AL RAYYAN, Qatar (AP) — In what may have been Luka Modric’s final World Cup match, Josko Gvardiol made a play to be Croatia’s next go-to guy.
Modric has been the man in the middle for Croatia for more than a decade, leading the team to the World Cup final four years ago and the semifinals of this year’s tournament. But at 37, his time at the top is surely coming to an end.
Modric was again central to Croatia’s 2-1 victory over Morocco for third place at the World Cup on Saturday, but it was Gvardiol that stepped up from the back at Khalifa International Stadium.
“We made a comeback,” said Gvardiol, referring to Tuesday’s loss to Argentina in the semifinals. “We knew we had to be focused and show grit. Today we proved we deserved third place. We are going home celebrating.”
Gvardiol, wearing a black mask after breaking his nose during a Bundesliga match last month, plays a different position and looks to be nearly twice the size of the diminutive No. 10. But at 20 years old he is also almost half the age of Modric and plays like a veteran rather than someone who was still the age of a high school student when Croatia lost to France only four years ago in the 2018 final.
Nicknamed “Little Pep” because of the similarities between his last name and that of Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola, Gvardiol scored Croatia’s opening goal in the seventh minute of Saturday’s match with a diving header.
His head was involved on the other end of the field as well. As a center back playing just behind Modric, Gvardiol was constantly being called upon to shoo away Morocco’s chances, to keep the area clear of red shirts and keep the ball out of his team’s net.
He did that, and he was named player of the match because of it.
Croatia coach Zlatko Dalic, reflecting on Gvardiol’s imposing presence throughout the tournament in Qatar, said the defender deserved to be named the best young player of the World Cup.
“If not the best young player, he must be in the competition for the best young player,” Dalic said. “Usually the forwards, the top scorers, are considered for this award, but Josko has proven that defense players deserve this and I believe he deserves the award.”
Gvardiol is listed at 6-foot-1, only five inches taller than Modric, but he fills a huge space in Croatia’s defense and he showed he can also move like a smaller player.
Running through the middle of the field with the ball at his feet in the second half, Gvardiol crossed into the opposite penalty area with only the goalkeeper to beat. Morocco midfielder Sofyan Amrabat, however, appeared to clip Gvardiol’s left foot. He went down in a heap and called for a penalty, but the referee wasn’t buying it.
The big man in the black mask wasn’t happy, sitting on the grass with his arms in the air before rejoining play on the other end, immediately jumping to try to head the ball out of danger from in front of his own goal.
“I think there was a touch there,” Gvardiol said of the possible penalty. “I’m a defense player. That’s the worst part, that I don’t know how to fall.”
Gvardiol was central to Croatia’s strong defense from the start in Qatar, with the team allowing only one goal in three group matches. They continued that stingy play into the knockout rounds until being undone in the 3-0 loss to Argentina in the semifinals.
Despite what Dalic said, Gvardiol was unconcerned with the individual award, preferring instead to win something with his teammates.
“I am not interested in any such award for best young player,” Gvardiol said. “What I care about is the bronze medal and I fulfilled my dream.”
Gvardiol came into the World Cup after recently extending his contract with German club Leipzig, a deal that ties him to the team through 2027. But some of Europe’s biggest clubs may have something to say about that with the January transfer window coming up in a matter of weeks.