In a bakery in Rocafonda — a neighbourhood in Mataro, a city up the coast from Barcelona — a replica of the World Cup looks slightly out of place alongside the pastries.
“That’s for when my nephew wins the World Cup,” the owner, Abdul, told ESPN.
Abdul’s nephew only turned 16 in July, so you would be forgiven for thinking he was getting carried away, except his nephew is no ordinary 16-year-old. His nephew is the Barcelona forward Lamine Yamal Nasraoui Ebana, who on Friday became the youngest ever player to represent Spain’s senior side, sealing an impressive debut with a goal in a 7-1 win over Georgia.
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Lamine Yamal’s first Spain cap was the latest milestone in what has already been a record-breaking year for the teenager. In April, he became the youngest player to play for Barça in LaLiga while he was still 15. A week later, he also became the youngest player to ever play for the club’s B team.
Everything accelerated from there. After scoring four goals at the European Under-17 Championship in May, as Spain lost to France in the semifinals, he spent July in the United States on Barça’s preseason tour. Upon the club’s return to Europe, he starred as a substitute in the Joan Gamper Trophy win against Tottenham Hotspur.
Ousmane Dembélé’s transfer to Paris Saint-Germain and Raphinha’s red card on the opening day of the season against Getafe then presented Yamal with an opportunity which he has grasped with both hands. Preferred to Ferran Torres and Ansu Fati, who has since left for Brighton & Hove Albion on loan, Yamal made his first Barça start in the second game of the campaign against Cadiz, and kept his place for the games at Villarreal, when he was named player of the match in a 4-3 win, and Osasuna. A first senior international callup followed.
The pride of Rocafonda
Yamal had options beyond Spain. His father is from Morocco — who made a play to get him to commit to their national team — and his mother is from Equatorial Guinea. The flags of both of those countries are emblazoned on his boots.
He was born in Esplugues de Llobregat on the outskirts of Barcelona, though, and has always represented Spain at youth level. He grew up further up the coast in Granollers and Mataro, and it is the latter, specifically the Rocafonda neighbourhood, which has marked him the most. It is where he returns whenever he has time off, including this summer before he was summoned back for preseason.
When he scores, he celebrates by signaling the numbers 304 with his hands. They are the final three numbers of Rocafonda’s post code. Head to the neighbourhood and you will see 304 graffitied on buildings and bins. School children playing on the same hard-surface courts Yamal played on when he was younger mimic the gesture — although not on the square, Plaça de Joan XXIII, where he spent most of his time because ball games have since been banned.
The Yamal effect on the area cannot be understated. Everyone has a story to tell. A man who sat on a bench by the park lives in the same building as his dad, Mounir, and remembers the “quiet” Yamal growing up. Carlos has a signed shirt in his bar, El Cordobes, where Mounir is a regular. The local hairdresser, Arabia, cuts his grandma’s hair. An older woman on the square says her grandson was at school with Yamal.
“The kids that played for [local team] Mataro would wear their club tracksuit to school to [boast], but he never really let on he was at Barcelona,” she says. “He wouldn’t wear anything that gave it away and some of the kids didn’t even know.”
The spotlight it is shining on Rocafonda, where, according to the Institute of National Statistics [INE], almost 50% of the residents are at risk of poverty. It is an area of Mataro known for immigration, at first internally from other parts of Spain, but in more recent years from outside of Spain. Almost 20% of the 12,000 population are Moroccan. It was one of the places where celebration videos went viral last December after Morocco knocked Spain out of the World Cup.
Despite that, Abdul, Yamal’s uncle who runs the bakery, says there was never any family tension about whether his nephew would pick Spain or Morocco.
Abdul and his son, Mohamed, who also acts at Yamal’s chauffeur when needed, watched Friday’s game against Georgia at the bakery, where there is an old television in the corner. If you’re in Rocafonda, you can’t miss the bakery. It’s the one with an image of a young Yamal photoshopped onto Camp Nou on the facade. Inside, behind the briouat (a Moroccan take on a samosa) there is some memorabilia: a top scorer trophy won by Yamal in 2019 and a banner with the date 29.04.23 and the time 83:48 written on it, which represents the exact minute he came on for his Barça debut against Real Betis.
And then there’s the replica of the World Cup, one step closer to Rocafonda after Yamal’s international debut.
Barcelona’s next big academy standout
Few who have witnessed Yamal’s progress through Barça’s famed La Masia academy are surprised by his breakthrough, even if it has arrived earlier than imagined. After joining the club from C.F. La Torreta in 2014 — in exchange for Barça’s participation in a local youth tournament — he has excelled in every team he has played for. In total, including his five first-team appearances, he has now played 249 official games for the club, scoring 357 goals.
