"He is a player that can mark an era in football"

Xavi Hernandez, former Barcelona head coach

"He looks like he has been touched by the wand of God. He is different."

Luis de la Fuente, Spain head coach

"We have received offers for players like Lamine Yamal, for €200m, and we have said no."

Joan Laporta, Barcelona president

“Maradona, Messi and now Yamal,” said Lothar Mattheus.

There might have been an element of hyperbole in the comparison, made as he observed Lamine Yamal’s eye-catching cameo during Spain’s 1-0 win over Albania at Euro 2024.

But the iconic former Germany midfielder, a World Cup, European Championship and Ballon d’Or winner, is well placed to judge.

After a stunning breakthrough season with Barcelona, Yamal is boosting his burgeoning reputation still further in Germany.

  • Read our Next Up profiles: Endrick | Kobbie Mainoo
  • Transfer Centre | Latest Euro 2024 updates
  • His outstanding group-stage performances have been followed by even better ones in the knockouts. After excelling against Georgia and the hosts, Yamal produced a sensational equalising goal to inspire Spain's semi-final victory over France on Tuesday night.

    Yamal scored a stunning equaliser for Spain against France

    Yamal scored a stunning equaliser for Spain against France

    Yamal runs to the Spain dugout in celebration

    Yamal runs to the Spain dugout in celebration

    It seems almost implausible that he has only just turned 17. But Yamal, already the youngest player and scorer in Barcelona’s history, is now tearing up records internationally too.

    His goal against France made him the youngest player ever to score at a European Championship or World Cup, beating a record previously held by Brazil legend Pele. Yamal ranks top at the tournament for assists with three. No player has created more chances or big chances. He also sits in the top 10 for shots and dribbles.

    He is not just playing but starring. Even now, with the final against England still to come, he surely has the Young Player of the Tournament award wrapped up.

    Lamine Yamal's average position is marked in green

    Lamine Yamal's average position is marked in green

    What he is doing is unprecedented. At the same age, an age at which Yamal has racked up 51 senior appearances for Barcelona and won 13 caps for Spain, six of them at a major tournament, Lionel Messi was yet to even make his competitive senior debut.

    It remains to be seen whether this precocious young winger will come close to matching the Argentine’s extraordinary achievements in the game. But there can be no doubting the extent of his talent, nor the scale of his potential.

    Lamine Yamal is Next Up.


    Item 1 of 5

    Yamal's 'gigantic step' at La Masia

    Before he was fast-tracked into Barcelona’s first team and the Spanish national side, Yamal had to conquer the jump from cadete to juvenil in the club’s La Masia academy.

    “A gigantic step,” is how Oscar Lopez, a former Barcelona player himself who has spent the last three years as coach of Barcelona’s Juvenil A side, or U19s, puts it to Sky Sports.

    Yamal, a Barcelona player since he was seven, had already been identified as a rising star. But at 15, and already playing up an age group, much would depend on how he handled his promotion from the U16s to the U19s at the start of the 2022/23 season.

    Lamine Yamal with Oscar Lopez while they worked together at Barcelona

    Lamine Yamal with Oscar Lopez while they worked together at Barcelona

    “That year was a very good process that I had to take him through in terms of acclimatisation to the age group, to the level, to the demands,” says Lopez.

    “Because it’s not the same playing as a cadete for the U16s, even if you are playing up a year, as he was, to being 15 years old and playing against boys of 20 in the UEFA Youth League.

    “So, we had to do a process of adaptation with him in which he saw that everything is progressive and has its evolution, and that he needed time to acclimatise, even though he had that innate talent that he is demonstrating right now at the Euros.”

    Yamal had breezed through every age group to that point in La Masia.

    This time, it was different.

    “The process covered many different aspects, mentally, emotionally and physically,” adds Lopez. “He was a 15-year-old boy playing against boys five years older.

    “On an emotional level, all of that could have broken him.”

    It didn’t, of course. In fact, it made him stronger. But Yamal received no special treatment from Lopez, who was tasked with ensuring he produced application to match his talent.

    “On the pitch, he progressively got more minutes, but that was a result of having to work hard, not because he was 15 and everyone was saying he was a very good player,” explains Lopez. “He had to earn those minutes.

    “So, for a couple of months, he was coming in, he was working, he was training, he was getting his minutes. But he was also seeing that he was just another player in a squad where there were kids who were three or four years older than him.

    “He was seeing that he had to wake up, liven himself up and make a real effort to earning a starting spot. He was showing his talent but, little by little, he was also gaining that ability to overcome, to grow, and to improve the innate ability that he had.”


