Lamine Yamal's humble beginnings, dream run at Barcelona and the Morocco connection

Barca prodigy's trademark 3-0-4 gesture ensures those who know him best are reminded of the number that means home

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It was when Lamine Yamal’s number came up that things turned ominous for Barcelona. They led Paris Saint-Germain by two goals on aggregate in their Uefa Champions League quarter-final. With barely half-an-hour gone of the second, home leg, they went down to 10 men, defender Ronald Araujo sent off. In the rejig of resources, the most junior player on the pitch was substituted, sacrificed.

The substitution was hard luck on the kid who had just set up Barcelona’s early goal; the kid who, six days earlier, with a cross elegantly curved off the outside of his magical left foot, created Barca’s opening goal in the Paris leg. Without Yamal, Barcelona would lose momentum – 1-0 up became a 4-1 defeat on Tuesday night, PSG through to the semis 6-4 on aggregate.

So there will be no 16-year-old in the Champions League final, no fairytale climax to a season where Lamine Yamal Nasraoui Ebana has been setting new records for precociousness almost by the week.

Whenever a new record number comes up – youngest Barcelona debutant since the 1940s, at 15; the club’s youngest ever goalscorer, at 16 and two months – Yamal ensures those who know him best are reminded of the number that means home.

His celebratory gesture is becoming a trademark: Forearms crossed, thumb and index finger of his left hand forming an ‘0’, the other three fingers pointing upwards and, with his right hand, all four fingers raised. It’s a message: 3-0-4. It references the postcode of where he grew up, Rocafonda, uphill and inland on Catalonia’s Maresme coast, on the edge of the city of Mataro.

Make your way, as The National did last week, to postcode 08304 – all the codes in around Barcelona start with 08 – and you see Yamal’s pride in his locale being shared by that locale. At the Arabica Bakery, the shop front has been transformed into a mural in honour of Rocafonda’s rising starlet.

It depicts Yamal making his 3-0-4 gesture and it draws attention to his lineage. Three flags form the masthead of the painting: Morocco, Spain and Equatorial Guinea, respectively the countries where Yamal’s father, Mounir; Lamine himself; and his mother Sheila were born.

The bakery – its pastries are delicious, The National can vouch – is run by Yamal’s paternal uncle, Abdul, so delight and solidarity with the gifted, pioneering nephew is to be expected. Across the road, where Rocafonda Football Club have their headquarters, the association with Yamal is at a remove, but also proud.

He was never officially part of the junior ranks here, having enrolled at La Torreta, a club further inland closer to where Sheila worked, but he is remembered as the kid who showed exceptional ability and enthusiasm on Rocafonda’s pitch, and on the adjacent concrete facility, from when he was four years old.

He would join in with older kids, recalls Yassin, 18, who grew up in Rocafonda and is at the beginning of what he hopes will be a professional career. “Lamine was special, good enough, even at a very young age, to more than match us,” says Yassin.

As for the younger aspirants in Rocafonda, there may be a future professional among them, though to judge by the replica strips they wear, their dreams do not follow the Lamine template step for step. There are as many Real Madrid shirts as there are in the cherry-and-blue of Barca. And there are more Morocco jerseys on display than Spain ones.

That speaks to the diversity of this part of the Mediterranean. “We are a very mixed community,” says Agustin Vazquez, president of Rocafonda FC, “with a lot of families of North and West African heritage, and that’s reflected at our club.” Vazquez draws attention to the challenges facing many in the area: according to Spain’s National Institute of Statistics, almost half the families in Rocafonda are at risk of falling below the poverty line, a figure that drops very sharply just a few miles south along the Maresme coast.

But there’s a tight-knit spirit here, judging by all the street art that has ‘304’ as part of its signature. There’s a hostility to prejudice, to judge by the incident that took place last May, when during municipal elections, a husting by the Spanish political party Vox, who carry an anti-immigration message, was disrupted by a Rocafonda man: It was Lamine’s father, Mounir, who a Mataro court later fined for his part in the confrontation.

'Flashes of Messi'

Above the counter of the Arabica Bakery there’s a narrow banner, marking the date, 29.4.2023 and the minute – the 84th – when Yamal made history as a 15 year-old coming off the bench to play for Barcelona.

It’s a journey that began with his being spotted by a Barca scout when he was playing at La Torreta, aged seven. Invited to a trial, he impressed with his close control and speed and enrolled in the club’s academy, La Masia. He had joined a fabled nursery. Lionel Messi, Pep Guardiola, the club’s current head coach Xavi, among many others, are graduates.

Those who had seen Yamal play in Rocafonda knew he was special, but that merely being taken on at Barca’s youth system would come with no guarantees. As Luis Fernandez, who coaches at the Union Deportiva Molinos club, 300 metres up the hill from Rocafonda’s main square, points out, Yamal’s rise has also been about timing.

“Lamine is exceptional,” observes Fernandez, who was a Barca goalkeeper in the 1980s, and counted Diego Maradona among his teammates, “but he’s also grown up at Barca during a difficult period. The club are short of money, so they need to bring players up from the academy because they can’t buy in stars as they could in the past. He’s seized his opportunity. Now it’s important they look after him.”

Excessive expectation is one obstacle. With his preference for his left foot, his capacity for the kind of surge that took him past his marker to cross for the opening goal against PSG, the comparisons with Messi are hard to resist. “There are flashes of Messi,” says Xavi, who promoted him to the first team, “but to liken him to the greatest player this sport has ever seen does him no favours.”

Xavi worries about teenaged burnout, but seems disinclined to put a sudden brake on Yamal, apart from in urgent conditions like Tuesday’s against PSG. This weekend, less than a year since he made his Barca debut, Yamal should be in the starting XI for football’s grandest club fixture, Real Madrid versus Barcelona.

At stake at the Bernabeu is, very likely, the Liga title, with holders Barca trailing Madrid by eight points. Close the gap to five, and with six matches left in the calendar, the defending champions would retain a faint hope of keeping their title.

Come June, Yamal will then head to the European Championship with Spain, who made him their youngest debutant at 16 years and 57 days old last September. At that stage he had yet to play a full 90 minutes for his club; the suspicion lurked that his Spain call-up had been rushed, the purpose to convince Yamal not to choose to play for Morocco, for whom he is eligible and who had been in contact.

It’s a proprietorial, nation-v-nation duel being replicated across Spanish football. In Sunday’s clasico Yamal could directly face Madrid’s Brahim Diaz, who was born in Malaga – in postcode 29012 – but after some prevarication, is now a full Morocco international, playing for the country of his paternal heritage, having represented Spain at various youth levels.

PSG’s Achraf Hakimi, born in Madrid, chose Morocco. The Villarreal winger, Ilias Akhomach, who turned 20 this week, was, like Yamal, born in Catalonia but last month made his full debut for the Atlas Lions.

There will be many more with the same choice. Yamal may be a hero, he may become Spain’s attacking star for the next 15 years, but his and future generations of Spanish-North African talents are not all boarding the same train as the boy from 304.

Updated: April 20, 2024, 11:33 AM