Casemiro and Modric as close as ever in duel of old friends turned foes

<span>Photograph: Georgi Licovski/EPA</span>
Photograph: Georgi Licovski/EPA

They keep looking for each other on the pitch. Just like they always did. Stealing little glances over their shoulder, like ex-lovers secretly stalking each other on Facebook. Occasionally as they pass each other they will share a brief word, a hand on the small of the back. It needs nothing more than this. They’re professionals, doing a job. And yet somehow it feels comforting, almost validating, to know they are not alone.

And Luka Modric and Casemiro are rarely alone. For more than two hours as Brazil and Croatia duel in the desert, these two midfielders yoke themselves together, their fates divergent and yet intertwined, like a habit they just can’t kick. They even swap shirts at half-time. And for the majority of the game, with the exception of the very end, they are within about 10 yards of each other.

It still feels strange seeing them in different colours. Modric and Casemiro both joined Real Madrid in the summer of 2013, and in those nine years grew around each other like climbing plants. “You have been the best bodyguard in the world,” Modric wrote in a letter to Casemiro after the Brazilian’s move to Manchester United in the summer.

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Casemiro, Modric, Toni Kroos: this was the midfield triangle that dominated an entire Champions League era. But despite playing 259 matches together, this is only Modric’s and Casemiro’s second meeting as opponents. And yet somehow, even on opposite teams, the telepathy is still there. Early on Modric runs into the right channel and somehow Casemiro intuits that he is going to turn back on himself, and is waiting with a meaty block tackle.

Related: Croatia reach World Cup semi-final as Brazil miss twice in penalty shootout

Modric, meanwhile, has done his homework. He knows that with five attacking players, virtually everything Brazil do funnels through Casemiro. Stop his friend, and he essentially stops Brazil. So he stations himself high, almost steals a pass from goalkeeper Alisson, forces Brazil to move the ball wide and long. Over the first 90 minutes of the game, Casemiro will complete just 49 passes. In the game against South Korea, he completed 73.

Sometimes Casemiro and Modric try to shake each other off. Here Casemiro has a clear disadvantage: Modric can roam, he can’t. In a team of party boys, Casemiro needs to be the sensible one, the designated driver. While Modric peels away to the right flank, knowing that Marcelo Brozovic and Mateo Kovacic will cover his space, Casemiro sits, knowing that nobody will cover his. Set pieces offer Casemiro’s only chance of escape: throwing himself into the melee while the tiny Modric watches from afar, like a kid banned from the big rides at Thorpe Park.

Extra time. Modric and Casemiro, like Croatia and Brazil, are still cancelling each other out. But their grip is loosening as the game stretches and the limbs tire. During breaks in play Modric bends double, hands on his thighs, gasping some air into his lungs. Casemiro’s gait is leaden and heavy, barely able to break beyond a jog. The fresh new shirt he donned at half-time is smeared with mud and sweat. They are like Jack and Rose, clinging to the same wardrobe door at the end of Titanic. They love each other dearly. But one’s got to go.

Croatia’s Luka Modric passes the ball to Brazil’s Casemiro during the penalty shootout
Croatia’s Luka Modric passes the ball to Brazil’s Casemiro during the penalty shootout. Photograph: Hannah McKay/Reuters

And when Neymar scores, neither is anywhere to be seen. As Brazil celebrate wildly in the corner, Casemiro simply collapses, face to the turf. He’s spent, overwhelmed, overcome. But – crucially – he also thinks it’s done.

Meanwhile, Modric watches Brazil celebrate. Adjusts his hairband. He was always a player who had all the time, and now he has just a little more. He knows it’s not done.

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Perhaps ultimately, penalties was the only fitting way to end it. Casemiro scores his penalty, and then does a lovely thing. He picks up the ball and personally hands it to his friend Modric, who also scores.

This is definitely Modric’s last World Cup, and possibly Casemiro’s too. They may not ever play each other again. “I’m going to miss you,” Modric wrote in his letter this summer. “Thanks for everything and good luck, friend.”

Did Modric win the duel, then? Football certainly loves to paint these things in black and white: this thing bad, this thing good, this friend, this enemy. But the world isn’t as simple as that. Part of the reason Casemiro is such a good player for Brazil is because of the education he got from playing alongside Modric. Part of the reason Modric won here was because he had Brozovic and Kovacic and Casemiro had nobody.

The game is won and the game is lost, and perhaps that’s all we can say with any certainty. And so at full-time, as Brazil commiserate, a man in a yellow shirt rises from the mourning. As Croatia rejoice, a man in a white and red shirt breaks away from the fracas. It’s Casemiro, and it’s Modric. And they’re looking for each other again.