Lamine Yamal back where it all began as he plots last-16 victory over Georgia

The first time Lamine Yamal joined the Spain squad, they left his boots behind. His and everyone else’s too. When the selección touched down in Tbilisi to face Georgia in September 2023, the trunk carrying part of their kit was still sitting at Barajas, forcing them to complete the evening session at the Boris Paichadze stadium in trainers, unable to strike the ball. The following night, they scored seven. On his debut, the Barcelona winger got the last of them, aged 16 years and 57 days, and the national team got a new beginning.

Ten months on, Spain face Georgia again, this time for place in the quarter-final of Euro 2024. They are, Lamine Yamal says, the best side here but, he adds, “nothing we have done in the group phase will mean anything if we get knocked out”.

They have though come some way, fast. And this kid, a schoolboy who took his homework to Germany, has been central to that, the face alongside Nico Williams of a new Spain and a new generation, a freshness to replace the fatalism.

Back then, the boots eventually reached the team hotel at 4am, another embarrassing moment for a federation in crisis. Coaching staff made light of it, turning another problem into something to bring them together, a skill proving increasingly significant. “The press was not convinced, we were,” goalkeeper Unai Simón said, pointedly.

Almost no one was during those difficult days. The federation president, Luis Rubiales, had been suspended by Fifa after planting an unsolicited kiss on Jenni Hermoso when Spain won the Women’s World Cup. The fallout affected the men’s team too, engulfing everything. At the beginning of that international break, Álvaro Morata read a players’ statement attacking Rubiales’ behaviour. Although written collectively, it hadn’t been easy: he, Rodri and César Azpilicueta led, but not everyone agreed. There had been discussions, discrepancies, different drafts drawn up, a compromise finally reached.

Lamine Yamal (left) and Nico Williams are two of Spain’s new generation who have helped turn around the team. Photograph: Hesham Elsherif/NurPhoto/Shutterstock

At that point, it seemed the coach, Luis de la Fuente, might also not last much longer. In his favour, Spain had won the Nations League, reacquainted with success 11 years after the last one. But the crisis had threatened to carry all else before it and De la Fuente had applauded during Rubiales’s infamous speech where he refused to resign and railed against “false feminism”. The coach’s explanation that he didn’t know what he was doing was both unconvincing and quite believable.

The noise around Sergio Ramos’s absence hadn’t gone away either, the national team caught in the crossfire between coach and former captain. There had been a conflict between Dani Ceballos and Gavi, although De la Fuente’s management of that, guided by his captains would prove beneficial. The talk of a shift in style did not convince yet and nor did the team: the criticism was fierce, media ripping into the coach, although that too had a galvanising, uniting effect. Beaten in Scotland, Spain arrived in Tbilisi with no boots and second bottom of the group, amid concern they might not even qualify. Then they lost Dani Olmo and Marco Asensio to injury during the match.

On came Williams and Lamine Yamal en route to a 7-1 victory. On a stormy, wet night where, Georgia stepped high and were exposed, mercilessly taken apart, Morata scored a hat-trick and Williams and Lamine Yamal scored the last two. They have not lost a competitive game since. Which is not to say that their were either purely accidental or the reason they won, still less that the departure of their teammates were. It certainly isn’t to claim that it explains everything that has happened since. Spain already led and Olmo had scored, for a start. Nor was Lamine-Nico a definitive fixture from that day on.

Lamine Yamal profile

But this was something a little different, a glimpse of another generation emerging. There was a symbolism in Williams and Lamine Yamal scoring the last two, there then even if seen more clearly with hindsight. There was also a connection created according to Williams, who this week said: “You could see that night we looked for each other; we did great things and Lamine Yamal scored his first goal for Spain.”

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He was the youngest player ever to do so. He had made his Barcelona debut at 15 and now became an international having recently turned 16. Even those that considered it madness – his first start for Barcelona had come just 19 days earlier – were caught up in it all. For all the caution, it was hard not to be excited. This kid really was good; he might be exactly what Spain needed too. In a pre-euros friendly against Brazil, he had the Bernabeu in his pocket. He wasn’t just going to the Euros, he was going to start. And, it turned out, shine.

It had started against Georgia; now Spain face the same opponents. “I remember that game against Georgia as a special moment; it won’t be the same in the knockout phase of the Euros,” Lamine Yamal says. Nothing is the same any more; not for him, and not for them either. The way the selección come into this meeting could hardly be more different. “A few months ago I walked calmly along Paseo de Gràcia with my mum and my brother; now I try to go out with my hood up and still can’t,” he says, and that was before the last fortnight. “We don’t see it here [in Donaueschingen], but my mates say it’s incredible.”

At 16 years and 11 months, Lamine Yamal is the youngest debutant in the competition’s history; if he scores this weekend, another record will fall. “And I think I can,” he said. “You have to be confident, always.”

He turns 17 the day before the final. On Thursday, he got his school grades back: he has passed 4o de ESO, the fourth year at secondary school. “I didn’t look too closely at the grades; I checked I’d passed, so I could turn off the mobile and focus on the Euros,” he said. “Hopefully on my birthday on the 13th we can prepare well, on the 14th we can start to celebrate and on the 15th we can celebrate even more back in Madrid.”

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