LUSAIL – Luka Modric pulled his shirt up over his face as he trudged over to the sideline.
Croatia’s red-and-white-clad fans recognized the sorrowful significance of the moment and rose up to applaud the diminutive midfielder who is probably their nation’s greatest ever player.
Argentina’s boisterous supporters soon followed suit at Lusail Stadium, honoring an opponent who is likely appearing at his last World Cup.
Substituted in the 81st minute on Tuesday, with his team trailing by three goals, it effectively marked the end of Modric's World Cup era. Croatia ended up losing to Argentina 3-0 in the semifinals, four years after the team lost to France in the final.
Modric was somber as he was replaced by Lovro Majer before calmly taking his seat in the dugout. There was no grand gesture to the crowd or outpouring of emotion for a man whose understated brilliance can still be overlooked despite everything he has achieved.
“We just wanted to be again in the final," Modric said, "but unfortunately we are not.”
The second most famous 37-year-old at the World Cup is going home, a few days after the other one.
Modric is the same age as former Real Madrid teammate Cristiano Ronaldo, but as both men approach the twilight of their trophy-laden careers, the contrast is stark. That was particularly evident leading up to and during the World Cup.
While Ronaldo hogged the limelight with his explosive eve-of-the-tournament interview with Piers Morgan, Modric expressed himself on the field.
After leading Croatia to the final in Russia, he was again the inspiration as a nation with a population of about 4 million made it to semifinals for the second straight World Cup.
Meanwhile, Ronaldo, amid the distraction of his exit from Manchester United and possible transfer to a club in Saudi Arabia, ended up benched and in tears as Portugal’s hopes were ended by Morocco in the quarterfinals.
In Croatia's quarterfinal match, Modric played his part in eliminating Brazil — and Neymar. But he couldn't do anything to stop Lionel Messi on his personal mission to finally win soccer’s biggest trophy. Messi scored the opening goal from the penalty spot on Tuesday, and then produced a piece of magic to set up the second of Julian Alvarez’s two goals.
But Messi wasn't the only iconic figure on display at Lusail Stadium.
Surely regarded by many as Croatia’s finest, Modric also ranks alongside the best midfielders to ever play the game. A five-time Champions League winner with Real Madrid, he also won soccer’s ultimate individual prize, the Ballon d'Or, in 2018.
And his performances in Qatar show he still has more to give. He may yet play again for his national team at the 2024 European Championship with one final bow for his country. And who would rule out more trophies with Real Madrid?
“Well, perhaps this is the end for the generation at the World Cup. A couple of them are at an age where it will be hard to play at the World Cup in 2026. We will wait and see,” Croatia coach Zlatko Dalić said. “I think a lot of players will finish off at Euro 2024.”
Wherever Modric's story goes from here, his status as a World Cup great is secure.
James Robson is at https://twitter.com/jamesalanrobson
AP World Cup coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/world-cup and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports