A year ago today, a 17-year-old Pedro Gonzalez Lopez, ‘Pedri’ to his friends, was weighing up options. He had just scored what turned out to be his last goal in the Spanish second division, for Las Palmas. He was due to join Barcelona but there were no certainties where he would fit in.
At his age, he would logically go to Barca B, the feeder team playing in the third tier. There was a possibility he might carry on at Las Palmas, on loan. Pedri announced a higher ambition. “I want to fight for a place in the Barcelona first team,” he said. He was applauded for his drive, and identified as not only a prospect for the future, but a determined one. Yet the future, with his 18th birthday still months away, was being planned in the long term.
Fast forward 12 months and Pedri enters the men’s football at the Olympic Games — a competition that begins on Thursday with Spain against Egypt as a standout fixture — as the tournament’s star. He is the youngest member of a Spain squad rich in talent and know-how. Six of them, including Pedri, were involved in the semi-final of the European Championships only 16 days ago.
By the end of that epic, lost on a penalty shoot-out against Italy, Pedri had covered more ground in the tournament — over 76km — than any other footballer at Euro 2020. It is perhaps as well for the long-distance athletes gathered in Tokyo he has not been selected for the Olympic marathon too.
It has been a marathon year for the midfielder, who played over 50 times for Barcelona’s first-team in his debut season, inspired a Copa del Rey triumph, and could claim to have played a role in persuading club legend Lionel Messi to remain at Barca. The on-the-pitch complicity between the 34-year-old Argentine and the boyish Canary Islander with the sharp eye for a pass has been an evident joy for Messi.
As for Pedri the international, he made his senior Spain debut only in March, already dubbed 'The New Andres Iniesta'. He was soon undroppable, as trusted as any Spain player to initiate attacks.
By the end of the Euros, he was not only the most voracious runner at the tournament, but also its most positive mover with the ball, if you gauge that by his unmatched number of runs, in possession, into the last third of the pitch. His nomination as Euro 2020s Best Young Player was a given.
Normally, a country’s Olympic team is regarded as a sort of stepping-stone level. The regulations limit squads to only three players over 24, but such has been Pedri’s precocious rise that he could still be in contention for the next Games.
His presence in Japan is a bonus for Spain’s Olympic coach, Luis de la Fuente, and viewed with mixed feelings from Camp Nou. An expedition to Japan that had been considered as useful experience for an 18-year-old now looks like a cause of possible fatigue for a player who has accumulated far more experience in the last year than almost anybody imagined possible.
But Pedri operates with supercharged batteries, and there is every hope he will return for the new club season with an Olympic medal that acts as compensation for the heartbreak at Wembley, when Spain went toe-to-toe with Italy over 120 minutes.
Likewise for Dani Olmo, whose superb semi-final at Euro 2020 ended with missing his spot-kick in the shoot-out. Goalkeeper Unai Simon, defenders Eric Garcia and Pau Torres and striker Mikel Oyarzabal are the other Spaniards who have shuttled quickly from the Euros to Japan for a second prestigious tournament of the summer.
“They have all come in and integrated perfectly,” said De la Fuente. “We have a great group of players who I believe will match expectations.”
The head coach acknowledges that Spain look the most competitive, worldly contenders in the 16-team tournament. The likes of Germany, France and Argentina have not leaned on stars from their recent European Championship or Copa America campaigns, while Brazil have concentrated their wealth of experience mainly in one man.
Dani Alves, ex of Barcelona, Juventus and Paris Saint-Germain and a serial collector of trophies as a tireless attacking right-back, is one of Brazil’s three ‘over-age’ players. He’s 38. That’s two whole decades older than Pedri.