Gavi stars for Spain as Barcelona count the soaring cost of his new contract
It was September 2020 when Ansu Fati, aged 17 years and 311 days, curled a sensational right-footed shot past Ukraine‘s Andriy Pyatov to become the youngest-ever goal scorer for Spain‘s national team. It was a record which had stood proudly untouched for 95 years — since Real Union’s Juan Errazquin, a few days off his 19th birthday, hit the net in a 3-0 friendly win over Switzerland in 1925.
It’s normally a good indicator of any record’s significance if it has stood for a long time — just think of Bob Beamon’s incredible long jump mark of 8.90 meters which has endured since 1968. So Ansu — also Barcelona‘s youngest scorer (16 years and 304 days) in LaLiga and the youngest ever to hit the net in the Champions League (17 years, 40 days) — is pretty special.
Yet Ansu’s newly established record for Spain lasted for just 637 days, until his Barca teammate, Pablo Martin Paez Gavira — whom you’ll know as Gavi (aged 17 years and 304 days) — snatched it away from him with a lovely left-footed finish in Prague to equalise against Czech Republic last Sunday.
It’s the second time in a matter of months that this feisty, uber-talented kid has ripped up the national-team record books. Last November, while starring in a 2-1 victory over European champions Italy at San Siro, Gavi (at 17 years and 62 days) broke an 85-year-old landmark for footballing precocity by playing for Spain 222 days younger than the previous record-holder Angel Zubieta in April 1936.
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Enough of the stats, for the moment at least, because what’s much more exciting about this young lad is his talent, energy, technique and ferocious will to win. Precisely the standout abilities which, combined, have made him the star player over Spain’s last 180 competitive minutes: draws with Portugal and the Czechs which put Spain in a precarious position in Nations League Group A2. In fact, Gavi played more minutes for La Roja across the two matches than anyone except goalkeeper Unai Simon.
If you didn’t manage to watch Luis Enrique’s injury-hit, tiring Spain side these last few days I’m going to do you a wee favour. Find La Roja‘s goal against Portugal, but play it from the origins of the 25th-minute move.
It starts with a loose ball about 20 metres outside the Spain penalty area and a sprint. Gavi the Kid shouldn’t get there first, but he leaves Portugal’s Bruno Fernandes in a despairing heap on the ground. Then he strides about 50 metres, the ball tied to his foot, before slide-ruling a pass to right winger Pablo Sarabia, who is left to provide the simplest assist for Alvaro Morata to score.
It’s a thing of beauty. Golden kid; silver service.
Begun thanks to desire and athleticism, developed with savvy and technical excellence, then dispatched to the correct destination with all the aplomb of someone who’s been dominating elite football for a decade … not ending his first full senior season. And who’ll still be a teenager when Euro 2024 in Germany ends.
My favours to you continue: Now seek out Spain’s match in the Czech capital. That historic goal I was on about is a little gem. With Spain losing, under pressure generally and getting physically and athletically bullied by a clever counter-attacking side, it’s Gavi the Kid to the rescue.
A dart towards the ball to fool a marker, a right-foot reception of Rodri’s three-metre pass, a tilt of his still-diminutive frame and an inch-perfect left-footed finish which curves round Tomas Vaclik‘s full-length dive and in off the post.
In both matches, Barcelona’s midfield prodigy demonstrated a wide range of the things which drew Luis Enrique’s attention last November. I was in the news conference the day before Spain played their rematch against Italy in a Nations League semifinal, having lost to them a couple of months previous in a Euro 2020 semifinal at Wembley.
Some journalists, especially those based in Madrid, aren’t partial to Luis Enrique. They think him contrary, provocative, antagonistic (some of them actually think he’s a little anti-Real Madrid.) And, so, when the match previews were published, quite a few mocked the idea that Gavi, then only a handful of matches into his Barcelona career and having barely even featured for the Camp Nou B side, merited a place on the plane to Italy.
Nevertheless, he started and excelled, and postmatch the Spain coach said: “It’s not normal that someone performs like this at 17. Gavi has personality, enviable physique and athleticism and he plays our style of football. When you watch him it’s as if he’s at school or in his garden. What a pleasure to have a guy with that quality and character with us. Gavi is the national team’s present, not merely our future.”
