Modric and Kroos are the timeless wonders of Real Madrid
- March 18, 2023
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10:12 a.m. ET
Sid LoweSpanish writer
Luka Modric and Toni Kroos are on the wrong side of 30 but their impressive play keeps expensive young midfielders out of Real Madrid’s starting XI. Diego Souto/Quality Sport Images/Getty Images
Two old men sit on a bench and calmly watch the world go by. They’re tired, their bodies hurt, but it’s okay: they’re happy. You’ve done your bit, done your job here, well-deserved rest. let someone else do it The children play in front of it. A couple since time immemorial, always seen together, practically inseparable, they’ve survived a million fights. So many stories to tell, all these good times. Not that they need to tell them or say a word: they just know. So they sit there in silence. Until Toni and Luka finally get up and go home.
You will be back. Not here, out there.
There’s a lovely photo from Real Madrid’s Champions League win over Liverpool with Toni Kroos and Luka Modric falling onto the bench after just getting undressed, pulling coats over their shirts and watching the final minutes. Kroos has ice strapped around his ankle, his socks are off and he’s donning worn boots – the same model he’s been wearing for a decade, although the manufacturer has stopped making them for others. Next to him, Modric puts his hands on a bottle. He’s slumped and looks blank, like he doesn’t even really see what’s in front of him, like he wouldn’t move if it were up to him. But he will.
Oh he will.
I love this photo https://t.co/VZYROT5kLs
— Sid Lowe (@sidlowe) March 17, 2023
The picture has something almost pure, understated. Something that says, well, football. There’s a quiet dignity in it: the mud, the patches of grass, the almost blank expressions, nothing left, nothing spared. Especially knowing what they just did. Knowing who they are, even more so. It is easy to imagine that the conversation consists of a single exchange:
“That was fine.”
In order? It was bloody brilliant again. The rest is well deserved. It’s short too. The pair is withdrawn, but not until minutes 82 and 84, when passage to the next round is secured. And that’s just a waste of time, Carlo Ancelotti admits, not because he needed it or because they needed it. You are not here to be protected or cared for; They will not hold back or make concessions to age. You are here to play. Like no other can. Like they shouldn’t be able to play anymore, or that’s the way it goes.
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Modric is 37, Kroos is 33. They have played more than 800 Real Madrid games together. Your contracts only have four months left, not much longer. You could stop anytime, walk away, relax towards the end.
Madrid have Federico Valverde, the multi-lung: the Uruguayan international who is among the top three midfielders in the world. The man who said that? Kroos. He never said the other two were him and Modric – he never would – and celebrating Valverde even implied forgetting them, but would he have been so wrong if he had? Madrid also have Dani Ceballos. Aurelien Tchouameni and Eduardo Camavinga were signed at great expense. They’re following Jude Bellingham. All are more than a decade younger.
Your coach speaks – now quite openly – of a change. In fact, it’s something that happened last season, albeit unsaid at the time: those Champions League comebacks were based in part on getting younger players off the bench and the veterans off the field. “Six minutes of quality, 30 minutes of energy,” Ancelotti called it. The debate repeats itself over and over again, and not always without reason: renewal is necessary. Modern football requires something different. It can not go on like this; they can’t go on like this. Ahead of the Liverpool game, the question is asked a bit simplistically, as if they are mutually exclusive terms: experience or energy?
And yet when it comes down to it, another Champions League night – there have been plenty of those – and here they are again. When it comes to Sunday’s Clasico, they likely will be too. In the big games – Clasicos, knockout games, finals – where available, they started well over 90% of games together. The last 14 times they were both available, Ancelotti started them together. Kroos and Modric as always, as if time has stood still.
Unlike them. They were back on Wednesday against Liverpool. And there they dominated, only giving way when it was finished. Every time someone suggests it’s over, they seem to stand up and say, are you sure? So you are younger? So what?
