The teenage defender played his part in the Croatian outfit’s shock win over Tottenham as he prepares to bid farewell to his boyhood club this summer
Dinamo Zagreb defender Josko Gvardiol has described the club’s run in the Europa League as “the most beautiful period” of his career as he faces up to his final months with his boyhood club.
The teenager has already agreed a €19 million (£17.5m/$22m) move to RB Leipzig ahead of the summer transfer window, after becoming the latest Dinamo academy product to impress in the senior ranks.
And after playing his part in Dinamo’s shock elimination of Tottenham in the last 16, he is hopeful of bowing out by securing both domestic and European silverware.
What was said?
“Before the summer, I want to play in as many of Dinamo’s matches as possible, and win the championship title and the Croatian Cup together with my excellent team-mates,” Gvardiol told Goal in an exclusive interview after he was named on the 2021 NXGN list of the world’s top teenage footballers.
“Of course, we dream of winning the Europa League. We will do our best to achieve it because Dinamo is a big club and I think it deserves that.
“I think we are all going through the most beautiful period of our careers at the moment. All players breathe as one and you see the togetherness. That is the most important thing.
“I really care about that. When I look back on my career someday in the future, I would like to remember great results achieved with Dinamo.”
Josko Gvardiol: The story so far
After starting his football education with local club NK Tresnjevka at the age of six, he was enrolled into Dinamo’s famed academy two years later.
Having worked his way through the ranks in the Croatian capital, Gvardiol – who can play at either centre-back or left-back – made his first-team debut at the age of 17 in October 2019, before marking his first start a few weeks later with a goal.
That strike saw him become the sixth-youngest goalscorer in the club’s history, and he certainly believes he can offer as much in the attacking third as he does in defence.
“I would say that my style of play is based on strength, but on technique also,” he said. “I am trying to play as much as I can and do the simple things in every game, because that kind of performance can bring you good results.
“I am a defender and I always strive to have good communication with my team-mates and team work.
“It is hard for me to answer the question about my strengths. It is not easy to talk about myself. Maybe I could point out my versatility. My primary role is in a defensive position, but I think I can contribute in other segments of the game.”
That versatility attracted a number of clubs to Gvardiol, with Bayern Munich and Leeds United having both shown an interest in the youngster before he eventually signed his contract with Leipzig in September.
Which players has Gvardiol been compared to?
When asked about his own footballing heroes, Gvardiol said: “My idol, in general, is Leo Messi because I think that kind of player is born once every 50 years. But, in my position, I would choose Sergio Ramos and Virgil van Dijk [as role models].”
Having spoken to Gvardiol’s former coach at both Dinamo and in the Croatia youth set-up, Tomislav Rukavina, there may be another modern defensive great that Gvardiol resembles more.
“His tremendous self-confidence, strong leadership traits and courage all remind me of Thiago Silva,” Rukavina told Goal.
“Gvardiol is one of the young players who, I am sure, will be one of the most important players of the national team for a long time.
“He is extremely strong, fast, agile and durable. He has excellent jump timing and excellent heading technique. He has a developed sense of the game, excellent perception of situations and timely response to what’s happening on the pitch.
“Given his youth, there is a lot of room for improvement in terms of tactics still, as there is for improving technical characteristics.”
Which other players have emerged from Dinamo?
Gvardiol is just the latest youth product to emerge off the Dinamo talent conveyor belt, with the club having provided the backbone of Croatia’s golden generation over the past decade.
“This is an important part of the club for us,” Dinamo academy manager Zeljko Kopic told Goal. “The most valuable players we have had are players who have come from our academy.
“Luka Modric, Sime Vrsaljko, Dejan Lovren, Mateo Kovacic, Vedran Corluka, Dejan Badelj, Andrej Kramaric, Marko Pjaca and Tin Jedvaj are some of the academy players we have had, while Mario Mandzukic, Marcelo Brozovic and Domagoj Vida also played for Dinamo’s first team. Overall, we had 14 players in the World Cup final squad.
“When we build players like that, we give them chances in the first team, but they also provide stability for the club and investment.”
There is hope that Gvardiol will be one of the leaders of the next generation of Croatian superstars, and Kopic believes he has what it takes to go right to the top of the game.
“Seeing him at 17, it was unbelievable how good he was, both mentally and physically,” he revealed. “We are really proud of him and his success, and we are proud of everything he gave to the club.
“If he stays healthy, I am sure we will see him become one of the best central defenders in Europe.”
For Gvardiol’s part, he is fully aware of how fortunate he is to have been part of one of the continent’s most consistent talent factories.
“It is certain that Dinamo’s youth academy played a big role in my development,” he said. “I was in the academy for 10 years, I played in all the youth teams, won numerous trophies and individual awards. It is a period of my life that I will never forget.
“It is known that Dinamo’s academy has the best development system and that, if you are a talented player, you can certainly find your way to the big stage. This has been proven by many players who are stars of world football today.”