World Cup Emerging Players: Josko Gvardiol

Josko Gvardiol

Very few people thought of Croatia as contenders for the 2022 World Cup. Against all odds, they have managed to reach the semi-finals, four years after being the runners-up in Russia. This is largely due to their resiliency, determination and team spirit. One player who embodies all those characteristics, and has emerged as a leader for them, is their masked warrior, Josko Gvardiol.

World Cup Emerging Players: Josko Gvardiol

Josko Gvardiol’s Early Career in the Croatian League

Gvardiol was born in Zagreb, home to the most successful club in Croatian football, Dinamo Zagreb. His parents played an essential role in the growth of his footballing career. He started playing football at the age of seven when his father, once an amateur player himself, took him to Tresnjevka.

While there, he received interest from local clubs Lokomotiva and Zagreb. Ultimately, his family accepted a last minute offer from Dinamo. Initially, he played as a left-back or a central midfielder. Later, he was moved to the centre-back position by Dinamo academy coach Dalibor Poldrugac.

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He played a key part in Dinamo’s 2018–19 UEFA Youth League campaign. His impressive performances for the youth team prompted senior team coach Nenad Bjelica to call him up to the senior team. He made his league debut for them in October 2019 as a 17-year-old. His continued brilliant performances in the Croatian and Europa League over the next two seasons attracted interest from numerous Premier League clubs. However, he decided to sign for Bundesliga club RB Leipzig. The reported fee of £14 million is the highest fee paid for a Croatian teenager to-date.

Success in Germany and National Team Call-up

Josko Gvardiol made his Bundesliga debut in August 2021 and quickly established himself in the Leipzig starting lineup. His performances continued to attract interest across Europe. He played an instrumental part in Leipzig winning the DFB-Pokal and reaching the semi-finals of the Europa League. Furthermore, the DFB-Pokal victory was also the first major trophy title in the history of the club.

Gvardiol was a mainstay for the Croatian U21 team under Igor Biscan. His impressive performances earned him a call-up to the senior team for the 2020 UEFA European Championships. He made his debut for them in a friendly against Belgium. Subsequently, Croatian manager Zlatko Dalic gave him his first start in the opening game of the tournament. The then 19-year old became the youngest ever player to play for the Vatreni at a major tournament, surpassing Mateo Kovacic.

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Since then, the young defender has gone from strength to strength. Dalic once again called him up to the national team for the 2022 World Cup, where he has led the defensive unit admirably. The Croatians have conceded only three goals in their run to the semi-finals.

Attracting Interest Across Europe

Today, Gvardiol is one of the highest rated youngsters in world football. At 6’1 he possesses a combination of speed and physicality which not many defenders have. He also has an extremely high footballing IQ, is rarely outwitted by opposition forwards and rarely lunges forward to make rash tackles. Dalic said this of his young defender: “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 Josko Gvardiol. It’s hard to believe he is just 20.”

Chelsea, Manchester City and Manchester United are reportedly interested in the £86 million man. Real Madrid are also looking to add Gvardiol to their existing core of talented youngsters. It seems like every team in the world is on the lookout for the next Virgil van Dijk, and Gvardiol is seemingly doing his best to become exactly that. “As a kid, I admired Lionel Messi, but now I am increasingly watching the players in my position. And today the best is Virgil Van Dijk,” he said in a recent interview.

If recent performances are anything to go by, Gvardiol may very well be the next big thing coming out of Croatia. But first, fans from the Balkan country will be hoping that he leads his nation to a first major title in their history.

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