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Spain's Lamine Yamal becomes youngest ever Euros player

June 15, 2024

At just 16, Lamine Yamal made history at Euro 2024 in Spain's 3-0 win over Croatia on Saturday. But a record-breaking prodigy from Euro 2016 offers a cautionary tale amid the hype.

Lamine Yamal controls a football with his left foot
Lamine Yamal set another record in Spain's Euro 2024 win over CroatiaImage: Sergei Grits/AP Photo/picture alliance

Lamine Yamal breaks records as easily as he dismantles defenses. On Saturday, at 16 years and 338 days old, he became the youngest player in European Championship history.

He was already the youngest to play for Barcelona and for Spain. He was the youngest goal scorer in the history of La Liga, the Spanish Cup and his national team. The word prodigy barely does him justice.

"A talent that only the chosen ones have," summarized his coach, Luis de la Fuente, in the buildup. "It's like he has been touched by the wand of God. Very few have that quality, that incredible ability. They're special footballers. They have that touch that makes them different to the rest."

Yamal's brilliant whipped cross set up Dani Carvajal for Spain's third goal of a dominant first half after Alvaro Morata and Fabian Ruiz had scored the first two. A chastening night for Croatia and their captain Luka Modric, who made his debut four years before Yamal was born, got even worse in the second half when Bruno Petkovic missed a penalty and then saw his follow-up effort disallowed for encroachment.

Making mischief on the streets 

Yamal is a product of Barcelona's famed La Masia academy, which brought through many of the generation that won Spain consecutive Euros in 2008 and 2012 and the 2010 World Cup: the likes of Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta and Sergio Busquets. As well, of course, as Argentina's Lionel Messi.

Though he bears plenty of the hallmarks of that footballing education, with an acute awareness of space, quick feet and exemplary decision-making, Yamal is a rapid, exciting and direct dribbler. He attributes that particular skill to his upbringing in Rocafona, a neighborhood 40 minutes up the coast from Barcelona with a large immigrant population.

"When you learn to play football in the street, it gives you more resources," Yamal told Spanish GQ magazine. "It makes you more mischievous than someone trained in an academy."

It is perhaps something Spanish sides have lacked in recent years, with a glut of technical passers often lacking a cutting edge.

Smart before his time

But, as both his national coach and his former Barca boss, Xavi, note, Yamal's mentality is in advance of his years on the pitch.

"He almost always makes the best decision,” Xavi said. "That's the hardest thing in football. He's extraordinary."

All that being said, Yamal is still 16. "I brought my homework here because I'm in the fourth year of ESO [Spanish school qualification],' he revealed ahead of the match. "I have online classes too and those are going fine. I hope the teacher doesn't get mad at me."

Jamal Musiala and Florian Wirtz celebrate a goal
Germany's Jamal Musiala and Florian Wirtz also both made their mark youngImage: Mika Volkmann/IMAGO

Such a scenario will be familiar to those who follow German football closely. Florian Wirtz, who scored the tournament's opening goal on Friday, missed a Europa League game in 2020 to sit an exam when he was 17.

Despite a bad injury, Wirtz looks set to fulfil his potential. Two other players in the top five of youngest Euros appearance makers before Yamal are Jude Bellingham of England and Germany's Jamal Musiala.

Sanches offers word of warning

But becoming a global superstar in your teens has proved difficult for some players. The breakout star of Euro 2016, Portugal's Renato Sanches, became the youngest player ever to play in a final and got a dream move to Bayern Munich. But the midfielder struggled in the Bundesliga and has failed to reach the same heights since. At 26, he missed out on Portugal's squad for this tournament and the last World Cup.

Renato Sanches holds the European Championship trophy in one hand, and his medal in the other
Renato Sanches won Euro 2016 with Portugal but struggled to find consistency afterImage: picture alliance/Pressefoto ULMER

"Sometimes you might think you don't feel the pressure and feel good, but that's not the case," Sanches told French outlet Views of his time at Bayern. "If you feel the pressure, you can't perform. I understood at that moment how much being happy affected my level of play. Mental health in football is fragile because all it takes is a bad game to make you lose your spirits."

Yamal will likely experience some lows to accompany further highs. De La Fuente has said the mental challenge for his teen charge will perhaps be bigger than the physical.

"What we have to do is normalize the situation and support him," the Spanish coach said. "You have to explain that he will grow much more with humility. He needs to have that balance; we have to educate him."

He may need a little bit of revision to pass his school exams, but the signs are that Lamine Yamal will pass every footballing test with flying colors.

Edited by: Kalika Mehta