It has been a funny World Cup for the superstars. Messi performed well and scored a beautiful goal against Nigeria, but Argentina were already on the ropes at the group stages and were dealt a knockout blow by France. Ronaldo had his hat trick against Spain, but went the same way as Messi in the last 16. Neymar made it to the quarter finals, and despite the fact he dominated that match, he will be remembered mostly at this tournament for the 14 minutes of playing time he spent rolling around the ground. These three can count themselves lucky. Despite amazing performances, Toni Kroos didn’t even make it past the group stages with Germany.
So who is the real star of this World Cup? The Twelve Bot has a very clear answer: Luka Modric.
Already in the quarter-finals Modric went past Harry Kane and, unlike the England player, the Croatian gained his points from everywhere on the pitch and by involving himself in all forms of activity: defence, attack and goals.
He, together with Ivan Rakitic, who is second place out of all the players who progressed to the semis, have been driving Croatia from the start.
What is perhaps most impressive about Modric and Rakitic is how they have adopted different roles than they usually play at their club. Both Real Madrid (Modric’s team) and Barcelona (where Rakitic plays) dominate matches more than Croatia have been able to do, allowing the two midfielders to get further forward. For example, Modric’s Champions League winning campaign saw him contributing shorter, penetrating passes to Benzema and Ronaldo.
It is this willingness to adapt that is the reason Croatia are in the World Cup final, while Messi, Kroos, Ronaldo and Neymar have all gone home.
In this context, we have to mention Paul Pogba. The Frenchman has attracted comparatively little praise this campaign, but he is vastly under-appreciated when playing for his national team. He is ranked 9th overall of the players involved in the semi-finals, and highest amongst the players who have not scored a goal.
The only explanation for this neglect is this last fact: that Pogba hasn’t scored. This is vastly unfair, he has had an absolutely outstanding campaign.
To see why, it is worth contrasting Pogba with his teammate, Mbappe, who has impressed with his dribbling and goals.
Mbappe is clearly a world class player, and could well be the heralded next Messi or Ronaldo, but it is here that statistics can lift out what is really important if a team wants to win the World Cup. Pogba has worked hard in defence and in building up his team’s chances. Mbappe was amazing against Argentina, but hasn’t had that many really good chances in other matches.
While Modric and Rakitic have accepted that their attacking roles should change because of Croatia’s limitations in attack, the converse is true for Pogba. He has built up from the back because his team already has amazing attacking flair.
It may be a slightly romantic viewpoint, but this ideal of sacrificing individual glory for the national team, is what World Cup players should aspire too. On this basis Modric, Raktic and Pogba would all be worthy winners of the golden ball.
And if Pogba does score one of his charismatic goals in the final, then it could just be him who takes the prize home. If not, Luka Modric will be a worthy winner.