Croatia's cruel blow leaves Modric's international future uncertain

Luka Modric applauds the Croatia fans after the draw with Italy
Luka Modric has played in five Euros and also appeared at four World Cups [Getty Images]

In more than two decades as a professional footballer, Luka Modric has experienced it all.

He has enjoyed the sport's highs and suffered its lows, and he felt both of those against Italy in Leipzig on Monday night.

When Croatia needed him most, the 38-year-old stepped up, recovering quickly from the disappointment of seeing a penalty saved to put his side ahead just moments later.

That goal had them going through to the last 16 of Euro 2024 before, with Modric now off the pitch, Italy broke their hearts with a 98th-minute equaliser that instead sent the defending champions through.

Two points in Group B is unlikely to be enough for Croatia to progress as one of the best third-placed teams, and the look on Modric's face when the full-time whistle was blown suggested he knew it was over.

"I don't know what to tell you, football is sometimes cruel," said Modric.

Given all the mercurial Real Madrid midfielder has done on the football pitch over the years, it left those watching fearing it could be the last time they see him at an international tournament.

"It is hard to watch as we're wondering is this Luka Modric's last game for Croatia?" former England and Manchester United striker Wayne Rooney said on BBC One.

"It is hard to take and he has been such a great player."

Ex-England and Manchester City defender Micah Richards added: "He has everything that you want from your midfielder - character, skill, flare, all the words for him.

"It's a sad day for him because it looks like he was going to be the hero and now it’s all gone away."

Modric's international swansong or more to come?

Modric turns 39 in September, so would be in his 40s by the time 2026 World Cup comes round.

It is rare for an outfield player to continue at that age, but while he became the oldest goal scorer at a Euros, he is not the oldest player at this tournament.

Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo is 39 but he is trumped by his international team-mate Pepe, who is 41.

The question is whether such a cruel end to his time at this tournament extinguishes his desire to continue to play at his level, or ignites it.

"I'd like to keep playing forever but there will probably be a time I'll have to hang up my boots," he said.

"I'll keep playing on, I don't know for how much longer."

But former England and Newcastle striker Alan Shearer fears that Modric may be tempted to call time on his international career.

"Highly likely," Shearer said on BBC One, when asked if it was his last appearance for Croatia.

"What a player, what a guy. You have to feel for him the way it has ended for him and his team."

'Eight minutes additional time is nonsense'

Croatia boss Zlatko Dalic shared his captain's pain at how the game ended.

His side were poor against Spain, but conceded a 95th-minute equaliser against Albania in their second Group B game, before this latest last-gasp blow.

"It really hurts," said Dalic. "It will still hurt over the coming days and months."

But the 57-year-old questioned the amount of additional time, adding: "You can't have eight minutes of added time after that game.

"It's a nonsense, there weren't too many breaks in play, there weren't too many fouls to justify that."

Once the dust has settled, then the post-mortem will begin on this Croatia side.

For years they have been considered underdogs who have taken on, and beaten, more established teams to reach the World Cup final in 2018 and the semis four years later.

But many of their star players, including Modric, are in the twilight of their careers, leaving questions marks over what this Croatia side could look like by the 2026 World Cup.

But that is a question for another day as Croatia, for now, wait for confirmation of their fate as the remaining group games are played.

"I hold my hands up, I am the one to blame if we haven't made it through," added Dalic.

"I simply want to thank my players for everything they've done, it didn't work out and that's the way it is."