Pedri has been one of the young stars of Euro 2020
In football, it is customary for senior players and coaches to play down the hype around talented teenagers, to urge caution and patience as youngsters find their feet in the professional game.
Every now and then, though, a player is so obviously gifted, so clearly brilliant, that there is simply no point in pretending otherwise. Such is the situation with Pedri Gonzalez, the 18-year-old at the heart of Spain’s midfield and the forefront of their challenge for another European Championship crown.
“Hopefully he will be lucky with injuries because he will undoubtedly be one of the best players in the history of Spain,” said Alvaro Morata, Pedri’s team-mate, last week. The teenager’s understanding of the game is so advanced, Morata added, that he plays as if he has the mind of a 40-year-old.
It is rare indeed for a player of Pedri’s age to be so influential on the biggest stage. It is even more rare for a teenager to be so durable over the course of one season: if he plays against Italy in Tuesday’s semi-final, as expected, it will be his 62nd match of the campaign.
As an intelligent central midfielder who represents Barcelona and often drifts to the left flank, Pedri has already drawn frequent comparisons with the great Andres Iniesta. This might feel like an unwelcome burden for some players, but the fact is that Pedri is considerably further ahead in his career than Iniesta was at 18. Iniesta, for example, did not make his Spain debut until the age of 22.
To be clear, it would be unreasonable to expect Pedri to match Iniesta’s achievements. “I have to be Pedri,” he said earlier this season. But those expectations will only grow if Pedri continues his sensational form against Italy’s formidable midfield at Wembley. International tests do not come much tougher than a semi-final against Marco Verratti, Nicolo Barella and Jorginho.
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Pedri, signed by Barcelona from Las Palmas for an initial fee of just £4.3 million, is the leading light of the next generation of Spanish talents. There is also Manchester City’s 21-year-old winger Ferran Torres, who has enjoyed a fine tournament so far, and 20-year-old Eric Garcia, who recently joined Barcelona from City.
As you would expect, the three youngsters are close friends in the Spain squad. They have long been seen as the future of the national team, but are now showing they are also a key part of the present.
Pedri’s charm is only enhanced by his boyish looks and frame. He cannot drive yet, and he caused a stir last year when he arrived for a Barcelona match with his belongings in a plastic supermarket bag. Outside of football he lives a quiet lifestyle, enjoying table tennis and video games, and takes a charitable interest in sustainability in the Canary Islands, where he grew up.
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At Barcelona, he swiftly earned the respect of Lionel Messi last season. The two players forged a strong connection on the pitch and Pedri clearly has a similar relationship with Sergio Busquets in the Spanish midfield. Both players battle to win the ball back, and both players are constantly looking for the passes that take Spain forward.
Pedri is not a goalscoring midfielder. Nor does he register numerous assists. In fact, if you only watched the highlights of Spain’s matches, you might not notice him at all. He is instead the sort of midfielder who defines games through personality and intelligence, playing the right pass at the right time, and often providing the delivery that leads to the cross that leads to the goal.
Ever since his unexpectedly early breakthrough at Barcelona, Pedri has been a source of delight for football supporters in Spain. Now, the entire continent is savouring his talent. After Spain’s thrilling victory over Croatia, manager Luis Enrique told journalists: “As for the headline, I have got one for you: enjoy football.” When Pedri is dancing around the midfield, it is hard not to.