“When he was six, we received a report from a scout in Mataro,” Jordi Roura, the former director of Barça’s academy, told ESPN. “He told us about this kid who was different to everyone else in his age group and recommended we followed him.
“A few days later, after reading the reports, we invited Lamine and some other kids to play a game at the Ciutat Esportiva to see them up close. People think you can discover a phenomenon by watching them once, but it’s not quite like that. He had good ball control, a lot of pace and his execution was very good. We decided it was worth betting on him.”
In his second year at Barça, playing under coach Albert Puig, Yamal scored 56 times in 30 outings.
“I coached Lamine with the U9s and later with the U13s,” Puig told ESPN. “What surprised me most with him is not that he was already a lot better than the rest of his teammates in both age groups, but that as time as passed, rather than things balancing out, which usually happens, Lamine stood out even more.”
As it became clear they had a special talent on their hands, Barça broke their own protocol by bringing Yamal to live on-site at La Masia, where he still resides. Rooms are usually reserved for players from outside of Catalonia, the autonomous region of Spain where Barcelona is based, but an exception was made. It was a move which came with the approval of the youngster’s family, thinking it would also help his education.
“We brought Lamine to live [at La Masia] to be able to control his diet, his rest and his workload,” Roura explained. “And also so he could relax and maintain his focus.”
Yamal is not the first academy graduate to generate excitement at Barcelona, of course. Lionel Messi is the obvious example, but there have been many recent success stories, too. Gavi and Alejandro Balde, both 19, are already regulars with Barça and Spain, although perhaps Ansu’s emergence in 2019 is the most similar example.
Ansu was 16 when he scored his first Barcelona goals and was branded the best player to come out of La Masia since Messi. Injuries have since disrupted his career to the point that he will spend this season on loan at Brighton. The focus has now switched to Yamal.
“The academy player who had surprised me the most was Ansu, but the way Yamal has burst on to the scene is a different story,” Puig added. “But you can’t compare them, they are players with different profiles, even if both of them love to attack the opposition.
“It would be a mistake to get into comparisons. As for Messi, he is the best player in the history of the game and Yamal’s just turned 16. Leave him to grow and develop.”
Roura agreed: “He is the biggest talent I have seen in La Masia in a long time, but it would be a mistake to make comparisons with Messi. Yamal can beat players, dribble, has confidence and is a great goal scorer. Physically, he still has to finish his development.”
“He plays like nobody else”
What most stands out about Yamal at his age is his decision-making. Barça coach Xavi Hernandez says it is incredible for a 16-year-old to be able to pick the right option so often. A left-footer playing on the right wing, he knows when to speed up play and when to slow it down; when to run at this man or when to recycle the ball back into midfield; and when to shoot and when to cross.
“The best and most remarkable thing about Lamine is his football intelligence,” Barça’s former sporting director Ramon Planes, now at Real Betis, told ESPN.
“He plays like nobody else. People class him as a winger, but he can play whatever he wants. He is an all-round footballer, without a doubt. He’s a wonderful kid, with a great personality for a 16-year-old. He’s a footballer in every sense of the word.”
Managing the spotlight is the challenge facing Yamal and Barça now. Dancing around Villarreal players at the end of August, it was easy to forget how young he was. When you see him smile, though, his braces staring at back you, he very much looks his age. As Roura reiterates time and again, too, he is still developing physically and it would be unwise to burden him with too many minutes.
Although it’s impossible to determine the exact reason for their injuries, both Ansu and Pedri’s fledgling careers have suffered due to knocks picked up after playing a lot of games as teenagers. That should serve as a warning for Barça with Yamal, who was not even born when Messi scored his famous Diego Maradona-esque goal against Getafe in April 2007.
“Xavi knows the ins and outs of the game and I am sure he will be able to help Lamine consolidate himself among the elite at the right pace,” Roura said.
As for Yamal, sources at the club insist he has his head screwed on tight and his feet on the ground. Everyone you talk to in Rocafonda says there is nothing big time about him, although success can change people in time. There was one incident in February while with the Spain national team when several players were punished for a “serious act of indiscipline.” Yamal was one of those players. He missed one Spain squad prior to the U17 Euros and was also sanctioned internally by Barça, sitting out four games with the U19 team.
Since February, though, Yamal has actually clicked into another gear. A debut with Barça in April was followed by a first start in August. September has already brought a first-ever Spain appearance and a goal for the national team. Abdul’s replica World Cup might not be so out of place after all.