MOSCOW • Every time a Croatian player appears before the media at this World Cup, he knows a question about Luka Modric is coming, and every time the answer reflects the admiration there is in the squad for their captain.
"We keep hearing the same question and we give out the same answer," said midfielder Ivan Perisic.
Modric has played defence-splitting passes, scored goals and dictated the rhythm of the game in the team's run to the semi-finals, picking up three Man-of-the-Match awards in the four games he has completed.
The 32-year-old is Croatia's top scorer in the tournament with two goals and twice netted in nail-biting penalty shoot-outs against Denmark and Russia.
After once again starring as Real Madrid won a fourth Champions League crown in five seasons by beating Liverpool in May, Modric will be a strong contender to win the Ballon d'Or if he can lead Croatia to improbable World Cup glory.
"I've known Luka for a number of years, not only with the national team. We played at club level as well," said striker Mario Mandzukic, who played with Modric at Dinamo Zagreb a decade ago.
"He deserves all the accolades he gets from the media and public.
"He is our captain, our leader, we follow him and if the team manages a great result and he gets the Ballon d'Or he will deserve it."
There is little prospect that a country like Croatia, with a population of a little over four million, would have come this far without Modric, who as a boy was forced to flee his village home after his grandfather was killed by Serbian forces in the Croatian independence war.
But his reputation took a battering at home before the tournament due to his implication in the multi-million-euro corruption trial of former Dinamo Zagreb chief Zdravko Mamic.
Modric has been unfazed by off-field troubles. He was excellent against Russia, his influence growing in the second half after coach Zlatko Dalic introduced defensive midfielder Marcelo Brozovic.
Previously, Modric and Ivan Rakitic had played in the centre of a 4-2-3-1 formation. The switch meant that they were released further forward, either side of Brozovic, in a 4-3-3.
Modric has consistently looked better when he has played higher up the pitch and England's holding midfielder Jordan Henderson will be the main man in charge of trying to nullifying him.
Just six weeks after Modric beat Liverpool and Henderson in Kiev, he has the chance to put his side in the media spotlight again.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, THE GUARDIAN