Perfection, by Lamine Yamal – The Athletic

Follow today's live coverage of England vs Netherlands in the semi-final of Euro 2024

A tear appeared in the universe at the Allianz Arena.

A space that was not visible to the other 21 players on the pitch, notably French goalkeeper Mike Maignan, or the 75,000 fans in the stands, suddenly appeared. As it did, Pedri, on the Spanish bench, raised his folded hands from his neck to his face. He looked scared by what he had just witnessed. Scared by the portal to a new dimension that his team-mate Lamine Yamal was carving into with his left leg. The portal to a European Championship final. The portal through which Yamal’s immense potential could be seen.


Pedri watches in disbelief at Yamal's goal (BBC)

Time traveled with the ball as it went from outside to inside the far post. Yamal was 13 when the last European Championship took place three years ago. He watched Spain play Italy in the semi-finals in a shopping mall with his friends. Dani Olmo, the man of the match in that game, missed a penalty in the shootout. But in Munich, Yamal showed that an alternative reality was possible.

Olmo scored the winning goal against France. His goal was in itself outstanding because of his agility, his elusiveness, his confirmation of Spanish technical supremacy. Olmo played with the confidence of someone who has scored in three games in a row. But France were also in a state of sheer disbelief and disorientation.

Four minutes earlier, Yamal had undone France’s opening match. Up until then, it had looked as if this would be Kylian Mbappé’s night. Mbappé had thrown off his mask like a gladiator might throw one onto the bloody sand of the Colosseum floor. A statement of intent. His vision was no longer obstructed by the “horrible” accessory he had been forced to wear to protect his broken and bruised nose. Within 10 minutes, Mbappé had even set up Randal Kolo Muani, a player who famously missed a one-on-one in the 2022 World Cup final, not to mention another against Portugal four days ago, to finally score.

We have become accustomed to this tournament where no one comes back against France. And that is not the intention. The only goal Maignan had conceded so far was a penalty by Yamal's Barcelona team-mate, ​​Robert Lewandowski, in the 1-1 draw with Poland. Maignan had saved Lewandowski's first attempt, but the referee ordered the ball to be retaken for a foul. To beat him would require something very special. Something otherworldly. “We were in a difficult moment,” Yamal admitted. “No one expected to concede a goal so early.”

When a Fabian Ruiz roulette ended in a tangle 30 yards from goal, Yamal grabbed the loose ball and set out to pierce the enthusiasm behind the French goal. “I picked the ball up and I didn't think about it, I tried to put it where it went, and I'm just really happy.”

Opposite him was France's giraffe-like midfielder Adrien Rabiot. Yamal clearly felt he had to twist his neck. On the eve of the match, Rabiot had said: “We have seen that he is a player who can handle stress well, he has a lot of qualities to play for his club and in a big tournament. We know what he is made of. He keeps his head cool, but it can be difficult to deal with a semi-final in a big tournament. It is up to us to put pressure on him, but we want him to get out of his comfort zone. If you want to play in a European Championship final, you have to do more than he has done so far.”

Yamal responded on Instagram with a post of a hand moving a pawn on a chessboard. “Move in silence,” the caption read. “Speak only when it's time to say 'checkmate.'” Yamal let his left leg do the talking. His move came in the 21st minute. Yamal first hid the ball by wrapping his left leg around it to go outside Rabiot, but then showed it again by pushing it in with the outside of the same boot.

Screenshot 2024 07 09 at 20.34.18 1

Rabiot moved from side to side like an Arctic crab. He threw out a claw as Yamal was about to shoot, but Rabiot didn't catch the ball. Nor did Maignan. He covered his goal as best he could. The gloved hand of the AC Milan goalkeeper shadowed the top corner but could not block out the sun, the light of Yamal's talent. “Habla! Habla!” Yamal shouted at Rabiot. “Talk! Talk!” All the Frenchman's talk had been cheap. Yamal's goal, on the other hand, was priceless. “We saw a touch of genius,” said Spain's coach Luis de la Fuente.

Screenshot 2024 07 09 at 20.34.33 1

It is a common phenomenon that people say that perfection does not exist. That it is unattainable. But Yamal's shot challenged that idea. “His shot was beautiful,” Didier Deschamps praised. It made Yamal, at 16 years and 362 days, the youngest goalscorer in the history of the European Championship. He will be 17 on the eve of the final. The only present Yamal wanted, he said, was “just to win, win, win. My goal was to be able to celebrate my birthday here in Germany. And I am very happy to be able to celebrate it here with the team”. He added: “I told my mother that she doesn't have to buy me a present if we win the final.”

As Yamal turned and ran towards the rapt Spanish bench, sliding to his knees in a state of euphoria, memories of a very similar goal the Barcelona winger had scored against Mallorca in front of the Catalan journalists in the press box flashed through his mind. But this was better. For the occasion. For the way it made Mbappe’s cheeks swell in a look of awe and helplessness. “I don’t know if it’s the best goal of the tournament,” Yamal said. “But it’s the most special for me.”

GettyImages 2160739374 scaled


Maignan is powerless to stop Yamal (Javier Soriano/AFP via Getty Images)

Yamal's performance will be summed up in the analysis of a moment. Rodri, however, expanded on it. “I personally went to Lamine and congratulated him on his performance,” he said. “People will remember the game for his goal and what he did is something that only a select few can do. But I personally thanked him for his defensive work. The recoveries, the sending backs, how he helped the full-back. It was excellent for a man of his age. I personally really appreciate it.”

At the end of the match, the Spanish players huddled together and jumped up and down to celebrate reaching the final. Yamal initially stood apart from them, closer to the halfway line like a star from a galaxy far, far away.

(Top photo: James Gill – Danehouse/Getty Images)

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