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FIFA World Cup: Ready for his biggest test, Croatian defender Gvardiol looks destined to go places

Brazil's 'frightening' forward-line will challenge the 20-year-old, but his composure and reading of the game holds him in good stead.

Croatia's Josko Gvardiol looks on during Croatia official training on the eve of the quarterfinal World Cup soccer match between Croatia and Brazil, in Doha, Qatar, Thursday, Dec. 8, 2022. (AP Photo/Darko Bandic)
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FIFA World Cup: Ready for his biggest test, Croatian defender Gvardiol looks destined to go places
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One would not miss Josko Gvardiol on a football pitch. The spidery mask wrapped over his face is a distinct giveaway. He began wearing it after suffering a broken nose in a collission with teammate Willi Orban last month. His intimidating frame — six feet one inch – with a strapping frame also makes him catch the eye, as does the smoothness of his game.

Gvardiol is rarely bullied or battered, barely out-sped or outwitted; he hardly hurls his studs in desperation, because he always has time; he never lunges, for he is often in front of the striker, not behind them.

His national coach Zlatko Dalic calls him the best defender in the world. “He is not the number one now, but soon he will be. If Luka (Modric) is the face of Croatian football now, the future belongs to Gvardiol. It’s hard to believe he is just 20,” he gushes, unable to hide his admiration for his defensive linchpin.

On Friday, though, Gvardiol faces the biggest test of his career yet. To contain the incandescent Brazilian forward-line. But Dalic looks at the perceived dilemma as an opportunity: “It’s a chance for them to show how good they are. None of the guys are nervous, though I have to admit that they (Brazil) are a frightening proposition.”

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Gvardiol is a textbook of composure, he neither smiles nor fumes, neither incenses the forwards nor gets himself incensed. His only show of emotion came soon after the Japan game, where if not for his awareness and acumen, Croatia could have ended up conceding goals in normal time. After the game, he removed his jersey and rushed to his family in the gallery and wept. Later, he told Novi List: “I am attached to the family, and I could not hold back my emotions when I saw them in the stands. It was the first time they saw me in the World Cup, and without their support I wouldn’t have been here.”

The proudest of them would have been his father Tihomir, who was an amateur player for GOŠK in Novigrad, the town he was born in. He would then play for Trešnjevka, where his career ended.

But Tihomir could not devote his entire time to football, as he had a young family. So he took up fishing. He would go fishing with friends in the evening in the Adriatic Sea, and ferry the catch to drivers who transport the fish to the farmers’ market in Zagreb. “Then next morning, I would go to the Dolac market, buy fresh fish from other fishermen and sell it. Once in a while, I would take him too. Maybe, if he had not become a footballer, he would have been a fisherman like me,” Tihomir told Novi List.

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In the struggle for livelihood, he forgot football. But one Sunday, when Gvardiol was just six, he took him to a club game in the neighbourhood. An enthralled Gvardiol would go home and kick the ball around. That’s when it dawned on his father that he could be enrolled at an academy. “I never had the exposure. So why not provide him with that, even if that meant cutting corners?”

The early steps

So he took him to NK Trešnjevka, the nearest club. He was not an immediate gel-in, as most of the boys were older than him. But he learnt fast. Nenad Mašina, vice-president of the club, recollected to N1: “Joško started, as far as I remember, when he was five and a half, six years old. He was not with us for long, two or three years, but he immediately showed great talent for football. Since he was a child, together with his father, he was devoted to work and the goal he achieved.”

He was barely 10 when Dinamo Zagreb scouts were blown over by his talents. “I remember that day. A couple of scouts from Dinamo asked me if they could sign him. I said, ‘oh well, yes.’ Dinamo doesn’t take just anyone, his talents were undeniable,” said Mašina.

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As his footballing dreams blossomed, Gvardiol’s father spent more time with him, honing his skills and imparting all the knowledge he had gathered from his days in the lower tiers of Croatian football. “He often came to our artificial grass with his dad and dunked the ball. Even when he moved to Dinamo, he often came to our place and trained. Persistent, diligent, honest and with that big smile,” said Mašina.

At that time he played in all positions but that of a stopper. But at Dinamo, the youth coaches thought Gvardiol would be best as a defender. He had the presence, awareness and skills. “He is a very modern-day defender who can launch attacking moves in the split of a second. Here we say, he is a defender with a playmaker’s instinct,” his coach at Dinamo, Zoran Mamic would say.

His finest attribute is perhaps his decision-making. “He also reads the game really well and is good on the ball whether passing or carrying,” chimed in former Croatia international Nico Krancjar during commentary.

Everyone loved him at Dinamo. He got a new nickname too — Pep, because of the resemblance of their surname. Aptly, the surname Gvardiol means “guardhouse”{ in Croatian. “Someday, the real Pep would notice me,” he would joke.

Mamic certainly knew he would, that he cannot keep him for too long. Bigger clubs would come calling. “He makes things which aren’t easy look easy. It’s natural. We will never be able to see him play for Dinamo at his best. It is impossible. He is the type of talent that is impossible to keep a secret,” he once said.

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A year was all his first stint at Dinamo lasted, before RB Leipzig snapped him. He returned to Dinamo for a season on loan, before Leipzig summoned him back. After his consistent performances, he would not be on the rolls of Leipzig for too long either. His former U-21 boss Igor Biscan tweeted: “He’ll be one of the most expensive defenders ever when he changes clubs, probably in a year or two. No matter the occasion, he plays with such composure.”

That day doesn’t look distant.

First published on: 08-12-2022 at 22:17 IST
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