Thursday, July 18, 2024

Meet Lamine Yamal, the 16-year-old Spain wonderkid lighting up Euro 2024

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One year ago Lamine Yamal was playing in the quarter-finals of the U17 European Championships in front of only a few hundred supporters. Skipping past defenders for fun, he registered an assist and scored once in Spain’s 3-0 victory over the Republic of Ireland.

At just 15 years old, he was one of the youngest players competing in the U17 competition at the time. Yet he already stood out among his peers, finishing as the joint top-scorer of the tournament – despite Spain crashing out to France in the semi-final.

Fast forward a year, he’s now the youngest player competing at Euro 2024, with his boyish smile revealing braces, his joyful approach to the game providing a captivating subplot to Tuesday’s European Championship semi-final against France following a dramatic extra-time victory over hosts Germany. His crisp pass to assist Dani Olmo for the opener was his third of the tournament, equalling the Spanish record for total assists in a single European Championship with Cesc Fabregas and David Silva. To say it has been a whirlwind 12 months for the Barcelona winger would be an understatement.

Yamal’s story is one of humble beginnings. He was born in Rocafonda, a small province in Barcelona to a Moroccan father and an Equatorial Guinean mother. He started playing football for his local side, La Torreta, at just four years old. By the age of seven he was spotted by a scout from Barcelona and brought to the club’s renowned La Masia academy.

He didn’t take long to earmark himself as a potential talent within the club’s ranks. In his second year at Barcelona, he scored 56 goals in 30 matches.

Lamine Yamal has shone at Euro 2024 (Getty Images)

Even at a young age, Yamal was way ahead of his peers. Sometimes he would play four age groups above his own. His progression through La Masia saw him playing for Barcelona’s Juvenil A (U19 side) by 14 years old, where his performances attracted the attention of then Barcelona head-coach, Xavi.

Soon after his 15th birthday, Yamal was invited to train with Barcelona’s first team and signed his first professional contracted at the club.

Xavi was so impressed by Yamal that within a few months he made him the youngest player in a century to make his debut for Barcelona at just 15 years and 290 days old and the youngest to appear in La Liga. Later, he also became the youngest player to start a Champions League match and the youngest to score a goal for Barcelona.

At international level, Yamal made his debut for Spain’s U15 side back in February 2022. By October of that year, he was lining up for Spain’s U19 team, having represented the U16 and the U17 team during that period.

Lamine Yamal has become a star despite a chaotic environment at Barcelona
Lamine Yamal has become a star despite a chaotic environment at Barcelona (Getty Images)

Remarkably, Yamal was called up to the senior Spanish national team just 19 days after his first start for Barcelona back in September of last year – having barely turned 16 years old.

Eligible to play for both Morocco and Equatorial Guinea through his parents, Yamal could have easily opted to represent either nation. Morocco, who had reached the semi-final of the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, had made a tentative approach to convince Yamal to represent the African country. Wanting to avoid a repeat of Achraf Hakimi, who was born in Madrid and came through Real Madrid’s academy system before opting to represent his parents’ birth nation, Spain rushed to cap-tie Yamal at senior level.

Given his inexperience, there were eyebrows raised when the youngster was invited to the senior set-up, but Yamal proved he belonged on the stage immediately. He scored half an hour into his senior debut for Spain in a Euro 2024 qualifier against Georgia – becoming simultaneously the youngest-ever player to make an appearance and score for Spain’s national team at just 16 years and 57 days old.

Since then, Yamal has become an integral part of Luis de la Fuente’s Spanish side. In total he has provided nine goal contributions in 12 appearances for Spain – averaging a goal or assist every 79 minutes.

Lamine Yamal replaces Gavi to make his debut in April 2023 to become Barcelona’s youngest player this century
Lamine Yamal replaces Gavi to make his debut in April 2023 to become Barcelona’s youngest player this century (Getty Images)

At Euro 2024, his star has only shone brighter, flourishing as De la Fuente’s best creative outlet. No one has created more big chances (five) than Yamal at the tournament, per FotMob, and he’s also created the most chances (14) in the Spanish national team, sitting fourth in the tournament overall.

This is a young Spanish side with hopes of a new resurgence after a decade languishing in the past of Vicente del Bosque’s golden era. In De la Fuente, they have a manager who has an esteemed record with Spain’s youth teams.

He’s won both the U19 and U21 Euros with Spain. The latter he won with five of the current senior team playing key roles, including Fabian Ruiz, Unai Simon and Dani Olmo.

Last year he lifted Spain’s first senior trophy in a decade beating Croatia in the final of the Nations League.

For years, Spain have lacked excitement in attack. Now in Yamal and his partner in crime on the left-wing, Nico Williams, De la Fuente has built a terrifying duo for opposing full-backs to capture the imagination of fans throughout the tournament in Germany. A duo that is capable of dismantling any defence – and is well placed to hurt France in rapid transitions on the counter in Tuesday’s semi-final.

Lamine Yamal attends a training session in Donaueschingen
Lamine Yamal attends a training session in Donaueschingen (AFP via Getty Images)

Yamal will turn 17 years old on the eve of the final. He will hope to still be in the competition and celebrate with a gold medal to take back to Rocafonda. But no matter what happens, Spain’s teenage sensation has a bright future ahead of him, with his foot firmly rooted to the ground.

He’s a shy and disciplined character off the pitch. His ever-increasing fame has not changed him. Yamal’s teammates and coaches speak of him as a quiet person and praise his professional attitude. Reserved in public, Yamal has proven disciplined off the pitch and devoted to his studies. After making his debut at Euro 2024, Yamal would return to his hotel room to study for his ESO exams – the GCSE equivalent in Spain – determined to complete his compulsory education, despite enormous fame and fortune already guaranteed.

He took his exams later on during the tournament and found out he passed a few days before Spain’s encounter against Georgia. Now he’s got just one thing set in his mind – to do what he couldn’t at U17 level last year and win the tournament.

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