Luka Modric ended the decade-old dominance of Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi when he was crowned the winner of this year’s Ballon d’Or at a lavish presentation ceremony on Monday night.
Juventus and Portugal forward, and five-time recipient of the award, Ronaldo finished second while Atletico Madrid and France forward Antoine Griezmann came third.
Griezmann’s international teammate Kylian Mbappe, who also became the inaugural recipient of the Kopa award for the best under-21 player, came fourth followed by Barcelona and Argentina maestro Lionel Messi, who finished at the fifth spot.
Modric, who is the first Croatian winner of the individual prize, lavished praise on fellow footballers Ronaldo and Messi, describing them as “phenomenal players”, after ending what is the greatest duopoly of all time on the best player of the year award by two athletes in the running to be the greatest of all time.
Fittingly, the Real Madrid midfielder also dedicated his win to all the other players who had missed out in the decade marked by the dominance of Messi and Ronaldo. “Maybe in the past there are some players who could have won the Ballon d’Or like Xavi, Andres Iniesta or [Wesley] Sneijder but people finally now are looking at someone else,” he said.
It has truly been an outstanding year for Modric who won his third successive Champions League in May. The highlight of his international career came in the summer when he took Croatia to their maiden World Cup finals, but came short of victory when they lost to France 4-2. Modric also claimed FIFA’s The Best award in September.
He may be tracing the apogee of sporting glory, but life for Modric was once in stark contrast. At 5, he and his family were forced to flee what was then Yugoslavia when Serbian militants killed his grandfather and burned his home.
The family ended up spending seven years as refugees at a hotel in the village of Zadar, on Croatia’s Dalmatian Coast, a region that would years later supply nearly half of his World Cup finals squad in Moscow. As bombs and grenades rocked the region, Modric found a new affection in playing football at the hotel’s parking lot.
The now 33-year-old, who moved to Real Madrid from Tottenham Hotspur in 2012 at a reported sum of 40 million euros was flanked with criticism in his debut season at the Bernabeu. A poll by newspaper Marca even dubbed him the worst signing of the year.
But things changed for the better when the then coach Jose Mourinho set him up as a deeper midfielder rather than the previous attacking role given to him at the start of the campaign. Modric credited Harry Redknapp as the one who originally suggested the position during the former’s time with Tottenham.
While Modric’s win would remain notable for putting an end to the Ronaldo-Messi run, it is also being celebrated as a departure from a fixation with attacking stats, and rewarding of players who don’t rank quite as high on the coveted goals and assists numbers.
While Ballon D’Or is meant to be an individual award, it is almost always massively influenced by team achievements. This is why Real Madrid’s Champions League win along with Croatia’s second-place finish at the World Cup – where Modric won the Golden Ball as well – was crucial in tilting the favour in the Croat’s favour.
It is safe to say had Croatia not reached deep into the tournament and had Modric not been the best player of the premier international football event, Ronaldo would’ve been favourite to bag another Ballon D’Or based on his Champions League exploits.
Similarly Messi, who fell out of the top three, actually had a strong season individually and domestically for Barcelona. But Barcelona’s quarter-final exit in the Champions League and Argentina being knocked out in the Round of 16 of the World Cup dented Messi’s votes.
Messi and Ronaldo might be far from being done with adding to their Ballon D’Or titles, and who knows maybe there might be a tiebreaker between the duo in the near future as well. However, the field is now more open than it has been since Kaka won the crown in 2007.
If Ronaldo’s move to Juventus brings the desired result for the Italian giants and they win the Champions League, the Portuguese could get his hands back on the Ballon D’Or. The same would be true for Messi and Barcelona, with both the football superstars expected to win their respective domestic league titles.
However, right now it is all about Luka Modric and his rise to becoming the best football player in the world. And his win has increased the length of the queue of football superstars looking to place their name alongside the winners of the Ballon D’or in the near future.