Two old guys sit on a bench and quietly watch the world go by. They’re tired, their bodies ache, but it’s okay: they’re happy. They’ve done their bit, their work here done, rest well-earned. Let someone else have a go. The kids play in front of them. A pair for as long anyone can remember, always seen together, virtually inseparable, they’ve lived a million battles. So many stories to tell, all those good times. Not that they need tell them, nor say a word: they just know. So they sit in silence. Until, eventually, Toni and Luka get up and go home.
They’ll be back. Not on here, out there.
There’s a lovely photo from Real Madrid‘s Champions League win over Liverpool in which Toni Kroos and Luka Modric fall into the bench having just been taken off, coats pulled over their kits, and watch the final minutes. Kroos has ice strapped on his ankle, his socks are down and he is undoing worn boots — the same model he’s been wearing for a decade, even though the manufacturer has stopped making them for anyone else. Alongside him, Modric rests his hands on a bottle. He is slumped and looks empty, like he doesn’t even really see what’s before him, like if it was up to him he wouldn’t move again. But he will.
Oh, he will.
Love this photo https://t.co/VZYROT5kLs
— Sid Lowe (@sidlowe) March 17, 2023
There’s something almost pure about the picture, understated. Something that says, well, football. There’s a quiet dignity to it: the mud, the grass stains, the almost empty expressions, nothing left, nothing spared. Knowing what they have just done, especially. Knowing who they are, even more so. It’s easy to imagine the conversation consisting of a single exchange:
“That was all right.”
All right? It was bloody brilliant, again. The rest is well-earned. It is also short. The pair are withdrawn, it is true, but not until minutes 82 and 84, once their passage to the next round is secure. And that’s just to waste time, Carlo Ancelotti admits, not because he needed it or because they did. They’re not here to be protected, or looked after; they’re not going to hold back, nor make concessions to age. They’re here to play. Like no one else can. Like they shouldn’t be able to play anymore, or so it goes.
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Modric is 37, Kroos is 33. They have played more than 800 Real Madrid games between them. They have just four months left on their contracts, not long. They could stop any time they like, walk away, ease toward the end.
Madrid have Federico Valverde, he of the multiple lungs: the Uruguay international who is in the top three midfielders in the world. The man who said that? Kroos. He never said the other two were he and Modric — he never would — and feting Valverde even implied forgetting them, but would he have been so wrong if he had? Madrid have Dani Ceballos, too. Aurelien Tchouameni and Eduardo Camavinga have been signed, at great expense. They are pursuing Jude Bellingham. All of them are more than a decade younger.
Their coach is talking — openly now — about a transition. It is one, in truth, that was already happening last season, even if it went unsaid then: those Champions League comebacks were built in part on bringing younger players off the bench and the veterans off the pitch. “Six minutes of quality, 30 minutes of energy,” Ancelotti called it. The debate recurs every so often, and not always without reason: renewal is needed. Modern football requires something else. Things can’t keep on like this; they can’t keep on like this. Before the Liverpool game, the question is posed a little simplistically, as if they are mutually exclusive concepts: experience or energy?
And yet when it comes to it, another Champions League night — there have been a lot of them — and there they are again. When it comes to the Clasico on Sunday, they probably will be too. In the big games — Clasicos, knockouts, finals — when available, they have started well over 90% of the matches together. The past 14 times they were both available, Ancelotti has started them together. Kroos and Modric as ever, as if time stood still.
Unlike them. On Wednesday, there they were once more, against Liverpool. And there they were dominating, only making way when it’s done. Every time anyone suggests that it’s over, it seems, they stand and say: are you sure? So they’re younger? So what?
