Sky is the limit for Spain and Barcelona golden boy Lamine Yamal ahead of Euro 2024

Teenager has been fast-tracked through ranks at La Liga giants and now aims to make mark on international stage.

Spain's Lamine Yamal set up two goals in a 5-1 win over Northern Ireland in Palma de Mallorca. AFP
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Former Barcelona manager Xavi Hernandez liked what he saw. He was watching Barcelona’s cadets (the 14-15 year olds) and spotted a player who stood out: Lamine Yamal. He asked about him and was told that he sometimes played with the Juvenil A team (15-16 year olds). Hernandez invited Yamal to some training sessions with the first team and was convinced about the youngster’s talent.

Barcelona then pushed for Yamal to have all the right contracts signed because Xavi felt he was ready to play with experienced stars such as Robert Lewandowski. At 15 years and 290 days, Yamal came on for Gavi in front of 88,530 against Real Betis in April 2023.

Afterwards, Hernandez said: “He’s someone who could define an era at this club. I had no concern about calling him up. He has natural talent, he’s daring and he can help us, however young he is. Youngsters these days tend to have great confidence. I look at them and it’s very different from my day. They’re fearless.”

“He surprised everyone in training,” Jordi Cruyff, then the club’s sports director, told The National. “Players gave him the ball because they trusted him – both the tough passes and the easy passes. They recognised that he could do anything with the ball. Amazing considering his age.”

There was still much work to do for the player who bypassed the club’s B team which competes in Spain’s third tier. Even Lionel Messi had to play B team football.

Yamal played only 23 minutes of B team football. There was a pressing contract issue; Yamal was able to leave the club he’d been at since he was seven years old for free at the end of the 2024 season. Barcelona did their best to tie him down to a longer deal.

Yamal had been taught to attack as he came through Barcelona’s youth system but he needed to learn to run back and defend when his team lost possession. Raphinha was the model of how to do this on and off the ball. Yamal learnt quickly and he’s since made the right-wing position – one previously occupied by the Brazilian – his own.

Yamal, who’ll represent Spain at Euro 2024, has been smashing records because of his age. He is the youngest ever player to play for Barcelona since the early debut in 2022, then at 16 years and 38 days, the youngest in the 21st century to start a La Liga game, the youngest to score in the league, to start a Champions league game (16 years, 83 days), to play in a classico, to score in the Copa del Rey. And so on.

To show he wasn’t a one hit wonder, he became the youngest to make 50 appearances for Barcelona’s first team. That milestone was in May towards the end of a season when he also scored seven times and made 10 assists from the right.

For his country, Yamal became the youngest ever debutant for Spain – 16 years, 57 days in September 2023, scoring in a 7-1 European qualifier in Georgia after coming on at half time. Though born just north of Barcelona, he could have played for Morocco, the country of his father or Equatorial Guinea, his mother’s country.

He chose Spain. He started the next international, another big win against Cyprus. He has become an important player in Luis de la Fuente’s side, a starter in the biggest games. He set up two goals in Saturday’s 5-1 win against Northern Ireland in Mallorca.

“It’s incredible what Lamine is doing at that age, like Nico Williams,” said Northern Ireland manager Michael O’Neill after the game. “They're going to be world stars.”

Yamal wasn’t unknown. He represented Spain at Under 15, 16, 17 and 19 level – yet he was doing things in reverse. He played for Spain’s Under 16s before the Under 15s and he was only 16 years and one month old when he made his full Spain debut.

If he scores or assists in Euro 2024, he will be the youngest ever player to do so in the competition.

He stands as a leading candidate for this year’s Golden Boy award – the best player in the world born in or after 2004 and playing in Europe – along with Manchester United’s Alejandro Garnacho and Benfica’s Joao Neves.

The award will be presented in December. He is so young he could win it for the next five years. So young that he won the Golden Boy The Youngest trophy last year as the youngest of the 100 candidates for the Golden Boy award.

Yamal grew up close to Mataro, 20 kilometres north of Barcelona (his goal celebrations feature his fingers making the 304 postcode of his barrio), but he effectively lives at the club’s Masia on the other side of the city.

There, he is learning the right way. He is respectful to older players, lives a stable life in an environment which is protected 24/7. He must complete his schoolwork and behave responsibly. He does all of these.

He did change his agent which surprised some at the club, shifting from the football focused Ivan de la Pena to Jorge Mendes, but his progress as a player appears unhindered. His body strength has improved, he has learnt to play on the left wing as well on the right, but he is more comfortable on the right.

“He doesn’t always dribble inside,” noted Cruyff. “He’s a left footer but goes outside his marker and not inside. This is lacking in modern wingers. He’s an exceptional talent and his head and body are connected.

“He has the talent and desire and personality to succeed and keep improving. He’s willing to invest to improve every day and always want more. This is a formula for success.”

Yamal is fast with rapid acceleration, skilful in one-on-one situations, slender yet strong. He’s mature and makes the right decisions in games for a club who remain beset by financial issues. Though Barca remain attractive for players and their families, the club pins much hope on their greatest asset – the football factory that is La Masia.

Free of some of the geographic and political restrictions which hamper recruitment of their big English rivals, the Catalans can get the best young players from around Spain as they did with Pedri, Gavi and Ansu Fati. Yet Yamal was born on their doorstep.

“Sometimes we forget that these players are in an early stage of adaptation, despite the feeling that they have been in the elite for many years or that they have to be the ones to get us out of all this,” said Barcelona’s football coordinator Bojan Krkic, also a graduate of La Masia.

“In my opinion, they are too young, it's just that they are very good, but we all must support them so that the journey can be as long as possible.”

But he also said of Yamal: “He has something innate and what he does on the field requires little effort. In terms of education, we instil in them some effort, and in Yamine’s case, it was passing the fourth year of compulsory secondary education. These players have grown up knowing that being a player is important, but at the same time, they must follow a vital and formative path.”

Croatia, Italy and Albania await at Euro 2024, and the stage is set for Barcelona’s exciting young talent to demonstrate that he is both good enough and old enough.

Updated: June 10, 2024, 2:44 PM