Luka Modrić The Innocent Who Rules
With the postponement of EURO 2020, he might have led a Croatian crusade for the last time in his prime on the Russian soil, but the greatest stage of all did justice to a previously unsung hero of the globe's favourite game. The moment Luka Modrić scored his magnificent goal against Argentina on June 21, 2018, the world opened up its eyes and started to appreciate his skills, vision and working pace. By acclaiming a player who hints about the most important questions modern science faces through the universal language of football, the world can flatter itself to be as brightly shining as the ideas and concepts he tells us about.
Luka Modrić is among football’s greats. His greatness could not be denied even if he was not the one who officially broke the Messi-Ronaldo hegemony – but he is. His place amongst the greatest was established for good when – after sweeping all the individual awards of that entire year – he was handed the Balon d’Or under the splendid glass dome of Paris’ Grand Palais.
The sorcerer of Croatia left his mark by bringing a new genre into football after Cristiano Ronaldo’s epic deeds, Messi’s lyric captivation with the ball, Ramos’ dramatic headers, Ronaldinho’s lighthearted cartoon figure, Zidane’s tragic final acts, the real Ronaldo’s tales of wizardry, Maradona’s magical realism and Pelé’s old myth. The sci-fi of Modrić affirms the belief that the only reason football has not mapped the whole of human culture into itself is because it had a hundred times less time to do so.
Modrić’s role on the pitch is as elusive when we try to define it by well-known positions as the player himself when he dances through three midfielders eager to tackle him at any cost. He uniquely mixes elements of the game, from waiting with steady nerves for the sole moment to steal a ball at his own box to playing an elegant key pass with the outside of his foot fifty meters further up the pitch.
His effect on a match is hard to trace, it is rather to be measured by his absence. Since he joined Real Madrid they won the Champions League more often than not, and failures came exclusively when deprived of his genuine presence. In the debutant season, he was not consistently featured in the starting line-up, in his third one he was injured during the knock-out stage, and during the last real season (let’s quickly forget that COVID-blasted version — the best teams of Europe competing for lifting the Coupe des Clubs Champions Européens is, although necessary, not sufficient for a tournament to be called Champions League) he played scarcely as being devastated by his World Cup campaign. But when the humble little genius was truly on the pitch, Europe’s top teams were left powerless four times out of four in the stretch of five years.
As such Modrić outstandingly symbolizes the science of our age, which – according to the minds behind Liverpool’s triumph as well – does not expect the biggest breakthroughs from improving highly specialized fields even further, but from interlacing seemingly far-flung theories in bold new ways. These efforts are virtually impossible to be assessed on their own, but one thing is clear: any society will be left poorer on both an intellectual and a material level without modern science – even if it keeps up with technological developments somehow.
Let’s take a look at neuroscientist Karl Friston’s example. He is a reliable professional developing neuroimaging techniques since the ’90s, whose work provided insight into mechanics of the human brain that were inaccessible before, hence facilitating numerous new discoveries. His work made him reasonably rich and acknowledged, but in his eyes, that’s just a way of putting bread on the table, his magnum opus is something different.
He has a theory that relies on free energy, a notion introduced by Helmholtz in the golden age of thermodynamics. He abstracts and develops further this purely physical quantity to explain every characteristic of life with a single governing principle, from cell cycles to human behaviour to the blind stumbling of evolution.
Although nobody has been able to provide irrefutable proof of his theory nor produce something based on it yet, it still is what gifts him the proud boyish smile he can not hide, until he realizes that he does not even want to, so he lets it flow over him. His enormous contribution to the development of laboratories does not affect him nearly that much, just as Modrić replies with forced kindness to any question that fails to comprehend the full complexity of his artistry on the pitch. He would discuss those elevating topics with the same sincere joy that fills him when touching a ball with his foot even if he does it for the millionth time, just as Friston enjoys repeating the explanation of his theory whenever asked to.
Every ex-player talking to their audience – whether it be their own glass of beer or millions of spectators having a beer – will certainly not fail to point out two things: Modrić is the brain and heart of his teams, and he has the heart of a lion.
