On 10 November, right before the last game played for RB Leipzig before travelling to Qatar, to join Croatia’s national team, centre back Josko Gvardiol collided with teammate Willi Orban in his team’s win over Freiburg.
It was a horrific collision, which left Gvardiol with a broken nose. The 20-year-old was, therefore, a doubt for Qatar 2022, especially as the climate in the Middle East country is difficult and breathing through his nose was impeded.
But nothing would have deterred Gvardiol to take part in his first-ever edition of the FIFA World Cup. Dubbed by many as a “golden boy” and one of the best young defenders in the world right now, Gvardiol decided to play through the pain and use a mask, which might be incomfortable, but it enabled him to be on the pitch.
He started football as a seven-year-old at local club NK Tresnjevka, where he was spurred by his father, Tihomir, an amateur football player himself. In just a single year, Croatian giants Dinamo Zagreb came knocking and he moved immediately, basically choosing to become a football player.
But his ascension to stardom was not easy, nor plain sailing. He first started playing as a midfielder and was not even considered to be a future star. But when one of Dinamo’s youth coaches changed his position to central defender, everything unraveled and Gvardiol’s potential was truly unlocked.
By the time he was 17 years old, he made his debut in Dinamo’s first team, but did not even had his driver’s license. Instead, when his parents or sister could not drive him to the training sessions or matches, Gvardiol was taking the tram
Offers from big clubs throughout Europe started coming, but Gvardiol was only focusing on developing and becoming a good player. Having rejected Inter Milan, he was close to join Leeds when he was 18 years old, but instead chose to sign for RB Leipzig, who forked out €19 million for the young defender.
“I don’t need to say anything about his football, they know what kind of player he is, and his character is excellent. I have seen in the national team how eager he is to play, he has a great career ahead of him, and I hope that one day we will play together in the club,” said Croatia’s midfielder Mateo Kovacic about Gvardiol.
Indeed, the central defender is down to earth and chose Leipzig instead of Leeds because he saw the work done there and how young players get chances time and time again. He took his and everything worked out, with clubs ready to pay €80 to €90 million to sign him.
“We are humble, down-to-earth people, we are not some rich people who don’t know where we are going with our money, and that’s why every success I have is a confirmation to my parents, my debt to them,” said Gvardiol, according to Croatian portal “Jutarnji”.
“My dad sells fish from Novigrad in the Ivčić fishing market in Zagreb. They go fishing there in the evening, the drivers immediately get the catch to Zagreb and in the morning the fresh fish comes to the fish market. My father gets up at four o’clock and goes to Dolac to collect and arrange the fish, so that it is ready for sale. If I wasn’t in football, I would probably follow in my dad’s footsteps and be a fisherman. I also spent time with him at work, so it is not a problem,” adds the Croatia central defender.
From humble beginnings, Gvardiol – aptly nicknamed “Pep” for his name’s similarity with the Manchester City coach – has been one of the best young players at this edition of the FIFA World Cup. And Dalibor Poldrugac – the coach who changed Gvardiol’s position when he was just a kid – was right.
“If he does not become a regular senior member of the Croatian national team by the age of 20, someone should go to prison because of it,” said Poldugrac a few years ago.
Indeed, Gvardiol has been nothing short of superb in Croatia’s progression at Qatar 2022. Despite finishing second in the group, after drawing against Morocco and Belgium with the same score, 0-0, Zlatko Dalic’s defence has been impressive.
As has been Gvardiol, who at 20 years old is featuring in the second major tournament for Croatia, after being there at the UEFA EURO 2020. His last-gasp tackle against Romelu Lukaku might just have saved his team from elimination.
But he still is the same down-to-earth kid whose mind is just focusing on the future match. Not on huge offers made by Chelsea, Juventus, or Manchester City, teams that are rumoured to be interested in him.