If you weren’t aware of Lamine Yamal Nasraoui Ebana, then it’s time you were. Given that he made his debut for Barcelona last season while still 15 years old, and he was already the youngest LaLiga winner in Spanish history, he topped that last Friday in becoming the youngest ever to debut, or score, for the Spanish national team.
Anyone who’s ever been around this electric, thrilling and anarchic footballer, whether coach, teammate or spectator, immediately glows with the evangelic effervescence of a complete convert. Lamine Yamal is that thrilling. But just stop and consider for a second: that vicious left-footed goal in Spain‘s 7-1 win in the pouring rain of Tblisi, Georgia, was scored by someone who was born 22 days after Pep Guardiola took over as coach of Barcelona B.
That Guardiola era feels like it was only yesterday. But among all the rich treasures it unearthed from a low-key beginning in June 2007, nobody was aware that in a hospital about the distance of a long goal kick away from the Spotify Camp Nou, this kid who’d smash records for Barca had already been born.
What were you like at 16 years old? What were you capable of? Could you have handled international attention and huge responsibility, or were you still a bit of a kid, a victim of mixed emotions as your ambition and insecurity clashed, head on?
For a bit of context, Lamine’s achievement can be set against other prominent men’s team sports. In the NFL, teenagers are an extreme rarity and Amobi Okoye, who played for the Houston Texans at 19 years, 10 months, remains the youngest player — nearly four full years older than Lamine — to be drafted in the first round. The rugby union World Cup is happening right now in France and although England’s youngest-ever international, Tom Curry (18 years, 360 days), was sent off at the weekend, they still beat Argentina. Again: he’s nearly three full years older than Spain’s new prodigy.
Take the All-Blacks: their youngest-ever cap was the behemoth that was the late Jonah Lomu — he made his debut aged 19 years and 45 days. How about the NBA? Andrew Bynum (of the Los Angeles Lakers) was 18 years and six days old when he joined the league as part of the 2005 draft. Even the late, great Kobe Bryant was 18 years and 72 days old when he broke through.
So, think about it like this: Lamine turned 16 in July, and he doesn’t just stand out against records in all these other team sports. His international debut (and goal) came at a younger age than that of Pelé, Diego Maradona, Johan Cruyff, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, five years younger than Alfredo Di Stefano and six years younger than Zinedine Zidane.
Got the picture? But there’s an important name in that list: Cruyff. He was the most successful elite coach who stubbornly preached the idea that “age is not relevant: if you’re good enough, you’re old enough.” That’s a key reason why Lamine is part of this chain.
16-YEAR-OLD LAMINE YAMAL ON HIS SPAIN DEBUT HAS THE WORLD AT HIS FEET 🇪🇸👏 pic.twitter.com/dfOKzr8QEY
— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) September 8, 2023
Before Lamine, Spain’s youngest player, and scorer, was Gavi — trained at Barcelona’s La Masia. Of the remaining eight players in La Roja‘s top 10 youngest debutants, four — Ansu Fati, Bojan Krkic, Pedri and Cesc Fabregas — were products of Barcelona. Ansu, Bojan and Cesc had all been trained for years in La Masia.
The same Barça pattern emerges in Spain’s youngest-ever scorers. Lamine took Gavi’s record (19 months younger) and Gavi, in his moment, had taken Ansu’s historic mark, one the now-Brighton & Hove Albion loanee set as recently as three years ago. These are rich premiums for a daring, Cruyff-born attitude that young talent, if sufficiently outstanding, not only needs to be promoted, but must be tested and honed against bigger, older, more experienced footballers as soon as is feasible.
At a time when FC Barcelona have never been in more debt nor under greater critical scrutiny, their youth policy keeps on yielding golden harvests.
It was Ernesto Valverde (played under Cruyff) who gave Ansu his club debut at the age of 16. Ronald Koeman (played under Cruyff) brought Pedri (17), Alejandro Balde (17) and Gavi (just turned 17) through to the first team. Xavi (coached by Cruyff for Catalunya and signed by Barcelona while Cruyff was coaching the “Dream Team”) trusted Lamine aged 15 last season and watched him give a man-of-the-match performance against Villarreal a fortnight ago, turning defeat into victory when this prodigy was barely 16.
