Who is the 20-year-old Croatian who stopped Richarlison and will face Messi

The mask covering his face, necessary after an injury to his nose in November, is preventing Josko Gvardiol from showing his face to the world in Qatar. But the 20-year-old Croatian defender has been making good use of the opportunity to do something even more important: show his football.

Despite his youth, and inexperience, he is one of Croatia’s best players at the World Cup, helping to take the team to the semi-finals, and also one of the best – if not the best – defender in the competition. At recovered balls, at least, there’s nobody better than him.

There have been 35 balls recovered in just five games, in addition to eight interceptions, which also makes him the leader of that statistic, tied with other players. In the entire competition, according to Sofascore, he only took one dribble.

In the game in which Croatia eliminated Brazil, yesterday (8), the defender had a physical fight with Richarlison, who had no space to receive freely inside the area. In the small area, he was also the one to stop Neymar’s kick in the small area and deflect a dangerous shot from Vini Jr in the first half.

But his most crucial participation came 10 minutes into extra time. In the bid, Fred catches up with Pedro and is launched at the back of the defender, who wins in the race, makes an accurate tackle, and disarms the Brazilian a step away from the penalty area. It is from this recovery that Croatia reaches the equalizing goal.

Now, in the semifinals, he will face his idol. “Lionel Messi is the type of player that is born every 50 years,” he told the Goal website, explaining why he sees the Argentine as his greatest football idol.

In the eyes of the big ones

Gvardiol is, for the time being, a player for RB Leipzig, the German branch of the Red Bull group. But that shouldn’t last long. If he was already the target of several big European clubs before the Cup started, the harassment tends to increase after the World Cup, turning the defender into one of the big targets of the next transfer window.

But the success of the 1.85m defender comes as no surprise to European scouts. Formed in the youth categories of Dinamo Zagreb, the main Croatian club, he already attracted, since his youth, the attention of great Europeans, especially after helping the team reach the semifinals of the youth version of the Champions League, in 2019.

By then, he was already a central defender for Croatia’s under-19 and under-21 teams, and it didn’t take long for Gvardiol to move up to Dinamo’s first team. A month later, he was already sold to Leipzig, for 10 million euros, and with a commitment to perform at the end of the season. The transfer was the biggest ever for a Croatian youth player.

In Germany, the first season was already overwhelming, to the point that Gvardiol was nominated for the “Kopa Trophy”, given by France Football magazine to the best under-21 player of the season. The Croatian finished sixth, behind Gavi (Barcelona), Camavigna (Real Madrid), Musiala (Bayern), Bellingham (Borussia) and Nuno Mendes (PSG).

Chelsea or Real?

In the last transfer window, Gvardiol already had his name linked to Chelsea. According to journalist Fabrizio Romano, an Italian specialist in the ball market, the English club would be willing to pay €90 million for the Croatian, which would make him the most expensive defender in history.

The negotiation did not come out, but Chelsea’s interest continued to be reported, with the Croatian arriving in London to replace Thiago Silva, who is already 38 years old and is in the final stretch of his career. “My agent is looking after my future. I’m happy in Leipzig now. It’s good to see the connections, especially because of Kovacic. So? you never know!”, said Gvardiol, already during the Cup. “Chelsea is a great club, maybe one day I’ll be there.”

But Gvardiol later also spoke of Real Madrid, with the Spanish press speculating his move to the Meringue club. “Real Madrid is the biggest club in the world, so who knows… Maybe one day I can play there. I would like to,” he said after the Belgium game.

And that mask?

Gvardiol plays masked after an injury sustained on 9 November in a Bundesliga match against Freiburg. He had a head collision with his defender partner, the Hungarian Willi Orban, and left the field straight to the hospital.

It was the last round of the German Championship before the break for the World Cup and the diagnosis was a broken nose. Already needing to perform for the Croatian national team, he even had his cut speculated by the local press, but managed to guarantee himself at the World Cup with a protective mask.

It is the same technology, Brazilian, that became known worldwide when it was used by another rival of Brazil: striker Son Heung-min, from South Korea.

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