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    'Calm, measured and humble'

    Yamal was helped by having a level of mental fortitude to rival his technical and physical talents. But there were still areas in which he had to develop, still setbacks he had to absorb.

    “He is a very mentally mature boy,” says Lopez. “I think he has a very clear mentality and he doesn’t have the weight of nerves that almost all other players have at that age.

    “But I think, progressively, he realised that he had to take a step forward emotionally, to understand how to manage situations that he had not experienced before, such as being on the bench and not getting to play in a match.

    “He had never experienced going to a game, starting on the bench, and the game ending without him playing a minute because of the circumstances, because of other team-mates deserving it more, or because he was just not required.

    “For a boy of 15 to manage that mentally and emotionally, you have to be with him and know how to help him with it little by little.”

    Not that he was prone to outbursts. Yamal was and still is a quiet character; jovial but also serious about his profession – and his schoolwork. He has been pictured studying in between his devastating performances for Luis de la Fuente’s side in Germany.

    Xavi Hernandez, the manager who oversaw his transition to the Barcelona first-team, using him in all but one of their 38 LaLiga games last season, talked up his “calm, measured and humble” personality in April.

    Those same personality traits shine through in conversation with Lopez.

    “Even when he was younger, 14 or 15 and playing for the U16s, he seemed introverted when you talked to him.

    “But he was extroverted when it came to going out on the pitch, and to managing his emotions and his talent.”

    “He is digesting everything that is happening to him very well, despite his young age,” added Xavi. “He is a mature person, he is responsible, he is aware of the situation he is experiencing.”


    'He is exceptional...like Iniesta or Xavi'

    Albert Capellas, a former Barcelona academy coach and youth director who spent a decade working in La Masia before his departure in 2022, felt it was only ever a matter of time before Yamal made his mark at senior level.

    Albert Capellas worked at Barcelona for over a decade before becoming an assistant at Dortmund and head coach at FC Midtjylland

    Albert Capellas worked at Barcelona for over a decade before becoming an assistant at Dortmund and head coach at FC Midtjylland

    “He was exceptional,” he tells Sky Sports. “He is the kind of player who you can see from the beginning will get the chance to play for the first-team, if he is lucky with injuries and his surroundings and the people around him are clever. That sometimes is not easy.

    “But he is like Andres Iniesta or Xavi. I don’t like to compare players, so I’m not saying he is like Iniesta, Xavi or Messi as a player, because all of them are very different.

    “But these are the kinds of players you see at a young age and you know you have someone very special in front of you who will make the difference in football.”

    Lopez, a former team-mate of Messi’s at Barcelona before his playing career was ended prematurely by injury, was of course aware of where Yamal was heading too.

    “When you see boys with this talent, you know that at any moment they can make leaps and bounds and take huge steps forward,” he says.

    “It happened to me when I was with Messi as a team-mate. I went up to the first-team and he was still a young player in Barcelona C, alternating between Barça C and the U19s.

    “The club realised that he had innate talent and that he was a player who take those steps quickly.

    “He went through the U19s, Barça C and Barça B and he was in the first team within three or four months. With these special players, you know they are going to have a very quick journey through the lower categories.”


    The Messi comparisons

    Lopez’s experience of having been a team-mate to Messi and a coach to Yamal means he is well placed to comment on the parallels between the two. Can the teenager get to that kind of level?

    “One of Messi’s great strengths, one of the many strengths that he had, was that he knew how to run the team,” says Lopez.

    “He knew how to make the team play, from a midfield position, or from that position on the right wing, going inside.

    “He knew when it was necessary for him to lead the team, when to accelerate the play, and when he had to say, ‘Hey, the team is not playing well today, but I am, so I am going to decide this game, I am going to break it open.’

    “That is what I think Lamine still needs a little bit. But, over time, he is going to get it.

    “We have to remember that he is a boy right now who is 16 years old.

    “In 10 years, he will still only be 26 and he will have a 10-year professional career behind him.”

    Lopez played with Lionel Messi and coached Yamal

    Lopez played with Lionel Messi and coached Yamal

    Lopez chuckles at the ludicrousness of that last line. But he points out that Yamal’s experiences with the U19s showed him the importance of taking responsibility, and of buying into the collective.

    “What was really interesting was exposing him to the U19 group and seeing him realise that he had great talent, but that a player alone can’t win games,” says Lopez.

    “He needs the support of his team-mates to grow, and to realise that he also needs to help the team himself.

    “That is what he is now showing at the Euros. Not only is he demonstrating his individual talent in terms of dribbling and shooting and everything else, but he is also helping the team, which is very important.”


