. Fifteen. Despite going goalless in his last three games, he outscored PSG and Juventus combined, 6–5, in the first two rounds of the knockout stage.
Now, here comes the interesting part. Few remember that, against Bayern, Ronaldo had a goal disallowed for an apparent handball. He heavily criticized the call and, indeed, it would have probably been dubious enough for VAR to intervene had it been around then. He also had a big opportunity to score Real’s fourth, cosmetic strike in the final when he broke through on goal in the 93rd minute. The chance, however, was ruined absurdly by a pitch invader. Would the journalists have been less dismissive of his performances if he had scored at least one goal from these efforts?
Secondly, Ronaldo’s below par start to the season technically shouldn’t have affected journalists’ decision-making, since the Ballon d’Or was and is there to honour the player deemed to have performed the best over the previous calendar year.
After Modric was named the winner of The Best FIFA Men’s Player award, Miguel Delaney of The Independent was filled with opinionated praise for the Croatian, commenting that, “[Modric winning the Ballon d’Or] is refreshing for a few reasons, and not just the change of name. It is because it is evidently no longer about the name. Although Ronaldo and Messi have clearly been the two best players on the planet in all of that time as regards talent, it didn’t always logically follow they were always the most deserving of such awards in terms of maximising that talent, or translating it into team overachievement.” This was three months after he had echoed the same sentiments on Twitter: “Both Messi and Ronaldo have won B D’O when they shouldn’t have because of who they are. It’s a nonsense.”
Just the fact that Messi finished fifth in the Ballon d’Or voting that year alone is enough to imply that perhaps voters returned their ballots while unconsciously on the lookout for someone to break the duopoly. This was apparent at the World Cup as well, where for many, many journalists and members of the public, Messi and Ronaldo exiting the major tournament early on was a relief, more than anything else. Even Evening Standard argued that, “there was […] a sense this year that it had been decided that there was time for a change [..]. there was a feeling almost of apathy.” Suffice to say that Modric unknowingly piggybacked—not only on his own achievements—but on Wesley Sneijder’s, Andrés Iniesta’s, and Franck Ribery’s trophy-laden, once-in-a-lifetime years of 2010, 2012, and 2013, respectively. For voters, justice was about to be served.
We didn’t need France Football apologizing to Andrés Iniesta and wishing him luck for the World Cup to put two and two together.
Beyond voter fatigue and Ronaldo’s disappointing trajectories in that year’s major tournaments, another factor boosting Modric’s Ballon d’Or chances was Ronaldo’s transfer palooza from Real. The latter’s decision to move to Italy—CR7 2018–19—was seen somewhat reminiscent of Diego Maradona 1992–93, Wayne Gretzky 1996, Michael Jordan 2001–02, and of Michael Schumacher 2010. Leaving Madrid simply meant giving up on substantial support at an organizational level. It is evident that the club’s media machine is possibly the most influential of all, and the transfer meant that Modric, not Ronaldo, benefitted directly from Madrid’s vast fanbase and canny public relations.
Praising his client, Ronaldo’s all-powerful agent Jorge Mendes said in December 2019, “Cristiano deserved to win the Ballon d’Or at least once in the last two years. If he had played at Real Madrid, he would have won it.” (To ease the frustration, Mendes annually awards Ronaldo with the Globe Soccer Award for Best Player of the Year, circumstantial evidence suggests.)
Lest we forget that the voting season also coincided with serious rape allegations aimed at Ronaldo, due to which at least one voter snubbed him completely. “It’s hard to vote for a rapist,” they would later comment on Twitter.
All in all I’d contend that the supposed integrity and prestige of Ballon d’Or is a laughing stock among many involved with the sport. It’s broken. Nonetheless, despite its numerous structural flaws—there are plenty—it does hold significant (marketing) value. Hence, Modric will always be memorialized, especially by today’s children, for being the one to break the duopoly and rightly so.
It’s hardly his fault for taking advantage of the fleeting situation surrounding him and doing something other generational talents such as Xavi, Iniesta, and Neymar could not and probably will not. The weight of this feat can hardly be exaggerated.
The amount of luck and genuinely magnificent skill Modric needed to come out on top says as much about him as it says about Messi and Ronaldo and the public perception of those players. 2018 was a reminder writ large that both of their receptions are paradoxical. Even though their comfort zones are constantly pivoting, even though they’re the main points of discussions after nearly every game, they were taken for granted, especially in that year, for they made the extraordinary look easy and mundane.
Everyone expected them to perform at five stars every week and when they didn’t, time was ripe for another winner. In a position of make or break it, Modric was there to pick up the pieces. When Virgil van Dijk arrived one year later, there weren’t any left. Nevermore.