DOHA, Qatar — Imagine a massive, red-clad, masked man coming at you full speed with the intent of taking the ball you were dribbling. That's the reality for World Cup players facing Croatia's Joško Gvardiol.
The 20-year-old center back has been one of the team's standouts during the tournament. That's despite wearing a mask that covers half of his face during games.
The mask is rectangular and shiny, with massive eyeholes, secured by two large leather straps around the back of his head and metal buttons. It sort of looks similar to what a bank robber from an old western movie might wear or even Zorro.
But the mask isn't a fashion statement. It's actually a protective measure. When he's not with the Croatian national team, he plays for the German soccer club RB Leipzig.
Gvardiol is wearing a face mask during the tournament because he broke his nose during a German league match on Nov. 10 — the day after he was named to Croatia’s World Cup squad.
The injury could have forced him out of the tournament. And analysts predicted it might slow him down in the team's matches. But Gvardiol proved them wrong, becoming instrumental in his team's success so far in the World Cup.
The fact that Croatia conceded only one goal in its three group games at the World Cup is largely down to his performance on the field.
“He’s the best defender in the world,” Croatia coach Zlatko Dalić said through a translator after Croatia's 0-0 game against Belgium. “Even if he’s not currently No. 1, he will become No. 1.”
Face masks are a relatively common tool in high-end soccer. They protect the face, especially the eyes and nose, from flying kicks and other hazards on the field.
Gvardiol isn't the only one at the World Cup who has been sporting a face mask. Son Heung-Min, the captain of the South Korean team, wore a batman-like mask to protect a fractured eye socket.
Iranian goalkeeper Alireza Beiranvand also wore one during practice after injuring his head in a match against England, although he didn't wear his mask during any subsequent games.
According to the Guardian, the masks are made from polycarbonate plastics, and some are 3D-printed to fit the exact contours of an athlete's face.