Precisely what Gavi the Kid proved these last couple of matches and will need to do again, if called upon, away to Switzerland in a must-win match this Friday. Time and again this is La Roja‘s guy who shows for the ball in tight spots and difficult moments. Notice how he always has a plan for what he’s going to try and do with the ball long before he receives it. And how often, compared to most footballers more experienced than him, his first instinct is to move the play forward to test and stretch the opponents. There’s in-built urgency, but not a hint of haste.
Watching Gavi, it’s easy to understand why he always, without fail, names Andres Iniesta as the player who has always inspired him. It’s not right, by any means, to start comparing them but, in terms of a role model, young Gavi has been following the right man.
However, in football, as in life, every silver lining has a cloud. This time for Gavi’s club: Barcelona. He’s following in the footsteps of Xavi and Iniesta not merely because of his pitch positions, style of play and club colours; Gavi is replicating their own troubled introductions to top-level football.
Xavi and Iniesta had to break through, grow, get tougher and eventually dominate world football against an initial background of Camp Nou chaos and deprivation. Their diminutive size, finding their best position, decorating the team with the right type of talent around them, club debt, trophyless seasons — the two men now regarded as all-time greats had to fight their way through all of that 20 years ago.
Gavi, at least, has had Ronald Koeman and now Xavi trusting implicitly in talent over age and size. But the Camp Nou financial chaos has returned with a vengeance, meaning that academy-trained players like him, obtained and developed at minimal cost, are like rain in the desert.
The key problem is that Gavi is represented by someone who has seen it all before. Remember Ivan de la Pena? Developed at La Masia, he was sublimely gifted, shaven-headed and the same height and weight as Gavi. De La Pena made his debut for Barca just turned 19 — a debut celebrated with a goal — and was initially worshipped by a needy club and needy Camp Nou crowd.
For various reasons, not required to be detailed here, things didn’t reach their natural peak for De La Pena — known as the Little Buddha. He spent just two full, and fully fulfilling, seasons with the Blaugrana, during which he won six trophies. But then he ricocheted back and forth like a pinball between Lazio, Marseille and Barcelona before, latterly, taking revenge by starring for Catalan enemies Espanyol.
Today, the Little Buddha is wise enough to know several things.
Firstly: That however huge the fanfare for his client Gavi right now, there is no guarantee, zero, that it will automatically lead to seven or eight glorious Iniesta-style years at Barcelona.
Secondly: That there is a huge market for the kid right now. A handful of leading Champions League clubs would snap him up (for the price of his €50m release clause) tomorrow if given the slightest encouragement by player or agent.
Thirdly: That Barcelona’s current contract offer, which they’ll attempt to push on Gavi and his entourage again this week, is lowball — based on the horrific financial position into which Barcelona have allowed themselves to drift.
Fourthly: While this hasn’t by any means been what’s driven Gavi during these last two excellent performances for Spain, this is already a week which has sent his transfer value and contractual worth soaring up, up and up!
Alejandro Moreno ponders if Barcelona will be able to keep up their quality of play into next season.
De La Pena will, unquestionably, be pointing Gavi to conclusions based on what’s happening around him. That while there will be reinforcements coming to Camp Nou this summer, they will nevertheless fall short of the extent of excellence and experience with which the squad needs to be infused. Barcelona simply cannot afford that.
That, while this is a club which trusts and promotes youth, Pedri was played until his young frame said “no mas” and is missing from the Spain squad so that he can recuperate. That Ansu is with Spain but not playing because he’s still recovering from several months out with a meniscus problem. That Nico Gonzalez, who broke through for Barcelona as a Gavi contemporary, has been increasingly sidelined and may now need to go on loan to get more game time.
Life is sweet right now, but Gavi will be warned: “It ain’t always this way — and we need to fight our corner before deciding on the future.”
De La Pena will be telling the 17-year-old that they are in the power seat and won’t be renewing on disadvantageous terms out of emotion, or naivety; that time is on their side as other clubs hover — waiting to discover whether Barcelona finally accept the fact that they have to stump up or lose a generational talent brutally early.
What a bittersweet dilemma for Xavi, Barcelona’s coach. He’s in charge of a talent which can fortify his quest for trophies, a player whose position and skills he’s uniquely placed to guide and develop and a kid who is both precocious and prodigious. Someone who can innately produce Xavi’s own idea of football.
But the more Gavi stars for the Spain national team, the bigger the price his cash-strapped bosses at Camp Nou will need to fork out to keep him. An unpleasant truth they’d better recognise and address immediately.