Stop the tape and you still can’t see the pass. But then you’re not Luka Modric, Real Madrid’s veteran midfield maestro, and nor is anyone else.
Press pause, and it isn’t really possible. Modric stands outside the penalty area, on the edge of the D. Rodrygo is just to the right of him, but that’s not the ball he wants to play … although he lets the defence think it is. It’s Karim Benzema he’s trying to reach. The trouble is, there are six blue shirts between him and his destination; a seventh nearby, too. Have a good look, trace a line with your finger. Take your time. Nah, can’t see it.
Press play again. Oh, there it is. Through Presnel Kimpembe’s legs. In the middle of all that, when you can’t ask everyone if they wouldn’t mind just standing still for a minute while you work this out, when all around people are losing their heads, Modric saw the pass and played it. And then: pandemonium. With one flick of the foot, he had taken out seven men.
Modric had done that before, too. Nine seconds before.
Freeze the frame and it’s hard enough. Now imagine doing that in real-time, having just run 80 yards. Because it’s not just the last pass – it’s the first pass too. It’s everything.
Real Madrid’s second goal on Wednesday started with Modric winning the ball just outside his own team’s penalty area, and it ended with him passing it on from just outside Paris Saint-Germain’s. There’s something cartoonish about the scene as he sets off, dashing between Neymar and Lionel Messi, leaving them behind first. Like this is a race and they’re the starting gate, everyone running in the same direction. There are four blue shirts on Modric trying to keep up, another just behind and two more fractionally to his left. It’s 7-on-1, and none of them can catch him.
Modric knows this means that someone, somewhere, is on his own. It’s just math. He releases Vinicius Junior to the left, everyone drawn to him is now bypassed. The ball goes through Presnel Kimpembe, legs open, and Madrid are away.
Vinicius runs and Modric does too, ready to join in again. Forty metres, 50 metres, 60 metres. When the Brazilian puts on the brakes, surrounded by PSG’s rapidly retreating players, defensive positions were taken up again, he returns it to Modric.
Poor Kimpembe; it’s happening again. Poor Achraf Hakimi, playing Benzema onside. Madrid’s No. 9 is standing alone. But still, that ball shouldn’t be getting through there to him.
Commentating the game for British television, Glenn Hoddle sums it up nicely, the awe expressed in the simplicity of what he says: “That was great, wannit?” Then he adds: “That nutmeg pass is absolutely beautiful.”
Hoddle knows a thing or two about passes, and about running with the ball: He understands vision, touch, genius. While you’re spending the day watching Modric videos on YouTube – and what better way to spend it, although maybe turn the volume down — take a little detour to look some of them up. Put it this way: The day former Tottenham Hotspur player Ossie Ardiles wanted to underline how good he thought Modric was, he could come up with no better way than likening him to his ex-Spurs teammate Hoddle.
That was 11 years ago, which brings us to the other thing. Luka Modric is 36. Not long ago you wondered if it was over, which was natural; time was against him. Except that time is always on Modric’s side, bent to his will.
Madrid weren’t sure he would, or should, continue when his contract ran out in 2021. He could have felt the same with nothing left to prove: Ballon d’Or won, three consecutive Champions Leagues, too, football completed. It was time to rejuvenate the team.
But he was so good that it was a no-brainer. Madrid had to ensure that he continued, with any succession plans put on hold. There had been no fuss, no noise and no whining about getting only a one-year deal, just the performances that would see him get offered another one, all in good time. On Wednesday, it wasn’t just that pass, which might not even be your favourite moment. Maybe the slide tackle on Messi is a moment that says something as well. For all the class – there is a competitor, too.
One first-division player admits to really crashing into him in an attempt to put him off his game. Modric didn’t even flinch. Look at his calves, like a pair of cannonballs inside his skin.
There have been discussions, internally and externally, about how to manage him; a suggestion that he should be rotated, rested and protected, used in small doses. He didn’t agree – he just wanted to play. So what if he was older? He was better off with continuity, and he was having too much fun to sit out.
As was everyone else: There is a generosity about Modric, an effort, and he is all about the collective, the game itself: Admirably lacking in ego, he is a man who, in Jorge Valdano’s words, “never allows himself a single act of demagoguery,” and “doesn’t feel the pull of populism.”
Valdano says: “He doesn’t do impossible things. When he plays a pass, you see it and think: ‘That’s what I would have done.’
” Yeah, afterward. Once he has shown us. And that ball on Wednesday was the perfect example. Valdano adds: “And we should not believe that [that’s the pass I would have done]. In fact, what Modric does, only Modric does. When the ball passes by his feet, the play flows like it was the easiest thing in the world.”
Modric said in January: “I’m enjoying it like never before. I always have, but now more than ever because you never know how long you’re going to last at this level. I’m doing all I can to continue like this a few years more.” That level was as good as ever — better maybe – so they let him get on with it, game after game, left to do what he does.
There was a neat line lately when Carlo Ancelotti said that Casemiro, Toni Kroos and Modric surprise him, that they move intuitively. That they just know. They don’t need telling. “They do things I don’t ask of them,” the coach said – and that was a good thing.
“Madrid fans can relax: I’m not going to interfere,” he said. They could relax, aye: Another extension is now being prepared for Modric, taking him to 37 and maybe beyond.
“I have maybe two, three more years of good football in me,” he said 18 months ago, which sounded bold then and conservative now. “What level, we’ll see, but I think I still can give a lot, because I take care of myself, I still work hard, I still have the desire to do big things, and as long as I have that feeling in me, why not continue playing?”
And please do!
In the end, it’s about how you feel. And for all the footage of Modric on the pitch on Wednesday, for all the things he did — 69 passes, 100 dribbles, that spell when suddenly Madrid smelled blood and he was everywhere, driving them on — for all that you can marvel over him finding a way through that you can’t even see with the tape paused, maybe the best moments came as he left the pitch after his side had eliminated PSG 3-1 from the Champions League.
When he hugs Ancelotti, the manager’s eyes close and a big, gentle, blissful smile covers his face. He holds Modric tight as he would happily never let go. The look is … well, it’s love.
And then comes that tour of his team, that journey inside. You might have seen this by now, but it’s worth watching again, and again and again. Reach the end, and it’s impossible not to be moved by it, a video that speaks volumes and explains so much.
Modric heads into the tunnel shouting, bounding like a little kid. He leaps onto David Alaba. He slaps Eder Militao on the back. He embraces Vinicius, heads touching, eyes meeting. He tells Rodrygo: “F—ing brilliant; it has to be like this always.” “Kroos!” he shouts. “It doesn’t hurt; it doesn’t hurt at all!” he tells Nacho, whose every muscle screams. He kisses Dani Carvajal’s head.
He goes around the whole dressing room, approaching them all. In the back, the staff await – kit men, staff and physios.
“Luki!” they shout and leap about. “Amazing!” he shouts at Federico Valverde in English. He finds Benzema again and hugs him. And then, at last, he sits, slumping onto the bench, and puts his head in his hands, covering his face, exhausted.
“Así,” he says, This.
Note: This article is written by Sid Lowe and has been published at ESPN FC