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'A very, very special player' - Yamal, 16, makes Euros history

Guillem Balague banner picture
[BBC]

An initial version of this story was published on 15 June 2024

Imagine playing for your country in a major tournament aged 16. Lamine Yamal has done that - and more.

The Barcelona star, who is already the youngest man to play at the European Championship, is now the youngest to score after curling in a sublime equaliser against France in Tuesday's semi-final.

The tricky winger - full name Lamine Yamal Nasraoui Ebana - has already played 51 times for Barcelona, scoring seven goals, so perhaps we shouldn't be surprised to see Yamal mixing it with the very best.

Those who know him best certainly aren't.

'He will do things we cannot yet imagine'

An outrageously precocious talent, Yamal will turn 17 on 13 July, the day before the final.

The previous youngest player at the Euros was Poland's Kacper Kozlowski - 17 years and 246 days - in a 1-1 group-stage draw against Spain in Seville in June 2021, but you get the feeling Yamal could break a few more records in the coming days.

“He will do things we cannot yet imagine,” says Ivan Carrasco, who trained him at junior level.

“I remember him as a boy who was very aware of his talent. In sport, talented people tend to be very selfish, but not Yamal.

“I saw a generous child who did not seek recognition. As a coach you sometimes thought, 'what can I teach him if he does things that I can't even imagine from the bench?'

“The closer you are to Lamine, the more you realise that the label of ‘decisive’ falls short. He is a very, very special footballer."

Former Barcelona reporter and current Sport TV journalist Jaume Marcet remembers the day he knew he was watching a prodigy.

Marcet, who is an expert of Barcelona grassroots football, said: "The most brutal display I have seen in grassroots football was from Lamine in the final of the Catalunya cadet tournament.

"I had seen Messi perform brutally, but never something like what Lamine did that match, with kids older than him. That day he did everything."

'A beacon of hope'

Yamal's trademark 304 celebration is formed by angling three fingers on his right hand, forming a '0' with his thumb and forefinger, and angling four fingers on his left hand.

It is a homage to the neighbourhood where he was raised, Rocafonda 304, an area of Barcelona rarely seen by the millions of tourists who flock to Catalonia's capital and one of the most deprived zones, not just in Catalonia but in the whole of the Spain.

The son of a mother from Equatorial Guinea and a father from Morocco, after being spotted by Barcelona as a seven-year-old playing in the concrete parks in Rocafonda, his father took him by the hand into Barcelona, where he asked: "Do you want my son to play for Barcelona?"

When they said "yes", he replied: "Well, educate him first."

Yamal moved into Barcelona's La Masia academy, despite the close proximity of where he lived.

In an interview with Sport, Xavi Martin, former director of La Masia, remembers the meeting with the player, his parents and the agent at the time, Ivan de la Pena, so that the boy could live in La Masia.

"We met on a Tuesday and on Saturday he was already packing his bags," he said.

Yamal's success is not just his, but that of an entire area until now ignored, decried, demeaned.

He is a beacon of hope for people who see in his success that dreams can come true, that anything is possible.

Yamal fell in love with football watching his father and older cousin play in the park opposite where he lived and where he would be spotted.

"I spent more time at the park than at home. Every time I set foot in the street it was to play football. These experiences stay with you," he said.

The records just keep tumbling. He is the youngest to have played for Barcelona - at 15 years and 290 days - since 15-year-old Armando Sagi in 1922.

At the age of 16 years and 57 days, he became the youngest player and goalscorer for Spain.

A future Ballon d'Or winner?

Yamal's talent has also not gone unnoticed by the very person whom many people are daring to compare him too - Lionel Messi.

In a WhatsApp message to one of his entourage, the Argentine maestro commented: "How easy does Lamine make it look?"

Messi has already mentioned Yamal when he was asked about the players who will fight for the Ballon d'Or in the coming years.

The player himself is realistic. "There will never be another like Messi," Yamal has replied to the countless comparisons between him and the Barcelona legend.

He may be right, but these days there is a huge banner that can be seen at Barcelona home games with a picture of Yamal doing the 304 sign and a logo that states "El futuro no espera" (The future won't wait).

The rest of this summer will dictate if the future has already arrived.