Lamine Yamal's legend begins as Euro 2024's breakout star outshines Kylian Mbappe to send Spain to final


Oh boy, oh boy, oh boy. This is a rush that football does not deliver as often as it used to. A star of the present and the future, emerging fully formed on the biggest of stages a few weeks after his exams. Lamine Yamal has all of Europe — well, nearly all of it — feeling giddy.

Receiving the ball up 30 yards out, matched up against Adrien Rabiot, the man who had the temerity to question his qualities in the build-up, Yamal opened his chest wide, shaping to move right with an exaggerated drag from his left boot. In an instant, he chopped back, forging a yard of space that four defenders might have been in position to snuff out. Behind Rabiot, all William Saliba could do was zag left and right, distance making it no easier for Euro 2024’s best defender to get a read on what Yamal was about to do.

Once the goal was in sight, Yamal swung. Starting over Dayot Upamecano’s right shoulder, the ball arced tantalizingly towards the outstretched left glove of Mike Maignan. The 6-foot-2 goalkeeper had sprung well, his technique looked spot on. He wasn’t getting close. In off the post. Checkmate.

Fifteen yards away, Kylian Mbappe had had the best view in the house. His shrug said it all. He’d set the bar high in the first 20 minutes. Yamal had flown over it.

These are the sorts of moments that end up immortalized in the footballing annals. This is not an ecosystem anything like the days when players would arrive at a World Cup or European Championships unknown beyond their nation and depart a global great. Yamal’s Euro 2024 is the best you’re going to get. The legend had been whispered of ahead of these championships, the promise of seeing a future great take his first steps towards the big time. No one imagined such great strides.

On the night where Yamal (16 years, 362 days) became the youngest man to play at a World Cup or European Championships semifinal, a record previously held by Pele, the trajectory of his career seemed limitless. Perhaps not since Mbappe blew through the Champions League knockout stages in 2017 has a relatively unheralded forward so captured the imagination. It surely is premature to invoke some of the brightest young things this sport has seen. Oh well. If you can’t get carried away after a goal like that, what on earth are we doing here?

It is as if the whole competition has been designed as nothing more than the first chapter of the great Yamal saga. An unfancied Spanish side, light on the star names of years gone by, blew through a high-grade field with the fearlessness of youth. Still, they and their young right winger faced doubts. Even a win over Germany suggested Spain were a shadow of the team they are with Yamal when he was off the pitch, Rabiot was unconvinced.

“It will be up to us to put the pressure on him above all,” said the Juventus midfielder, who was able to do nothing of the sort when it mattered most, “Not to let him feel comfortable and to show him that to play in a Euro final, he will have to do much more than what he has done so far.”

Like milk, as Yamal’s contemporaries might say. As he promised he would, the Barcelona winger moved “in silence.” He let his boots do the talking “when it’s time to say checkmate.”

Rabiot should have known better. It is not as if what Yamal has been showing at the Euros — three assists to go with a goal that made him the youngest in the competition’s history — is some sort of fluke. Over the last 10 months, the youngster has been balancing homework with putting up 0.52 xG+xA for one of the biggest club sides in the world. Only 30 players in Europe’s top five leagues averaged more carries into the penalty box per 90 minutes than Yamal. None of them also passed their high school exams last month (as far as I’m aware).

It had always seemed a matter of when, not if, Yamal established himself as one of the best players in the world. If the answer isn’t already, it is very soon indeed. Berlin and the Euro 2024 final already feels tailor-made for the first staging point of the hero’s journey.

Inspired by their breakout star, Spain came to embody Yamal, the best thing to come out of 2007 bar Animal Collective’s Strawberry Jam. For too long international football has been defined by these conquered Frenchman, high-grade talent content to be so much less than the sum of their parts, knowing that risk mitigation is as effective an approach for tournament football. It was not when Dani Olmo, Nico Williams and even Marc Cucurella were cutting through the French lines. They might have put together a meagre shot return but you weren’t really bothered. They were trying to charm the sport.

Spain and Yamal aren’t going to single-handedly save the international game. The great steamroller of fun that is England are rolling their way to Dortmund, ready to stink out what is left of the tournament. But a team that play cohesive, elegant football built from a collective understanding that is said to be beyond more prestigious names than Luis de la Fuente. One cannot help but hope this is the start of something.

After a goal like that from such a precocious youngster it is hard not to see a bright future not just for Yamal but for the sport. The next great star has emerged. How bright he is going to shine.

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