Watching the pair of midfielders, it was hard to tell who was the 20-year-old newcomer to Spain’s biggest match and who, at 38 and wearing the captain’s armband, had just made his 500th appearance for Madrid.
Only 14 other players have achieved that milestone; a list that includes legends such as Raul, Iker Casillas and Roberto Carlos. There was a nice symmetry in Modric’s 500th game being against Barcelona — he made his Madrid debut against them in the Supercopa de Espana in August 2012 when he also won his first piece of silverware for the club.
Eleven years on and with 23 trophies to his name — as well as the 2018 Ballon d’Or — Modric’s move to Madrid from Tottenham Hotspur must be considered among the best business done by the Spanish side. Real’s manager back then was Jose Mourinho, who insisted on signing the Croatian midfielder.
“I am proud to be the one that fought to have Modric at Real Madrid,” the now-Roma boss Mourinho tells The Athletic. “In his first match, he won his first medal, the Spanish Super Cup against FC Barcelona in 2012. Eleven years later, 500 matches and medals, medals, medals. Congrats, Luka!”
To mark the occasion of his 500th match for Madrid, The Athletic spoke to some of the coaches and players who know him best. Here are their reflections on his achievements (so far) — their messages to Modric.
Ivan Rakitic: “Our friendship goes beyond a rivalry”
Rakitic is close friends with Modric and made 84 appearances alongside him for Croatia, with the pair guiding their country to the 2018 World Cup final, where they lost 4-2 against France. The 35-year-old Sevilla midfielder has also played 25 times against Modric — including 15 times for Barcelona. He retired from international duty in 2020.
Rakitic: “I first met him at a friendly match, Argentina–Croatia, in Basel when I was 16 or 17 years old. The relationship started to grow when he came to Spain to play. I was already at Sevilla and he signed for Real Madrid and it started to grow stronger, also with the Clasicos when I joined Barcelona. I think he’s the player I have the most shirts of at home.
“That rivalry was very important for both of us and above all for the people in Croatia, but the relationship we have is much bigger than one match. We created an incredible midfield together, we enjoyed each other’s football and we helped each other, growing hand in hand.
“It’s incredible to see the boy I met more than 15 years ago has played 500 games for Real Madrid, won the Ballon d’Or, and that we were in the final of the World Cup in Russia in 2018. It’s incredible that a player from our country, Croatia, can do it. And he is a lesson for all of us that age is just a number — at 38, he is still playing at a very high level, we are enjoying the football he is giving us, so let him keep doing the same and let the rest of us keep enjoying it.
“Congratulations to you Luka for being a unique, incredible player and an even better person. I hope there is still much more to come, that you continue to give us so much joy.”
Harry Redknapp: “I never saw him give the ball away”
Redknapp took charge of Tottenham in October 2008, a few months after Modric signed from Dinamo Zagreb. The Croatian flourished under Redknapp and scored 17 goals in 160 games during his time in north London, helping them qualify for the Champions League for the first time for the 2010-11 season.
Modric praised the former Spurs boss for changing his position to central midfield in his Ballon d’Or acceptance speech in 2018.
Redknapp: “When I went to Spurs he was playing on the left — coming into little pockets to get the ball. They didn’t think he was strong enough to play centrally in England. I switched him after a bit and he never played anywhere else again.
“Some of the greatest midfielders we’ve seen have been little guys — Billy Bremner and Johnny Giles for Leeds in the 1970s were 5ft 5in (165cm) and 5ft 7in but incredible footballers. Paul Scholes played centrally: he wasn’t a big lad but he had a fantastic football brain. And I saw Luka the same.
“He took a bit of time to settle in, but he had a very hard life. He grew up during the war in Yugoslavia. I remember him telling me he was hiding under the stairs in a cellar with his mum. It was a scary time in his life, not knowing if they were going to survive. So he was a tough little character and a great person.
“And as for how good a footballer he was, the players used to warm up in a circle before training started and play piggy in the middle, with two in the middle and whoever gave it away going in the middle. I told Luka: ‘I’ve been here three years and I’ve never seen you in the middle yet’. He never gave the ball away.
“One game I’d highlight would be one of the first I played him in central midfield, against all recommendations from people at the club. I played him against Arsenal (a 2-1 win in April 2010) and he ran the game. People were saying he got away with it because they had a midfield that wasn’t big and strong. We were playing against Chelsea on the Saturday a few days later and they said players like Michael Ballack and Frank Lampard would destroy him. I said: ‘No they won’t, he’ll be alright’ — he played against Chelsea, who went on to win the title, and we beat them, too.
“I’m so pleased with how well he’s done, he’s fantastic. Luka, it couldn’t happen to a better person or professional.”
