Luka Modric is set for one more World Cup campaign and one last chance to drive Croatia to the title.
The 37-year-old midfielder will lead Croatia when the team plays its Group F opener against Morocco on Wednesday, a hurdle that the 2018 runner-up is expected to clear before facing Canada and then second-ranked Belgium and Kevin de Bruyne.
Four years ago, Modric worked tirelessly and was rewarded with the tournament's best player award as Croatia made it all the way to the final in Russia, where it lost to France 4-2. It's laid similar expectations on a different, younger Croatian squad in Qatar, which hasn't always been helpful, Modric said.
“Whatever we have been through at the World Cup in Russia is an unforgettable memory, an indelible memory," Modric said Tuesday. “But we need to put it to one side for now. This is a new tournament and we have to look at it that way.”
Only five of the players who started the 2018 final are in this Croatia squad after coach Zlatko Dalic's rebuild. The constant is Modric. He is at his fourth World Cup and still central to everything Croatia does. He's arguably more important for his team's chances than Lionel Messi for Argentina and Cristiano Ronaldo for Portugal, who are also chasing their first title at the back end of glittering careers.
But Messi's experience earlier Tuesday, when Argentina lost to Saudi Arabia, has reinforced how dangerous it can be to look too far ahead.
"We are quite cautious and what’s happened today (Argentina's loss) makes us even more cautious," Dalic said.
It'll be an early game against the Moroccans in Al Khor, north of Doha, where the temperature is forecast to push 30 degrees Celsius (86 degrees Fahrenheit) by kickoff. That heat shouldn't be an issue for Croatia against the North Africans, though, thanks to the cooling systems utilized at this year's World Cup stadiums.
The climate in the Moroccan camp has also cooled considerably after a heated feud between former head coach Vahid Halilhodzic and Chelsea forward Hakim Ziyech. It saw Ziyech exiled from the squad last year over what Halilhodzic branded his “unacceptable” attitude.
It threatened to result in Morocco being without one of its best players for the World Cup when it desperately needs all its overseas-based talent. But Halilhodzic was fired despite qualifying Morocco for the World Cup and replaced with Walid Regragui, who immediately recalled Ziyech.
Ziyech scored an astonishing goal from his own half in Morocco’s last warmup before the World Cup.
“I know he's going to do good things at this World Cup,” Morocco captain Romain Saiss said.
Modric and Dalic warned Ziyech wasn't the only top-quality Morocco player, picking out wing back Achraf Hakimi and midfielder Sofiane Boufal as well.
For Morocco, the late coaching switch has made the World Cup possible for Ziyech but maybe made it harder for the team.
Regragui, who has never been an international coach before, was brought in at the end of August, giving him only two full months to put his mark on the team. That may not be enough time to get something special out of Morocco, which has only made it out the group stage once at a World Cup, in 1986.
However, Saudi Arabia has provided inspiration for every underdog at the World Cup, and special inspiration for the Moroccans. Saudi Arabia coach Herve Renard used to be in charge of Morocco.
“It's good to see things being shaken up,” Regragui said. “Football is for everyone.”
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This story was originally published November 22, 2022 5:49 AM.