Modric from 'different planet', says Rakitic
ROSCHINO, Russia (AP) — Listening to the way Ivan Rakitic talks about Croatia midfield partner Luka Modric, it quickly becomes clear how lucky he feels to be even sharing the same pitch as him at the World Cup.
He calls Modric the best Croatian footballer of all time — a big leap, considering Rakitic grew up idolizing the great Robert Prosinecki — and feels Modric is so good he has arrived from a different planet.
"You try to enjoy it as much as you can, to learn," Rakitic said on Friday. "It's the best thing that can happen to any player."
Rakitic and Modric, who play for Spanish giants Barcelona and Real Madrid respectively, form Croatia's all-star central-midfield pairing that has been a key factor behind the team topping its group at the World Cup, setting up a last-16 match against Denmark.
They are often mentioned in the same breath, but Rakitic clearly sees himself as the junior member of the duo. He speaks in almost reverential tones about Modric, his "big brother," and likens his qualities to Andres Iniesta, whom he has spent four years alongside at Barcelona.
"It seems like both of them are from a different planet and they came to play football with us mortals here," Rakitic said at Croatia's training base, just north of St. Petersburg. "Both of them are among the best players ever in their positions.
"If I created a football team, I would have both of them in my team. I can thank God to have the opportunity to play with both of them."
With Modric — a four-time Champions League winner — its leader and inspiration, Croatia is a genuine contender to win what has become a wide-open World Cup in Russia. Or at least emulate the 1998 team which reached the semifinals in France, featuring Prosinecki, Zvonimir Boban and Davor Suker.
The technically gifted Prosinecki has long been seen as Croatia's all-time best player, but even he has recently said Modric surpasses him.
"If Robert Prosinecki said that, it has to be true because nobody knows about football more than Prosinecki. And I would agree with him completely," Rakitic said. "Not only that Luka is the best player ever, but he is a great person, a leader and we are following him."
The Croatia-Denmark match will feature three of the best midfielders in this tournament, with playmaker Christian Eriksen as much of a fulcrum for the Danes as Modric and Rakitic are for Croatia.
The Croatians have been quite reticent to talk about Denmark in recent days, but Rakitic was open about the qualities Eriksen and his team possess. Predictably, he focused on its well-drilled defense that shut out France in their last game and conceded only one goal in the group stage.
"They are very compact, they know how to stop their opponents," he said. "They allow few chances to score for the opposing team and they can be very dangerous on the attack.
"And they have Christian Eriksen, who is one of the best playmakers in Europe and the world."
Get past Denmark, and Croatia is likely to play against Spain — the team Rakitic sees as the tournament favorite despite winning only one of its three group games.
"To be honest, I see Spain above everyone else," he said. "The confidence they are playing with is one level above everyone else."
With many of Croatia's so-called golden generation into their 30s, including Modric and Rakitic, every game now is potentially their last together at a major tournament. For Rakitic, that is a motivation in itself.
"I don't know if this is the last competition for us, we will see about that," he said, smiling.
"If we, at the end, manage to lift this trophy, we go into international retirement happy."
Steve Douglas is at www.twitter.com/sdouglas80