Why are World Cup players wearing strange face masks on the pitch?

<span>Photograph: Kieran McManus/REX/Shutterstock</span>
Photograph: Kieran McManus/REX/Shutterstock

They have raised comparisons to Hannibal Lecter and the Phantom of the Opera, but the strange face masks popping up on World Cup pitches in Qatar are not fashion statements but hi-tech protective devices.

The masks are made from materials like polycarbonate and protect athletes who have sustained facial injuries, ensuring they can play on without risking further damage. Some are 3D printed to exactly fit a scan of the contours of each athlete’s face.

Croatian football’s golden boy Joško Gvardiol, 20, wore a distinctive black face mask during last week’s Group F showdown against Morocco and again on Sunday against Canada.

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The RB Leipzig centre-back left the field after a collision with teammate Willi Orban in a match earlier this month, with scans later showing he had broken his nose and suffered minor injuries to his face and eyes. Gvardiol decided to wear the mask to protect himself from further damage.

A similar on-field collision left South Korea’s Son Heung-min, 30, with a fractured eye socket during a 1 November Champions League win. The Tottenham Hotspur star collided with Marseille defender Chancel Mbemba’s shoulder, prompting his immediate departure from the field.

Related: Son Heung-min a doubt for World Cup after fracturing eye socket

Son now sports a black carbon fibre mask, which he described as “more comfortable than I thought. It’s made of good material. It’s light, hard when worn on the face, and it’s a good material that can protect against impact. I was surprised that it was considerably lighter than I thought.”

Son Heung-min in a mask covering his forehead and cheekbones.
‘Lighter than I thought’: Son Heung-min of South Korea. Photograph: Dave Shopland/REX/Shutterstock

Iran’s goalkeeper Alireza Beiranvand, 30, also masked up after sustaining a facial injury against England.

Beiranvand dramatically clashed heads with teammate Majid Hosseini in their 6-2 defeat.

Tunisia’s Ellyes Skhiri, 27, sported a mask when facing Denmark and Australia in Group D clashes. The FC Köln midfielder is nursing a broken cheekbone after suffering an injury in late October.

Skhiri’s in a carbon fibre mask
Ellyes Skhiri during Tunisia’s loss to Australia on Saturday. Photograph: Catherine Ivill/Getty Images