Viewed in retrospect, it might not only seem a heady, exciting concept to give such teens their debuts and let them cut their teeth quickly; it can even look a pretty damn obvious philosophy to hold dear. But things are far from that simple.
I remember being in the news conference before Italy vs. Spain at the San Siro in Milan, back in 2021, when then-manager Luis Enrique (responsible for Pedri, Gavi, Ansu and Balde’s Spain debuts) hinted he might start 17-year-old Gavi against the European champions. The Spanish media headlines the next day dripped with derision: they imagined he’d only said it to be attention-grabbing or provocative. Yet Gavi started, starred and helped Spain knock Italy out of the tournament in their own back yard.
Of course, each of these successes is countered by many stories of early promise that goes unfulfilled. This is far from a one-way superhighway to success once a tyro-talent has his prodigious abilities recognised and promoted.
Luka Romero was only 15 when he came on for Mallorca against Real Madrid in June 2020. Talented as he undoubtedly is, and still not yet 19 years old, the Mexico-born midfielder (who has represented Argentina at youth levels) has spent most of the intervening seasons languishing on the bench for Mallorca, Lazio and AC Milan. The USMNT’s Freddy Adu is perhaps the most famous in a huge list of wunderkinds who flared, set coaches and audiences trembling with anticipation, but then didn’t ever truly fulfil their potential. Meanwhile Ansu, only because of brutal luck with injuries, is already seeking rehabilitation and redemption at Brighton — and he’s only 20.
As for the club that most regularly spots, develops and then promotes footballers of rare young talent, Barcelona, their daring hasn’t always yielded the appropriate reward. For Messi, who debuted at age 17 and produced a million brilliant memories thereafter, there can be no doubt. Pedri, Gavi and Balde are all LaLiga winners, and Pedri also has a Copa del Rey title to his name: these are big rewards for the club that trusted them. But just like Jorge Troiteiro — Andres Iniesta’s great pal when they were tiny kids in La Masia — was supposed to be a better prospect according to some judges only to never enjoy an elite career, every great footballer can name peers who, at a young age, were “better than me” only to fall by the wayside.
One of those whom Barcelona, unfairly, missed out on is Takefusa Kubo. Literally brilliant, scoring 74 goals in 30 games for one of La Masia’s junior age group teams — and doing so as a strike partner to Ansu in that era, if you dare to imagine — Kubo was caught up in the FIFA ban that resulted from Barcelona being found to have broken rules about recruiting players aged under 18 from outside the European Union. After four years in Spain, he was sent back to Japan under obligation from the sport’s global governing body.
When Kubo, who’d gone on to become the J-League’s youngest debutant and scorer (while still 15), was eligible to return to Barcelona, the Camp Nou’s directors — most notably Ramon Planes and Jose Mari Bakero — reckoned that the club could easily do without him. Big mistake, as this Lamine/Ansu/Gavi/Pedri forerunner is now ripping things up for Real Sociedad, to the tune of four consecutive man-of-the-match awards this season. Kubo was actually signed by Real Madrid when he returned to Spain in 2019 but never made an appearance, loaned out to Mallorca (twice), Villarreal and Getafe before joining Sociedad permanently last summer.
At the weekend, Kubo also became the youngest player, since records began, to produce two assists in the same match as Japan thrashed Germany 4-1 in Wolfsburg.
The shining talents of this one-time Barcelona talent have never been, and perhaps never will be, harnessed by the club that “discovered” and nurtured him. But in an ironic quirk, Kubo and his teammates travel to play another of his former clubs, Real Madrid, this coming weekend.
Perhaps he’ll do the Blaugrana a favour while he’s at the Santiago Bernabeu and help Real Sociedad win. If so, you can expect Barcelona fanatics, whose hearts are currently fluttering at the prospect of what Lamine has to offer, can weep a tear of regret over one of the many who “got away.”