In Friston’s theory, the important role of the heart in all kinds of species follows from the fact that life is forced into cycles. The reason for this is that any lifeform is viable in only relatively few states out of all possible states of its parts. Hence, if it aims to keep on living for longer times, it’s bound to walk around this tiny viable region intendedly as many times and as predictably and regularly as it can. The appearance of the organ called heart is the manifestation of this intention in higher-order species, as is the appearance of steady midfielders with infallible, rhythmic passing ability in well-organized football teams.
Of course, in any unifying theory, the brain also needs to be a realization of a general and necessary function in the special case of homo sapiens. What is this function? The environment of any cell, organ, or organism does not even need to be hostile to pose a threat to it. The viable region is tiny, thus every blind poke or random action moves the system toward a non-viable direction. Life has to be prepared, so it needs to figure out what surrounds it. In any case, there will be unexpected events, surprises, which therefore jeopardize life functions.
The organizing principle of life, according to Friston, is precisely to minimize these surprises. This is the free energy principle, the minimization of the math-formulated surprise, the free energy. To put it another way: I aim to have the behavior of the world to be as close to what I expect from it as possible. There are two ways to get there: keep on improving your models of the world, or make sure your prophecies get fulfilled. At our human level, we call these thinking or learning, and moving or acting. So the brain does not only perceive the signals of the sensory organs and upgrade its concepts about the world, but, if capable, it also brings the world closer to that image by slicing bread or saying a word.
Through this modern theory about the inseparably two-fold role of the brain, one can see that it is not the analyzing, data collecting, goal assigning, task coordinating, order dictating role of a manager, or a coach that describes the brain. It might refer to the deeper and more obscure notion of ‘mind’. The brain is out there, on the pitch, constantly evaluating and reconceptualizing its understanding of the world around, and it influences the surrounding system's behaviour according to its own thought through the ball. Thus the brain is Modrić.
Brain and heart. Any written civilization considered one of them the ruler of the body. Why is it not obvious to everybody then that it is the diminutive Croatian number 10, who should be taken out of the game? At first sight, this does not even seem to be impossible, since he is not made of some kind of unearthly matter like Maradona, who decided a quarterfinal and a semifinal of a World Cup on his own, and after these – as soon as his marker, Lothar Matthäus removed his elbow from Diego’s lungs for the first time during the final in the 84th minute – he carved out a decisive assist from his own half.
Modrić is intangible, too, though not this way, physically, but due to his role. He has such a circuitous impact on the match, that it can not be restrained, because the many steps between him and the scoreboard always provide him with a leeway to impose his will. The genius of interception, N’golo Kanté is similar: he played a particularly poor match in the World Cup final, but this was not the achievement of the Croatian team, it was him who simply had a bad day. The difference between them is that while Kanté only inhibits an area and the consequences of this inhibition shape the match, Modrić is wide-ranging impact personified.
Wide-ranging impact however not always requires superior sophistication: Coronavirus can halt the incomprehensibly complex modern societies of the most intelligent race in the history of this planet while being so simple, that not even considered to be alive. But this is exactly what makes viruses such a lethal enemy: they don’t play by the same rules. Living cells of ours are orchestrated to specific functions and modest reproduction. Contrarily, coronavirus is merely a jumble of proteins and genetic material with one purpose. And it’s not even reproduction, which makes cancer still a living thing.
They deceive proper, functioning cells to – instead of themselves – reproduce the germ, and when populating vastly, they fool the immune system to turn against still uncontaminated cells. Not living anyhow, they don’t need to be aware of their own free-energy when confusing and inflaming everything around them. Hybrid warfares always give underdogs chances their enemies could never afford.
But football typifies clashes much more prevalent in nature and history, ones where both sides are obliged by similar conditions. For football teams, there is but one thing that ensures survival: winning. If you don’t win, the dressing room falls apart during the season, and the team disperses when it ends. The same holds for the opponent, yielding a purified evolutionary setting: the fitter wins, and the winner stays alive.
