In the summer Lamine Yamal was born, a few miles from Barcelona on the Mediterranean coast, Robert Lewandowski already had 30-odd professional goals to his name.
Ilkay Gundogan had just announced his great potential, with a scoring debut for Bochum under-19s. It was 2007, and 16 years on, Lewandowski and Gundogan are the evergreens maintaining Barcelona’s proud status as a club stars want to join.
It’s an important role at an institution battling financial difficulties and the tricky legacy of a relatively fallow recent period in the harvest of talent coming up from Barca’s academy. But from there, there’s sudden, high hope that a genuine superstar is emerging.
He is Yamal, who has only just turned 16. Since being fast-tracked, 10 days ago, to the starting XI of the senior Barcelona side, positioned to the right of centre-forward Lewandowski, 19 years his senior, and ahead of Gundogan, a midfielder twice Yamal’s age, he has outshone both.
Two starts, two direct assists; several shots that stung opposition goalkeepers’ palms or fingertips and two efforts that ricocheted back off the frame of the goal are Yamal’s core statistics so far.
They look like landmarks in an express journey into senior football that will leap forward again in the next three days. Yamal, who spent May guiding Spain to the semi-finals of the European Under-17 championship, his four goals making him the tournament’s joint leading scorer, is earmarked for his first senior international call-up.
The greater suspense is not over whether he will be invited to become a strikingly precocious full international but with which country it happens. Morocco, for whom Yamal is eligible through his Moroccan-born father, have been in touch through their manager Walid Regragui, who felt ready, with the player’s blessing, to name him on Thursday in the squad to face Liberia and Burkina Faso next month.
Spain’s manager, Luis de la Fuente, meanwhile, also wants to list Yamal’s name in his squad for the forthcoming Euro 2024 qualifiers against Georgia and Cyprus.
The dilemma for Yamal, who under Fifa rules would be committed to one country alone once he plays three senior competitive internationals, is between the upwardly-mobile team Regragui guided to the semi-finals of the last World Cup; or Spain, the country of his birth.
The Spanish national team set-up is currently in a state of chaos, following Fifa’s suspension, pending disciplinary proceedings, of Football Federation president Luis Rubiales because of his conduct immediately after Spain’s women’s team won the World Cup. De la Fuente is also under fire for his tacit backing of Rubiales, who faces demands from across the sport for his resignation after he kissed one of the World Cup winning players, Jenni Hermoso, on the mouth during the medal ceremony.
Spain look narrow favourites to claim Yamal, who has represented them from under-15 to under-19 level and developed as a footballer with Barcelona.
“It’s his personal decision,” said Xavi Hernandez, Barcelona’s manager. “I genuinely don’t know what he will choose. Above all, I want him to spend many years with Barcelona. He can define an era here.”
Xavi promoted Yamal to the first-team squad in April, gave him a Liga debut off the bench when he was still just 15, and admits to being “surprised by what he’s doing at his age. I am not alone for that. He’s exceptional. He’s mature, intelligent and almost always makes the right decisions, takes the right options”.
Witness the inch-perfect cross to Gavi to head in the opening goal in the see-saw victory at Villarreal at the weekend. And Gavi, at 1.73m tall, needs his crosses delivered perfectly to score goals like the one that set Barca on the way to a 4-3 victory. Or witness the smooth turn and pass that engineered the chance for Frenkie de Jong to put Barca 2-0 up.
At 3-2 down, Yamal galvanised the Barca fightback, striking the top of the Villarreal goalpost with a fierce drive off his heavily favoured left foot. He helped complete the comeback when, after another firm drive rebounded off the bottom of the post, Lewandowski followed up to score Barca’s fourth.
When Yamal left the field, 14 minutes from full time, Villarreal supporters stood to applaud his outstanding performance, one that presents Xavi will a quandary he scarcely anticipated two months ago, when there was still a fading hope Lionel Messi – now in Miami – might come back to Barcelona, and Ousmane Dembele – now of Paris Saint-Germain – was Barca’s star winger.
Raphinha, the Brazil international, then assumed that role, first-choice on a right flank where Yamal has been cutting in with such devastating effect while Raphinha served a two-match suspension. The Brazilian is available again for Sunday’s Liga trip to Osasuna. But Xavi will think very hard about demoting the dazzling Yamal to make space for him.