It’s reductionist to boil down Argentina vs Croatia to Lionel Messi vs Luka Modric.
But it’s hard not to focus on the two World Cup semi-finalists’ standout talents given all the similarities.
Both are captains, both wear No10, they have the same initials, neither can remember their 30th birthday particularly well, and most relevantly, both are already recognised as being among the very best talents of their generation.
At the end of tonight’s match, one will have just a final hurdle to clear to cement their legacy whereas the other will have to accept that the most prestigious trophy in the game has eluded them again and forever.
For Modric, he is hoping to exorcise the demons of 2018, when his side lost a strange final 4-2 to France.
From an individual perspective, a World Cup trophy on top of his Ballon d’Or and litany of Champions League medals would surely provoke conversation about his placing among football’s greatest ever midfielders.
Andres Iniesta and Xavi’s hat-trick of international trophies with Spain between 2008 and 2012 forms the cornerstone of the Spanish pair’s legacies as it proved they didn’t need Messi’s brilliance to orchestrate an era of dominance, as the trio had done in combination at Barcelona.
Modric will not be able to match the number of international trophies achieved by La Roja’s golden era but given Croatia’s comparative resources, it could be argued that a singular World Cup triumph would be an even greater achievement.
As for Messi, he has his eyes on the largest legacy of all.
Some fans have refused to put him in the same bracket as Pele and Diego Maradona until he inspires his nation to the ultimate glory.
Victory in Qatar could see the Albiceleste’s skipper heralded almost universally as the outright greatest player to ever grace a pitch.
But here’s the thing, does either player require a World Cup to earn the legacies the crave? Have they both not already done enough?
At this late stage of Modric’s career, does he really have to win a World Cup to be mentioned alongside the likes of Xavi and Iniesta?
After all, winning a trophy is something you do as part of a team – when we say ‘player x has won the Champions League’ what we actually mean is ‘player x represented club y when they won the Champions League as a collective’.
Sometimes, often in fact, a player can be a competition’s best individual without ending up on the winning team.
Take Messi and Modric for example, the former won the Golden Ball at the 2014 World Cup while the latter claimed the same award in 2018, even though Argentina and Croatia both finished as runners-up.
In each case, they starred on the biggest stage possible, as they have done again in Qatar, and that should be enough to define their legacies.
Why should we judge them as individuals for their teams’ weaknesses (however minor or major they may be) in other areas?
This is something we really struggle with as fans, separating individual brilliance from team achievements, or lack thereof.
Steven Gerrard is mocked for having never won the Premier League even though every right-thinking fan should admit that he was one of the best players to ever play in England’s top flight.
Harry Kane is ridiculed for his lack of trophies even though that’s a reflection of Spurs and England’s fortunes, rather than his own personal standard.
Let’s not it get it twisted, trophies are important, of course they are, but there needs to be a wider acknowledgement of how honours are won and the dynamics of team sports.
Reverting back to Messi and Modric, if we are to take into account the pair’s efforts at World Cups when weighing up their legacies then surely they have done enough to earn lofty rankings.
As previous Golden Ball winners and influential figures this winter, they have proven their quality on the biggest stage twice over and it would be an injustice to undermine either (or both) of them based on which team ultimately triumphs.
There is no competition between the two in the realm of Dream Team World Cup.
Messi is the best asset in the game ahead of the semi-finals with 50 points to his name whereas Modric has just five points to show for his efforts.
Although this is a reflection of their pair’s differing roles and their respective teams’ styles.
The Real Madrid midfielder has kept his side ticking over superbly but he has not directly contributed to any goals as he has generally operated in deeper areas.
In contrast, Messi has scored four goals (two penalties), provided two assists and earned three Star Man awards – he is both chief goal threat and primary playmaker.
All eyes on tonight’s mouthwatering clash.