Two emblematic numbers 10 of the Ballon d’Or. Two beaten World Cup finalists. Two captains. One last chance to finally reach the top of football and lift the famous trophy before their retirement.
It’s hard to look past Argentina’s Lionel Messi and Croatia’s Luka Modric as the two difference makers in Tuesday’s first World Cup semi-final.
With Paris St-Germain’s Messi now 35 and Real Madrid’s Modric 37, it seems very likely that the final or third place this weekend will be the end of their World Cup careers.
So how do the two compare and which will lead their country to the final against France or Morocco on Sunday?
How do they compare to this World Cup?
Both players have played crucial roles in their country’s runs at this World Cup and scored in their quarter-final penalty shootout victories.
Messi took the first kick as Argentina beat the Netherlands, while Modric netted Croatia’s third spot-kick in their defeat Brazil, tournament favorites.
Modric is the first player to score three penalty shootouts at the World Cup (also against Denmark and Russia in 2018).
In 90 or 120 minutes, Messi has the advantage. He has scored four goals and two assists, while Modric is yet to register a goal or an assist – however Messi plays up front, while Modric operates in midfield.
Barcelona legend Messi scored a penalty against Saudi Arabia, scored and assisted a goal against Mexico and saved a penalty against Poland in the group stage.
He scored the opening goal against Australia in the round of 16 and assisted the opening goal against the Netherlands in the quarter-finals, before scoring from the spot in the 73rd minute – and again in the shootout.
Speaking on BBC One, Martin Keown said: “Lionel Messi continues to produce. It was a really quality penalty. He’s in top form. His confidence and conviction runs through his colleagues.”
After Argentina’s victory over Australia, former England defender Rio Ferdinand said: “The best individual performance by a player in this World Cup. It was almost divine. I never had anything seen from such.”
and old Argentina his team-mate Pablo Zabaleta said: “I think Messi knows it’s his last World Cup and you can really see he’s enjoying it.”
Former Tottenham Hotspur midfielder Modric caught the eye of Micah Richards during Croatia’s quarter-final against Brazil.
“We thought it would be his last World Cup,” the former England defender told BBC One. “Some of the passes he made, controlling the tempo – he dictated at his own pace and Brazil didn’t know what to do.”
Modric was substituted before the penalty shootout in Croatia’s round of 16 win over Japan, but remained against Brazil.
“Once again Luka led for 120 minutes and was in charge of the team,” Croatia said boss Zlatko Dalic. “It’s amazing how he plays for his age, and he wasn’t tired.
“When we fell behind, we were thinking of replacing a midfielder and asked him what his situation was. He said he was always ready. He showed again that he was one of the best players in the world.”
Messi has had more shots (25) and efforts on target (12) than anyone else at the World Cup – with Frenchman Kylian Mbappe, his Paris St-Germain team-mate second in both cases. Mbappe leads him 5-4 in the Golden Boot race.
Only four players managed more passes in the final third than Modric’s 201; Messi is eighth on the list with 171. Modric has had the fifth-most crosses, 28, in the tournament.
Modric has also impressed further down the pitch, with only two players having won the ball more times (39) or made more interceptions (eight) than the Croatian.
In the much less scientific BBC Sport player ratings, as selected by our readers, Messi’s five-game average is 7.01, with Modric at 7.46.
How do their international legacies compare?
The last two World Cup finals have seen one of these two losers.
In 2014, Messi’s Argentina lost 1-0 to Germany and Mario Gotze’s overtime goal. Four years ago, Modric Croatia were beaten 4-2 by France.
Both won the Ballon d’Or, the prize for the best player of the tournament, in stride. And both have potential milestones to hit in Tuesday’s game.
Messi will equal Lothar Matthaus’ record for most World Cup appearances (25). He would then break the German’s record this weekend in the final or play-off for third place.
Messi has scored 10 World Cup goals. Only seven players have managed more – with Germany’s Miroslav Klose leading with 16. He is just one behind Hungary’s Sandor Kocsis and Germany’s Jurgen Klinsmann, and two behind Pele.
He already holds the record for most assists in World Cup knockout games, surpassing Brazilian great Pele’s old record of four in their last game.
Messi has both scored and assisted a goal in three different World Cup matches, including two this year. Since this data was first recorded in 1966, no player has done so in four games.
He scored 95 goals in 170 caps – two national records.
Modric earned a record 160 Croatia caps and scored 23 international goals.
Modric will become the oldest outfield player to start in six games at a World Cup – beating Brazilian winger Nilton Santos, who had just turned 37 in 1962.
He has made the most World Cup appearances (17) and the most major tournament appearances (30) for Croatia – before that semi-final.
Messi has a Copa America to show for his international career, while Modric is yet to win a trophy.
There is also a nice symmetry between the players’ careers. Messi scored his first Argentine goal and Modric made his Croatia debut in the same match – a friendly match between the teams in March 2006, which Croatia won 3-2.
What about their overall career?
This semi-final will be the 1,002nd game of Messi’s career for club and country. He scored 790 goals and made 339 assists.
Modric’s career numbers are harder to know with spells in Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina for Dinamo Zagreb, Zrinjski Mostar and Inter Zapresic not as well documented.
Both have won the Ballon d’Or, Messi seven times and Modric in 2018. Portugal legend Cristiano Ronaldo and French striker Karim Benzema are the only other players to win it since 2007.
Modric has won five Champions Leagues to Messi’s four – while both have won league titles in two countries.
It will be the 27th time they will face each other, including 22 in the El Clasico encounters between Barcelona and Real Madrid. Modric has the advantage with 12 wins to Messi’s nine.
Unfortunately, both players will be retiring in the coming years, so we should enjoy them while they’re still active.