Slaven Bilic: “His outside-of-the-boot pass was like Federer’s backhand”
Bilic was Croatia coach from 2006-2012 and oversaw Modric’s early development with the under-21s before then.
Modric enjoyed a breakthrough international tournament under the former West Ham United, Everton and Croatia defender at the 2008 European Championship, in which he helped his country to the quarter-finals, where they lost on penalties to Turkey. He has since made 170 appearances for Croatia. Bilic now manages Saudi Pro League side Al Fateh.
Bilic: “The first time I saw him was when I took over Croatia Under-21s after Euro 2004 in Portugal. Straight away we noticed he was very silent off the pitch, but on the pitch, he was a leader.
“I remember him as a kid. He would go in the air to challenge big, tall midfield players or centre-forwards. He had that belief in himself that he could win the aerial challenges against those players. Of course he didn’t win every one — but he went for it. Even if it was Peter Crouch, he would go with him!
“The outside-of-the-boot pass reminds me of Roger Federer’s backhand. I saw that when he was 18 and it was regular. He made it better, he improved that pass, but he had it in his locker even then. People ask me ‘Did he change?’. Of course he changed, but like the iPhone changes every couple of years. They have reached the iPhone 15 or 16 — he has also upgraded, but he had it all in the beginning.
“He made Croatia a bigger country. We had great players before — we had Zvonimir Boban, we had Davor Suker, we had Alen Boksic, we had Robert Prosinecki — but for a Croatian guy to become a world-famous player is much more difficult than for an English guy. That’s great for our country and a great example for generations, no matter what they do.
“I was privileged to be his coach. Me and my staff were there from the beginning and we really believed. We were both rookies — he was a rookie in senior football and I was a rookie as a coach — so he helped me a lot. Me and my staff also helped him a lot with our belief in him.
“Yesterday doesn’t count at Real Madrid. Even Cristiano Ronaldo had to go — he could have stayed but it wasn’t what he wanted. Spanish guys: Sergio Ramos, Iker Casillas, Raul. We are talking about massive legends. And for Luka to stay there for so long — it’s hard to explain if you don’t know him, but if you know him and his family, absolutely everything is clear.”
Sergio Arribas: “He was the first player whose shirt I asked for”
A graduate of Real Madrid’s academy, Arribas had first-hand experience of Modric during his time in the first team from 2020-2023.
The 22-year-old attacking midfielder made 14 appearances for Real before leaving for Almeria this summer, playing alongside Modric nine times as well as training with him as a youth player.
Arribas: “The first memory I have of him was when he scored a goal in the Champions League in the round of 16 against Manchester United from outside the area at Old Trafford in 2013. When I was able to train with the first team, he was the first one whose shirt I asked for.
“I remember the first training session I went to after Covid and he came from his national team — we played a possession game and he didn’t lose any ball. It seemed incredible to me how he moves on the pitch looking for space all the time and the technical quality he has.
“The advice he gave me was that I should be myself, that I had to keep on growing, that I had to keep on working and improving day by day so that, when the opportunity arrived, I would be prepared.
“A message for him? Thank you for all the matches and great moments you have gifted us, both to Madridistas and to every fan who likes football. And above all, thank you for your closeness, advice and values that you transmitted to me.”
Predrag Mijatovic: “He lives for football”
The playing career of Montenegrin former Yugoslavia striker Mijatovic did not coincide with Modric’s — he retired in 2003, the year of Modric’s senior debut – but the two have developed a close personal and professional relationship and Mijatovic, as an ex-Madrid striker (1996-1999) and sporting director (2006-2009), has often been able to offer him advice.
Mijatovic: “Luka is a very atypical player. He never lives in the past, he always looks for motivation to continue to achieve. You talk to him now and even with everything he has won, he is still crazy about winning. You say to him: ‘What difference does it make to have one trophy more or one less?’. But no. It’s unbelievable. His ambition, it’s different. He is never happy — he wants more and more.
“By all the parameters of football, both nowadays and especially the game of the past, Luka should have retired a couple of years ago. But then you see him play and you have to say this guy is not 38, he is 28. He runs like he runs, he trains like he trains, he sacrifices, he lives for football.
“There will surely be a time when he will choose to stop playing, but as his real friend, my opinion is that he has two more years at least of competitive football to come. Luka can still give us a lot of joy.
“He knows he is a certain age, maybe he is not able to play 60 games, but he also knows that, especially in an important match, 10 minutes is more than enough for him to make a difference. And making the difference is what he has always done.”
Additional reporting: Guillermo Rai, Charlie Eccleshare
(Top photo: Getty Images; design: Sam Richardson)