MADRID: Luka Modrić returns to the Luzhniki Stadium on Tuesday, the scene of Croatia’s World Cup final defeat to France, not only as FIFA’s best men’s player but the star of Real Madrid too.
For the first time in his six seasons at Madrid, Modrić will line up for a Champions League tie without Cristiano Ronaldo, who was sold, or Gareth Bale, who is injured.
There will be no Kaká, Ángel Di María, or James Rodríguez either, all of whom Modrić has rubbed shoulders with. At 33, he has outlasted them all.
Together, that quintet cost Madrid almost 400 million euros (RM1.9 billion), and each considerably more than Modrić, whose fee of around 30 million pounds (RM160 million) in 2012 would not even have got Richarlison out of Watford last summer.
But in this current squad, Modrić stands out. In part, because of his brilliance, which has never been in doubt, but also because of Real Madrid too. The Galacticos are, just about, all gone.
Bale is the last, and he would have been playing against CSKA Moscow, had it not been for a thigh injury picked up on Saturday.
After him, Madrid’s most expensive starters are likely to be Karim Benzema and Toni Kroos – both, like Modrić, signed for around 30 million euros (RM140 million).
Meanwhile, elsewhere in Europe, Barcelona will be fielding Philippe Coutinho and Ousmane Dembélé against Tottenham. Manchester United will have Paul Pogba, and Paris Saint-Germain Neymar and Kylian Mbappé. All of them surpassed the 100-million euro (RM480 million) mark.
Since being wooed by James’ sumptuous volley at the Maracanã in the 2014 World Cup, Madrid have changed their approach.
As the remnants of the old mode depart – Ronaldo is gone, James unlikely to return – the new, younger, and cheaper, batch have risen to the surface.
“Madrid is strengthening its search for young players that will become the next great players of the sport,” president Florentino Pérez said in July.
Álvaro Odriozola, the 22-year-old right-back, could make his Champions League debut on Tuesday in the absence of Marcelo and Sergio Ramos. He was signed from Real Sociedad for 35 million euros (RM168 million) in the summer.
Dani Ceballos, bought as a 20-year-old for 17 million euros (RM81.6 million) from Real Betis, came on for Bale against Atlético Madrid last weekend.
Marco Asensio, perhaps the policy’s poster boy, was brought in for just under four million euros (RM19 million) as an 18-year-old from Real Mallorca.
All three of them are Spanish, not signed for the present, but the future.
The list of those nurtured in the Real Madrid youth teams is longer. On the plane to Moscow on Sunday were Dani Carvajal, Nacho, Lucas Vázquez, Mariano Díaz, Marcos Llorente, Kiko Casilla, and Sergio Reguilón, all academy graduates.
World Cup winner Raphaël Varane came from Lens for 10 million euros (RM48 million) as a teenager and it is believed Vinícius, signed for 40 million euros (RM190 million) from Flamengo in July, can be the next big talent from Brazil.
There is a temptation to recall the days of Zinedine Zidane, Luis Figo, David Beckham, and Kaká, and feel underwhelmed.
Madrid have become synonymous with superstar names and this was a World Cup year too.
But the shift has been deliberate. The swelling market has played a part, with the club no longer the dominant power-player among Europe’s elite, as have plans to upgrade the Santiago Bernabéu, for which a loan of 575 million euros (RM2.759 billion) will be taken out.
“The only way to remain independent is to be financially healthy,” Pérez said at the club’s annual general meeting earlier this month. “That is the base of our sporting success.”
Zidane was an advocate too. His method centred on improving those players he had by blocking out the noise from outside. That translated into faith in humility and hard work, not more big-money signings.
“There is often talk of transfers, but I am not that type of coach,” he said in January.
Modrić, Ramos, Benzema, and Bale – all approaching or past 30 – will soon need replacing and few would bet against Perez joining the chase when Mbappé, Neymar, or Pogba become available.
But for now, this is a different Real Madrid.