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Luis Enrique was wrong. Just not the way everyone said he was wrong. “It’s ahead of time? Maybe, yeah, I won’t deny that,” Spain‘s coach had said, but it turned out it wasn’t too early at all. Pablo Paez Gavira, “Gavi,” had just turned 17, had played only 374 minutes in his entire senior career, and lots of people thought calling him up was lunacy and weren’t shy in saying so. But on Wednesday night he didn’t just play for Spain, making his debut with the national team, he started. At San Siro. Against Italy. And he was brilliant.
He was also a winner. Spain defeated the European Champions 2-1, ending their 37-game unbeaten run (stream a replay on ESPN, U.S. only). It was the first time Spain had won a competitive game in Italy in 50 years and Koke said afterwards it was “historic” and “unforgettable.” According to Ferran Torres, scorer of both goals, it was also revenge. “We knew that this was a very special game because we were knocked out by them in the Euros,” he said, “And what better revenge than beating them here, in their home in front of their people?”
Revenge was the word Yeremi Pino kept repeating afterwards too. Pino made his debut as a second half substitute and was outstanding, part of a generation that brings optimism: he’s 18, Bryan Gil is 20 and Torres is 21, while Ansu Fati and Pedri will be back soon and they’re only 18 and even “veteran” Mikel Oyarzabal, provider of two gorgeous assists, is 24. But it was hard not to be drawn even more to Gavi. “I didn’t know him,” Italy defender Emerson admitted. “He really impressed. You can see that he has huge potential.”
Luis Enrique could, if potential was the right word — and by late on Wednesday night, it really didn’t feel like it any more. There was method in his madness; at times, in fact, it can feel like the madness is his method. There was a huge debate when Gavi was called up this time. When he is called up next time, for the vital qualifiers next month, there won’t be. They’ll have to find something else to talk about instead.
Gavi became the youngest man ever to play for Spain, breaking the previous record set by Angel Zubieta, who played against Czechoslovakia in April 1936. Zubieta was 17 years and 284 days old and only played once more, against Switzerland. That summer, the civil war began and Zubieta headed off with a Basque select team that toured on behalf of the Republic, later joining San Lorenzo, where he played for 13 seasons. He didn’t return to Spain until 1952, when he joined Deportivo de La Coruna.
Gavi played his first Spain game at 17 years, 62 days. When he was called up, he had only just played his first Barcelona game. “In the three or four spells I have seen him, and it is only three or four, he has left me in no doubt that he can be a very important player for the future not just for Barcelona but also the national team,” Luis Enrique said. The word was future: there were injuries, absences, but it still felt premature. And that was what Luis Enrique accepted. But, he insisted, while others hadn’t seen much of Gavi, he most certainly had.
Born in Los Palacios, Seville, represented by former midfielder Ivan de la Pena, Gavi had joined Barcelona’s youth system from Betis aged 11. This was the classic: “can’t beat them, bring them.” Gavi had led Betis to a 5-0 win over Barca. He was, Luis Enrique insisted, the “reference” in Barcelona’s academy, the star of his generation, a player that no one doubted would make it. “Very much a Barcelona profile, but with the physicality of the modern game too, intense and with a tremendous character,” as a key figure in youth football at the Spanish Football Federation puts it. “He can set the pace of a game, knows when to speed it up and slow it down and he also has that physical work, the willingness to go into the challenge for loose balls.”
There was something about Gavi, for sure: not just the talent of an inside midfielder who read the game well, had the touch, timing and eye for a pass, but who had the temperament too. He was tough, had an edge, a bit of nastiness about him. Those who saw him were sure he would become a top player. They also saw a kid who would forget things, occasionally step out of line, and seemed to have no interest at all in the trappings of being a footballer, just the game itself; one who sometimes needed controlling, slowing down, who was hyper competitive. He hated losing.
He still does, and Luis Enrique knew that. There was something of that when Gavi was asked about his Spain call up following Barcelona’s 2-0 defeat at Atletico last weekend. “I don’t want to talk about that because right now I’m pissed off we lost,” he said.
Plenty of others were pissed off too. Luis Enrique understood that, knew he had taken a serious step, but he insisted that calling up Gavi was the right thing. He also couldn’t care less what the media said — except that he could care and seemingly quite a lot insofar as he enjoyed going against the grain, giving them some back. There’s a contrary streak there, a sense of him enjoying the battle. And, thinking about it, maybe he saw something of that in Gavi too.
“The dangerous thing is risking calling players you don’t trust,” Luis Enrique had insisted. “And I have no doubt that Gavi will be important. Maybe I have called him early, but age doesn’t matter. He’s more than ready. I like what I see and I want to know if he can adapt to our play.”
That’ll be a yes then.
“Maybe he’ll start in Italy,” Spain’s coach had said. After the Italy game he was reminded of that. “Oh, did I say that?” he shot back, grinning. “I don’t remember.” Everyone would remember what they had just seen. “Age is just a number,” Koke said. “If the lads compete, let them.”
Gavi competed, alright. He was up against Jorginho, Marco Verratti, and Nicolo Barella but he didn’t seem to care. He gave away the ball early on, leading to the first shot of the game for Italy, but he didn’t seem to care about that either. At least, it didn’t affect him. He kept passing, completing 47 of 53 passes. He stood up to Verratti, dived in on Federico Chiesa, tackled Emerson, never backed down. He ended the game with a scratch across his chest, skinny and pale, but he didn’t care. He had won.
He had won them over. Luis Enrique already was; now others joined, some more willingly than others. “We’re talking about a case that’s not normal,” the Spain manager said. “He plays as if he was on the patio at home. He’s a pleasure to see a player with that quality and personality. Those of us who know him already know what he’s like. He doesn’t surprise me.
“He has personality, bravery, quality, football to play at this level and on top of it all he’s physically superb. He had to mark Verratti, who they have just told me was his idol, and he was more than up to the task. It’s absolutely not normal to see a player with his personality. He has the typical profile that fits our system. He can move between the lines, play, deliver the last pass, he doesn’t lose the ball. He’s not just the future of the national team; fortunately, he’s also the present.”