    AP Photo/Joan Monfort

    AP Photo/Joan Monfort

    When Leo met Lamine

    The parallels between Messi and Yamal were already unavoidable, but the emergence of this photograph - and the unlikely nature of its origins - takes the connection to a whole other level.

    In 2007, Yamal's family won the chance to have their six-month-old baby be part of a photoshoot with a Barcelona player for a calendar that was being made to raise money for charities.

    Coincidentally, Messi, 20 at the time and in the early stages of his Barcelona career, was the player chosen for Yamal.

    AP Photo/Joan Monfort

    AP Photo/Joan Monfort

    Joan Monfort was the photographer that day, but it was only recently, like the rest of us, that he discovered what he had been a part of.

    "I felt very happy when I found out," he tells Sky Sports. "I'm happy that this photo has been seen around the world."

    Had it not been for Mounir Nasraoui, the teenage star's father, posting the photographs on social media, the images may have never come into public knowledge.

    AP Photo/Joan Monfort

    AP Photo/Joan Monfort

    Messi and Sheila Ebana, Yamal's mother, are all smiles in the photograph above, but Monfort admits it wasn't the easiest photoshoot.

    "Messi is a very shy boy, very introverted," he says. "He is now and it was much more so before. It took a while for him to interact with a six-month-old baby.

    "But in the end, the truth is that they both did a lot. Lamine was a very nice boy. He won Messi over in a short time."

    Sixteen years on and Yamal is sure to have won Messi over again, along with the rest of us.


    'Touched by the wand of God'

    Yamal’s temperament has played a major part in his rapid ascent to stardom but the biggest factor is of course his extraordinary ability.

    De la Fuente describes him as being "touched by the wand of God”. Xavi calls him an “era-defining talent”. Both quickly gave up on trying to downplay expectations.

    Lopez, meanwhile, views him as a logic-defyingly good, the kind of player a coach can ultimately only guide and encourage.

    “Lamine has an innate talent that you cannot mould,” he explains.

    “What I mean by this is that he is a boy who is capable of doing things that are not logical, but that end up working out for him because of the talent he has.

    “Like, for example, when he has a defender next to him and he goes inside, as he does with those diagonal runs he makes towards goal.

    “He has a very, very good left foot and he likes to take the ball from close to the opposition’s left-sided centre-back towards the right-sided centre-back in order to shoot.

    “He does it so quickly, and he has so much talent, that it works out for him.

    “Logic says that for every 10 times you do that, cutting inside and shooting from where the centre-back is positioned, it will go wrong maybe eight times.

    “But with him it’s the other way around. He has so much talent that eight or nine times out of 10, it works out well.”

    Those darting runs inside have become a feature of his game. “He is a false winger, if you like, playing on the right wing but using his natural foot on the inside,” adds Lopez.

    “When he started with us in the U19s, I tried to encourage him to have that versatility of playing on the right but using his left foot.

    “I think it went well because it helped him realise that if he could offer something unique on that right wing, he would surely have that position locked down.

    “At the same time, he realised that if he was not so unique, relative to his team-mates, he might have to fill in on the left or right, rather than owning one position.

    “What he did, with the talent he had, is adapt very well to that right wing role of using his left foot on the inside.”


    From schoolboy to superstar

    From Croatia, Italy and Albania in the group stage to Georgia, Germany and France in the knockouts, Spain’s opponents at Euro 2024 have all found out first-hand just how deadly that left foot can be.

    It is not the team’s only weapon – far from it – but it is probably their most dangerous and the same applies at Barcelona. It is some going for a schoolboy still a week shy of his 17th birthday.

    Lopez, like everyone back in La Masia, is following his progress closely. Astonishingly, it is only a year since he made the step from academy to first-team. It is only two since he went from U16s to U19s. He has had to grow up quickly.

    “Nowadays, everything is very fast,” says Lopez. “Sometimes, I would like it to be a little more gradual, as it was in our time, a little more step by step, so that a player can enjoy the time when football is fun and not work.

    “But in the end, that is just society today. Players like Lamine who go so quickly to the world of professional football skip two or three years in which the game is still a hobby for them.”

    It is to his credit, and to the credit of those who have helped him this far, that he has taken it all in his stride. “Of course, I am very proud to have participated in his development, along with many others,” adds Lopez.

    “Your job as a youth coach is to try to improve the players, to ensure that each one has a good grounding, and a backpack of knowledge, if you like, to take with them.”

    Yamal, this schoolboy-cum-superstar, certainly has that. Comparisons to Maradona and Messi might feel premature. But Yamal’s potential for greatness is clear.

    Lamine Yamal is Next Up.