Ahead of them on Sunday, Barcelona’s midfield is likely to include Sergio Busquets and Frenkie de Jong. There will also be Pedri and Gavi. Pedri is 20, Gavi is 18. If you add up their ages, they are still only the same age as Modric. Gavi was 1 year old the day Modric made his Madrid debut; he had just turned three when Kroos did it. As Golden Boy winners seen as the epitome of a style and identity, Gavi and Pedri are often judged by Xavi and Andres Iniesta, the standard response to the best midfielder debate LaLiga has seen. They’ll probably be for their entire careers – wearing some crosses.
Sometimes there is a feeling that Kroos and Modric are not taken into account, even if the comparison could be favorable even as half contemporaries. There was no lack of success and stylistically there is certainly something there. Kroos recently said: “When I think about the next 10, 15 years, I worry. Clubs are looking for players with other profiles. is he fast Is he tall? is he strong And only then do they ask: Can he play that? Ball?” It sounds a lot like what Xavi said.
The game is going elsewhere – at least that’s the fear – but there’s always a place for talent like this, always time for those who seem able to manipulate it. So there they go, quietly, just being better than everyone else. No narrative, no grand statements, no plot, nothing overt. Just great football, week after week. They each asked for a transfer fee of €30m: it’s hard to imagine a pair of signings that offered such value for money. It’s hard to even think about such a couple. But the biggest statement of all – is this the best partnership a midfielder has ever had? – never seems to be said.
That doesn’t mean they’re ignored, unjudged, or overlooked. Everyone’s favourite, Modric has after all won the Ballon d’Or, the monstrosity of leading Croatia to the World Cup final earned him the accolade in what was not even his most outstanding domestic season, so high had he set the bar.
As for Kroos, he’s a very good boy. Yes he is. Yes he is. And yes, that was just an excuse to bring up the best of Toni Kroos facts – that Luis Diaz’s dog is named after him. There can be no greater recognition than having a dog named after him, and yet it sometimes feels like he is rarely included in a conversation where he could be the focus, perhaps a victim of his behavior, his Refusal to engage in the trivia of football. From his own style, the apparent lightness, the calm, the calm. No blood, no thunder, no lightning. Control.
Even its trademark Tor is a pass: it’s just that the receiver is the net.
Put them together and you get what Madrid has. Kroos recently played his 400th game for the club. “Could have gone worse” he tweeted, which felt like a very Toni Kroos thing to tweet. And yes, it could have been. It was a decade of European success unmatched by any other in the modern era, surpassed only by the side from Madrid who won the first five European Cups.
Last season, UEFA released a tweet asking: Modric or Kroos. “AND,” answered Kroos. In February, Modric noted how he keeps hearing that they can’t play together. Oh really? Victorious on Wednesday but exhausted, they will be back four days later. It could be the last Clasico they ever play in LaLiga. Their contracts expire at the end of the season.
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Kroos has said he will retire at Madrid, he’s just not sure when. He’s expected to sign for another year, but it hasn’t been announced yet. “There is a great relationship with the club. Nobody will say anything stupid,” he stressed.
Modric, meanwhile, said ahead of the first leg against Liverpool that he hasn’t spoken to the club yet. “I want to continue,” he admitted. “If they feel I deserve to continue, I would love to do that. Whatever happens, nothing will change my relationship with Madrid, the club of my life. I don’t want anything for free.” At the moment, even those Madrid fans who know a new era must come at some point would do anything to make the transition smooth.
Not least because while they refuse to put up with being leftovers, there is an awareness. Ancelotti noted that he asked patience from the younger players and understanding from the older ones. “They have no ego,” he said. In this photo you can kind of see: two old guys who gave everything.
They won everything: Modric has three leagues and five Champions Leagues. Kroos has three leagues and four Champions Leagues (plus one more with Bayern Munich). They’ve played 873 games, seen the last few minutes of the last of them on the bench, victory assured, ready to get back on the pitch, and in a Clasico at that.
“They don’t play because of what they did,” said Ancelotti. “They play because they deserve it.”