The entity that is the football team has nothing more to do than to prove itself to be fitter, i.e. in the spirit of the free energy principle, to be taken by less surprise. One way of doing this is to diminish your surprise by thoroughly understanding the match and acting accordingly. But there is another way: to dazzle the opponent by unforeseen moves.
Of course, the combination of the two is more effective, this is why evolution drives life to the thin edge between the dead monotony of a checkered booklet and the confused crackling of a radio. This is what we term ‘being complex’, and what is enforced by the conflict of likewise, lifelike counterparts.
This is where all squads of eleven players must reside if they are to be successful. Modrić is unique in the sense that in one single man he incorporates the order that emits chaos. He is reliable yet unpredictable.
The cruelest Darwinian rule is exposed in any race condition: even the smallest of differences can separate survival from death, invasion from extinction, victory from defeat. In the 2017 UEFA Champions League final, a lost ball flies off to the opponent’s defense far over Modrić’s head. Instead of raging about it, he looks around to see to whom the defender is going to send the ball, and he charges the expected receiver way before the header is on its way. He leaves the intercepted ball for his teammate, senses that the defender’s attention is dividing, and starts off. He glances quickly towards the box, makes a twenty-five-meter sprint, catches the pass fifty centimeters before the line. Having perfectly interpolated every unseen movement of three world-class defenders, he places the ball right to the foot of the explosively arriving Ronaldo.
That’s it, that was a knife-edge historical final followed by half a billion spectators. Modrić thinks just one more step ahead, he exploits the surprise and the dazzled opponent is brought down right away.
Modrić defies time as well. He is often likened to Andrés Iniesta, who outrageously finished only second in the 2010 Balon d’Or vote, drawing a parallel between their short stature, skillful play and amicable manner. Yet the Spanish professor was putting a gently elongated end to his career in Japan the same year when the one year older Croatian led his country to the final of the World Cup and reached the peak of the football world.
Despite the enormous physical requirements of the game, burning out seems to be a psychological matter. Iniesta was worn down more by the mental burden of Champions League matches from the beginning of his twenties, than Modrić was by the butchery of the Bosnian and Croatian leagues, where each team brought all their anger from the Yugoslavian war onto the pitch.
But the apostle of the eternal kindergarten hairstyle is ageless in another sense, too. Like good sci-fi, he teaches us not only about the newest but also the oldest science.
Epicurus lectured his students – might they be women or slaves – on mild delights and the atomic structure of the world, walking around his ancient Athenian garden filled with refreshing winds from the sea. He claimed that atoms moving in the infinite, empty space could connect with each other in countless ways, and the variety flourishing out of this endless potential was what gives the true value of everything, not the constant repetition of the same things.
The old philosopher would be satisfied to see that instead of celebrating, as is customary, scoring machines mass-producing goals at the highest frequency, the world praises a guy coming from a goat farm in a heavily bombed war zone who reminds us that – as in Albert Einstein’s paradigm that changed the world – time and space exist inseparably just by using so diversely the freedom of the vast space between the midfield and the net of the goal.
The wise, who believed that human ignorance and our misguided choices come from the fear of gods and afterlife, would have been fond of the overtime of the semi-final in Moscow. The exhausted Modrić, after making a horrific technical mistake and having chased down and cleared the speedy counterattack, only a few minutes later trusts again fully his fatigued legs and performs an excellent trademark pass with the outside of his foot right to his teammate. The ball is the life of the football player, losing it is a tiny death, but Luka Modrić is not ignorant to let that fear overwhelm him, once he knows what he has to do.
The divine powers of modern football, such as sponsors and customers hunger for easy-to-adore poster-boys are not easily accustomed to Modrić’s low marketable face. There was however no sign of fear from the wrath of those gods in his dismissive wave or his indulgent smile caught on camera while getting his tuxedo ready before the gala that made him a global superstar.
Unlike the rest of the greatest players, Modrić will not have the legend in what every dreaming kid immerses so deeply that some aspects become part of him. Mainly because his character is not the type that stills as an icon for half a century. But those few who grow up with him in mind will be ready for the 21st century, as our era is going to be all about the concept of intelligence and the only way to keep our sanity is the light intellectual ease of Epicurean ataraxia.