In tribute to Luka Modric at Euro 2020
Yesterday, at age 35, Croatian Luka Modric, after having played a mostly defensive midfielder’s role against England and the Czech Republic, as his team seemed to need then, returned to the classic number 10 role of offensive playmaking-midfielder as his team required a multiple-goal win to progress in Euro 2020. The modification was all Croatia needed to beat Scotland at Hampden Park, Glasgow in their final Group D match.
Modric’s pedigree and style of play
The Croatian, was the 2017 FIFA Club World Cup Golden Ball winner for best player in the competition at age 32, received the 2018 World Cup Golden Ball for the best player at that tourney, then went on to win the UEFA Men’s Player of the Year Award, and finished his trophy haul with the Best FIFA Men’s Player Award and that year’s Ballon d’Or as the universally acclaimed best soccer player on the planet at 33 years of age. He did this at the age at which most midfielder’s careers conclude and during the Lionel Messi-Cristiano Ronaldo-Neymar-Kilyan Mbappe era.
Modric has always been the motor of whatever team he plays on, from Real Madrid to the Croatian National Team. He can set the tempo at which his team moves, control possession, begin an offensive foray, or disrupt an opponent’s attack, sometimes seemingly at will. In a tough loss to England and a tougher unfortunate draw with the Czech Republic, Modric ran himself ragged playing defense, then picking up the ball deep in his defensive zone and willing his team forward toward offense—a sixty-yard long, fifty-plus-yard wide playing area he inhabited comprehensively.
Throughout each match, his classy play was a wonder to behold in and of itself, the match around him a secondary backdrop to his artistry. His ability to make the complex simple, to take the urgency out of every situation, dribble or pass, to find the space and time to reach the open man or change the front of attack or defense at will, with pin-point passes from either leg, is a thing to behold.
Modric’s role and trivela in the Croatia v Scotland match
Yesterday, playing a team Croatia had never beaten in five previous encounters, Modric disrupted myriad Scottish attacks, settled disputed real estate with deft control and simple passes that secured possession or opened spaces for attack, set up countless offensive plays when near goal, scored the game’s winning goal (62nd minute) and set up the third and final score (Ivan Perisic’s header off Modric’s corner kick), the group-progressing, clinching score.
The goal he scored, from about the middle of the Scottish half-moon, some twenty yards out, was a right-footed, three-finger kick done with the outside of the foot, known by its Portuguese name trivela.
Anyone who has seen Modric play knows his ability with this type of kick as he uses the technique in many match situations not usually to shoot at goal but to curl the ball around an opponent and send the sphere neatly to the feet of a teammate. The spin the ball produces with such a kick, done with the three toes on the outside of the foot, is dependent upon the strength of the strike and the amount of time the foot spends making contact with the ball. That time of contact is what allows the ball to move forward a few or several yards outward before spinning back inward. It is a difficult skill, one few players use in today’s football, one that is often remarked upon long after it is performed well for its ability to conjure up the magicians of our sport.
But the thing about the trivela—remember Roberto Carlos’ historic free-kick goal against France on June 3, 1997?—is that you have to hit it just right to achieve both the distance and speed you want (to reach the goal with the velocity necessary to beat the goalkeeper) and the swerve necessary to both avoid obstacles and control the endpoint—the flight path from boot to net.
At a long distance (Carlos was 35 yards away from the French goal), the ball must be struck very hard, and the contact must be prolonged as if striking a topspin tennis shot. At a much shorter distance, the ball must be struck quickly, almost a punch-like motion as a table-tennis player might use to slam the ball down from a couple of yards away from its intended target.
Navigating a medium-distance, say 20 yards, during the run of play, with intervening moving obstacles, such as players jumping toward the ball or kicker to block the shot, and placing the ball past an alert keeper, is the hardest trivela to maneuver as the kick must move fast enough to elude the blockers, wide enough to elude the keeper’s reach, and then come in toward goal to ensure it hits the target.
Luka Modric has signed a one-year contract extension with Real Madrid that will see him at the club until June 30, 2022. This tourney may well be his last for Croatia and next season perhaps his last as a footballer. If you can, watch him play as many of those remaining games as possible. He personifies the best of our sport as a performer, leader, and example.