It almost always goes to the sexy name. For better or worse, the World Cup Golden Ball just does. It has become a crapshoot, supposedly awarded to a World Cup’s best player, instead based on the powers of narrative and fame.
So never mind that Italy triumphed in 2006 with an impenetrable defense; Zinedine Zidane took the honor. Never mind that Spain didn’t concede a single knockout-round goal en route to the 2010 title; Diego Forlan was crowned. And never mind that Argentina scored just twice in 450 elimination-round minutes four years ago; Lionel Messi, in a losing effort, was Golden.
All of which is to say the 2018 Golden Ball likely won’t go to the worthy recipient. But let’s pretend for a second it will … In that case, embedded in Sunday’s World Cup final (11 a.m. ET, Fox) will be a head-to-head battle for individual supremacy.
It’s a battle that could go a long way toward crowning a champion as well. It’s Luka Modric vs. N’Golo Kante. Advanced midfield maestro vs. protective midfield destroyer. Metronomic do-everything virtuoso vs. omnipresent energizer bunny. The world’s best No. 8 – slightly miscast as a 10 by Croatia – vs. the world’s best 6.
It’s one finalist’s best and most valuable player vs. the other’s. Paul Pogba and Kylian Mbappe might take exception with that statement. Either could very well take home the Golden Ball. But their diminutive teammate is the chief reason France is on the verge of glory.
The case for N’Golo Kante
Just how good is N’Golo Kante? In his first season in the English Premier League, he took Leicester City from relegation favorite to champion. In his second, he took Chelsea from 10th place to top. Leicester slipped back into a survival scrap without him. And French legend Thierry Henry went to Chelsea’s training ground to poke Kante in the chest, “just to check if he was real.”
Kante is indeed real. And he does indeed only have two lungs, like all normal humans. But there’s a reason he had to (jokingly) confirm that in a recent interview – a reason Pogba said Kante had 15 lungs. He’s indefatigable. In the colloquial sense of the word, he’s unreal.
Nobody embodies France’s run to the World Cup final better than Kante. The French have allowed just 0.88 Expected Goals per game, and their success begins and ends – sometimes literally – with the 27-year-old. He is simultaneously the first line of defense …
… and a safety net, filling in for center backs whenever they step to challenge for the ball:
He stifles counterattacks at source …
… and starts attacks of his own:
Kante impacts games both (hyper)actively and passively. Against Belgium in the semifinals, his influence wasn’t always noticeable. But he’s the reason Belgian attackers’ collective heat map looked like it had the English Channel superimposed over it down the middle of the field, flowing into an ocean of nothingness at the edge of the penalty area:
He was present anytime Eden Hazard cut inside from the left. When Kevin De Bruyne drifted inside from the right, in search of a line-breaking pass, Kante was there to shut off service.
He even helped shadow Lukaku out of the game. He was the main source of Belgian frustration.
More than any other player in the world, Kante is able to take away two options at once. His coverage scares most players away from passing anywhere near him. When they test him, they often err:
Kante leads the tournament with 48 ball recoveries. The Opta tweet relaying that stat called him the “Emperor.” After watching what he’s done in Russia, it’s hard to disagree.
The case for Luka Modric
Modric is the most complete midfielder in the world. He’s laid claim to that title for a half-decade at the biggest club in the world. He has it all. And he’s shown it all at the World Cup.
At the top of his Golden Ball résumé will be the passes …
Filthest pass of filthy passes from Modric pic.twitter.com/fsqyZXZY8z
— Sim (@simeonftbl) June 21, 2018
… and the goal:
But to appreciate what Modric has done in captaining Croatia to the final, you have to watch him start to finish. Like Kante, his influence is vast. He’s logged more minutes and covered more ground than any other player in Russia. And yet his technical ability has never wavered.
Like Kante, he is slight, sometimes the lightest player on the pitch. Like Kante, he was told as a kid he was too small, too weak. But he’s so commanding and so calm. His ball retention is awesome:
He can play out of his own penalty box to set Croatia on its way:
He can find space between the lines and effectively take Croatia from its own half into the opposition penalty area:
Oh, and he’s got a little Kante in him, too – even in extra time for the third consecutive round:
Modric has been vital for Croatia, just as Kante has been vital for France. Now the two square off.
The Modric-Kante matchup
The difficulty in breaking down the individual matchup is that Kante and Modric have each been deployed in varying positions throughout the World Cup. Modric has played alongside Ivan Rakitic in a double-pivot; he’s played as a true-ish No. 10; he’s played with Rakitic as dual 8s, with Marcelo Brozovic behind them; and he’s played somewhere in between those latter two roles.
Kante, meanwhile, has played in a double-pivot with Pogba, or as the deepest of a midfield three. Lately, with Blaise Matuidi in the team, it’s been a blend of the two setups, with an unbalanced formation overall.
We’d expect the two teams to line up as they did for their respective semifinals:
If you were to flip one of those two diagrams 180 degrees and mesh the two together, Modric’s and Kante’s jerseys would overlap. But of course, that’s oversimplified and theoretical.
Modric, who’s movement can seem incessant at times, will drift about. His ability to find space behind Matuidi and Pogba will help gage Croatia’s attacking threat. Kante will try to smother him. He’ll press Modric in deeper areas as well. He’ll stick with him in transition. Modric’s through-ball that split Denmark? Darn near impossible with Kante on the field.
On that individual level, Sunday will be strength vs. strength. One of the two players will come out of the battle strong but defeated. The other should leave Golden.
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More World Cup coverage from Yahoo Sports:
• What you need to know about the World Cup final
• Bushnell: England is out, but also here to stay
• Why soccer players flop
• The dark side of Croatian soccer