DOHA, Qatar (AP) — Luka Modric will get one more World Cup campaign to drive Croatia all the way to the title.
The 37-year-old midfielder will lead Croatia when they play their Group F opener against Morocco on Wednesday, a hurdle that the 2018 runner-ups are expected to comfortably clear before facing Canada and then a showdown with No. 2-ranked Belgium and Kevin de Bruyne.
Four years ago, Modric worked tirelessly and was rewarded with the tournament’s best player award as Croatia made it all the way to the final, where it lost 4-2 to France.
Only five of the players who started the 2018 final are in this Croatia squad after coach Zlatko Dalic’s rebuild. The constant is Modric, who is still central to everything Croatia does and arguably more important for his team’s chances than Lionel Messi for Argentina and Cristiano Ronaldo for Portugal.
The Real Madrid player has confirmed that this tournament will be the end of a 16-year international career.
It’ll be an early game against the Moroccans in Al Khor, north of Doha, where the temperature is forecast to push 30 degrees Celsius (86 Fahrenheit) by kickoff. That heat shouldn’t be an issue against the North Africans, though, thanks to the cooling systems utilized at this year’s World Cup stadiums.
“The conditions here have been better than I expected,” said Croatia forward Andrej Kramaric, who was a substitute in the 2018 final. “And considering the air conditioning in the stadiums, it (might) even get cold during the games.”
The climate in the Moroccan camp has also cooled considerably after a heated feud between former head coach Vahid Halilhodzic and Chelsea forward Hakim Ziyech. It saw Ziyech exiled from the squad last year over what Halilhodzic branded his “unacceptable” attitude.
It threatened to result in Morocco, which desperately needs all its overseas-based talent, being without one of its best players for the World Cup. Halilhodzic was fired despite qualifying Morocco for the World Cup and replaced with Walid Regragui, who immediately recalled Ziyech.
Ziyech hit the ground running and and scored an astonishing goal from his own half in Morocco’s last warmup before the World Cup.
But the coaching switch only came at the end of August, giving Regragui, who has never been an international coach before, just two full months to put his larger mark on a team that was already expected to struggle at the World Cup, especially against Croatia and Belgium.
That may not be enough time for the 47-year-old Regragui to get something special out of Morocco, which has only made it out the group stage once at a World Cup, in 1986.
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