MOSCOW — It will be the furthest thing from their minds on Sunday, but for Luka Modric and Kylian Mbappe, there is an extra personal twist to the glittering prize at stake in the World Cup final.
Soccer is a team sport to its core, and France and Croatia earned the right to square off for the ultimate bragging right in the game because of their collective abilities.
Yet the global structure of soccer also hinges on individual star power and the argument over who is the best player on the planet is one that has attracted heated debate for the past decade. It has been a two-pronged debate, though, an argumentative coin flip between Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi.
If Modric continues his spectacular form and conjures yet another Croatia victory with his foresight and technical mastery, then he would likely vault into instant favoritism for this years’ Ballon D’Or award that crowns the world’s best, or at least be on level footing with Ronaldo.
Likewise, if the 19-year-old Mbappe shows more of his scary abilities, it would be certain to generate a healthy block of votes in his favor, possibly enough to leapfrog to top spot even at this formative stage of what will be a remarkable career.
In truth, in terms of pure ability and productivity, Ronaldo and Messi are still as good as it gets. Between them, they have won every Ballon D’Or since 2008, an extraordinary and unprecedented 10-year streak. Ronaldo appeared to be nailed on for the crown again this year, heading into the World Cup on the back of helping Real Madrid to its fourth Champions League title in five years and performing as dominantly as ever at 33.
However, it is right that in a World Cup year a player who has a major impact in swaying the most important tournament in soccer should be given extra recognition for his influence. After all, it is the award for best player “of the year,” not a vote on who would prevail in a skills challenge.
Wesley Sneijder of the Netherlands, had that team won the 2010 final instead of losing to Spain in extra time, may have gotten the nod that year.
Modric is enjoyable to watch for a swath of reasons. His game marries crisp efficiency with technical flair, but his biggest asset is his soccer brain, the ability to see angles and passes and movement that others don’t.
He has a highly capable midfield foil in Ivan Rakitic, but Croatia flows as Modric flows – and stopping him will be France’s most important task.
Mbappe plays up front so his interjections are by nature more occasional, yet also more instantly destructive. His charging run forward against Argentina before being fouled for a penalty kick was one of the highlights of the World Cup. It is extraordinary to think that there may still be years of improvement left in him.
France, even with a stack of talent throughout its lineup and with Antoine Griezmann a technical wizard, will see Mbappe as its potential game-changer, and will look to feed him where possible.
Nothing against Ronaldo or Messi, but a fresh face as the world’s anointed best would not be a bad thing. If it happens, the beauty of it would be that there has been no decline in the talents of the Big Two.
The insertion of Modric, Mbappe and also Liverpool and Egypt’s Mo Salah into the “best” conversation has come purely from those players raising their level. Were a new player to be crowned this time, expect both Ronaldo and Messi to respond with determination and give everything to claim back their territory.
Soccer isn’t seeing a changing of the guard, just a broadening of its elite circle.