Luka Modric was Croatia's new superstar when he helped end England's Euro 2008 hopes... now nearly 14 years on he returns with his national team hoping to stun Wembley again
A wally unfurled his brolly and soon two Croatian players hoisted their own protector towards the wet skies.
By late 2007, a sodden Wembley felt fitting for a farewell to Steve McClaren. The England boss was out of his depth, powerless to prevent a golden generation drowning under the weight of expectation.
The sight of Slaven Bilic being thrust skywards, meanwhile, symbolised the joy of a young nation scaling new heights. One of the boys carrying the manager on his slight frame? Luka Modric.
ENGLAND 2-3 CROATIA, WEMBLEY, 2007
England’s hopes of qualifying for Euro 2008 came to a dismal end on a damp November night at Wembley.
The defeat was also the final stamp on Steve McClaren’s tenure as national manager. Luka Modric ran the show for Croatia against a poor England team who were booed off at half-time.
The hosts started badly. England goalkeeper Scott Carson, a surprise selection, spilled a shot from Niko Kranjcar into his own net in the eighth minute and Ivica Olic put Croatia 2-0 ahead in the 14th minute. England substitute Jermain Defoe was fouled early in the second half and Frank Lampard grabbed a goal back from the penalty spot.
Then Portsmouth striker Peter Crouch gave England hope with an equaliser from a cross by David Beckham, earning his 99th cap.
But, with Modric running the midfield, it was Croatia who had the last say. Mladen Petric, sent on as a substitute 21 minutes from the end, hit a stunning 25-yard left-footed shot into the corner of the net.
England: Carson; Richards, Campbell, Lescott, Barry (Defoe 46), Bridge; Cole (Bent, 80), Gerrard, Lampard, Wright-Phillips (Beckham 46); Crouch.
Croatia: Pletikosa; Corluka, R Kovac, Simic, Simunic; Srna, N Kovac, Kranjcar (Pranjic 75), Modric; Eduardo Petric, 69), Olic (Rakitic 84).
Then Croatia's 'new superstar', the 22-year-old midfielder spent his 21st cap dancing around a Wembley quagmire to end England's Euro 2008 hopes.
'One of the greatest victories in our history,' Modric later wrote.
Nearly 14 years on, he and Croatia are back in town.
'I don't remember a lot from that match,' defender Domagoj Bradaric admitted this week. No wonder — he was only seven. Team-mate Josko Gvardiol was five. Today they will sit alongside Modric in the Wembley dressing room.
'It's such a huge honour to be part of a team that includes him,' Bradaric added.
Now 35, Modric remains the beating heart of Croatian football. The country's captain and most-capped player (138), the 5ft 7in symbol of a generation — gilded from the ruins of war — who has long defied size and stature.
Three summers after Modric broke English hearts en route to the World Cup final, and the Ballon d'Or, opportunity knocks once more. Only one other starter from 2007 has made it this far — Scott Carson, the evening's unfortunate fall guy, was born six days before Modric. He has played once in three years.
The rest? Retired.
Many thought this would be the year Father Time caught up with Modric, too. With his Real Madrid contract running out and coronavirus creating an even more congested calendar, the worry in Spain was how his body would cope.
Instead, today will be Modric's 60th game of the season. What burnout? 'He's different to everyone, I don't know to describe (it)' Mateo Kovacic, the Chelsea midfielder and Croatia international, said. 'He's worked so hard to get to where he is now: the best midfielder in the world.'
Modric, who turns 36 in September, was one of few Madrid players to last the course this season — only goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois (38) featured in more La Liga games than their No 10, who fittingly scored their final goal of the season in stoppage time on the last day.
'I'm 35 but I feel like I'm only 27,' Modric said in March. No wonder Madrid offered him a new deal. Around him, though, Croatia have changed. Four of the XI that started the World Cup final — Danijel Subasic, Ivan Strinic, Mario Mandzukic and Ivan Rakitic — have retired and their ageing defence has shown signs of creaking too.
A new generation, including ex-Everton midfielder Nikola Vlasic, has helped fill the void. But not without teething problems. Dejan Lovren previously accused younger players of 'lacking respect' and manager Zlatko Dalic also referenced a 'lack of chemistry'.
Croatia struggled in the Nations League and dropped points against Wales, Hungary and Azerbaijan during qualifying. The fact Modric remains their linchpin perhaps tells its own story. But England have been burnt too many times by Croatia — by their magician, in particular — to fall into this trap.
'England got just what they deserved because they were unbelievably arrogant. I don't know what Croatia have done to deserve being treated like this by the England players,' ex-defender Vedran Corluka said in 2007.
Eleven years on, the baton had been passed to Gareth Southgate's young side. The egos had flown the nest, but the same accusations lingered. 'They should be more humble and respect more opponents,' Modric said of English pundits after the World Cup semi-final. 'We showed again that we were not tired.'
Neither Modric's age, nor his busy year, will fool anyone this time.
'I don't think they underestimate us for this match. As for what happened before... it was what it was,' winger Ante Rebic laughed this week. Before that semi-final Croatia took particular motivation from 'football coming home'.
They considered it another example of English egotism, one which fed Croatia's self-identity as underdogs punching up. Three Lions will be played before today's game, as it was in Russia and at Wembley in November 2018, after England beat Croatia in the Nations League. That result should give Southgate's side confidence. But the visitors won't need much invitation to believe, either.
Incredible, still, to think that before the last World Cup, Modric was embroiled in a high-profile corruption case that shook Croatian football and still scars his reputation back home. Dark clouds over an otherwise glorious twilight.
'Our grandmaster' one team-mate called him, even back in 2007, when Modric was being courted by Chelsea and Arsenal. That performance at Wembley, the midfielder later found out, proved crucial in his move to Tottenham the following year. But the biggest lesson Modric learned? 'One thing stuck with me from that evening: the unique English spirit.'
How Southgate's side will need that today to knock this conductor off his rhythm. Otherwise, who knows? Modric could be back at Wembley in a few weeks' time, lifting something rather shinier above his head this time round.