In front of them on Sunday, Barcelona‘s midfield will probably include Sergio Busquets and Frenkie de Jong. It will also have Pedri and Gavi. Pedri is 20, Gavi is 18. Put their ages together and they’re still only the same age as Modric. Gavi was 1 year old the day Modric made his Madrid debut; he had just turned 3 when Kroos did. Golden Boy winners, seen as the essence of a style, an identity, Gavi and Pedri are often judged by Xavi and Andres Iniesta, the default answer to the debate about the best midfielders LaLiga has seen. They probably will be for their entire careers — some cross to bear.
Sometimes it can feel like Kroos and Modric are not considered, even if the comparison could be favourable, even as half-contemporaries. There has been no lack of success and stylistically there’s certainly something there too. Kroos recently said: “When I think about the next 10, 15 years, I worry. Clubs are looking for players with other profiles. Is he fast? Is he big? Is he strong? And only then they ask: can he play the ball?” It sounds very much like the sort of thing Xavi has said.
The game goes somewhere else — that at least is the fear — but there’s always a place for talent like this, always time for those who seem able to manipulate it. So there they are quietly getting on with just being better than anyone else. No narrative, no big statements, no storyline, nothing outspoken. Just great football, week after week. They each commanded €30 million transfer fees: it is hard to think of a pair of signings that offered such value for money. It is hard to think of a pair like this at all. Yet the biggest statement of all — is this the best partnership a midfield has ever had? — seems never to be said.
Which is not to say they’re ignored, unvalued or overlooked. Universally liked, Modric has won the Ballon d’Or after all, the enormity of leading Croatia to the World Cup final earning him the award in a season that domestically wasn’t even his most outstanding, so high had he set the bar.
As for Kroos, he’s a very good boy. Yes, he is. Yes, he is. And yes, that was just an excuse to mention the best of the Toni Kroos facts — that Luis Diaz‘s dog is named after him. There can be no higher recognition than having a dog named after you, and yet sometimes it feels like he is only rarely included in a conversation in which he could stand centre stage, a victim perhaps of his demeanour, his refusal to engage with football’s trivialities. Of his own style, the apparent ease, the calmness, the tranquility. No blood, no thunder, no flash. Control.
Even his trademark goal is a pass: it’s just that the recipient is the net.
Put them together and, well, you get what Madrid have got. Recently, Kroos played his 400th game for the club. “Could have gone worse,” he tweeted, which felt like a very Toni Kroos thing to tweet. And, yes, it could’ve. It’s been a decade of European success unmatched by anyone else in the modern era, surpassed only by the Madrid team that won the first five European Cups.
Last season, UEFA put out a tweet asking: Modric or Kroos. “AND,” Kroos replied. In February, Modric noted how he keeps hearing that they can’t play together. Oh really? Victorious but exhausted on Wednesday, they’ll be back again four days on. It might well be the last Clasico they ever play in LaLiga. At the end of the season, their contracts are up.
Kroos has said he will retire at Madrid, he’s just not sure when. The expectation is that he will sign for one more year, but it has not been announced yet. “There’s a great relationship with the club. No one will say anything stupid,” he insisted.
Modric, meanwhile, said before the first leg against Liverpool that he hadn’t spoken to the club yet. “I want to continue,” he admitted. “If they feel that I deserve to continue, I would like that. Whatever happens, nothing will change my relationship with Madrid, which is the club of my life. I do not want to be gifted anything.” Right now, even those Madrid fans who know that a new era must come eventually would do all they could to keep them, the transition seen through smoothly.
Not least because while they refuse to resign themselves to being residual, there’s an awareness. Ancelotti noted that he has asked the younger players for patience, the older players for comprehension. “They have no ego,” he said. In that photo, somehow, it shows: two old guys, having given everything.
They have won it all: Modric has three leagues and five Champions Leagues. Kroos has three leagues and four Champions Leagues (plus another with Bayern Munich). They have played 873 games, the final few minutes of the most recent of them seen out from the bench, victory secure, ready to take to the field once more, and in a Clasico too.
“They don’t play because of what they have done,” Ancelotti said. “They play because they deserve to.”