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With a Perfect Goal That Rewrote Men’s Soccer History, a New Star Is Born

SportWith a Perfect Goal That Rewrote Men’s Soccer History, a New Star Is Born

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

A tear in the universe opened up at the Allianz Arena.

A space that wasn’t apparent to the other 21 players on the pitch, notably France goalkeeper Mike Maignan, or the 75,000 fans in the stands, suddenly appeared. When it did, Pedri, on the Spanish bench, brought his clasped hands from his neck to his face. He looked frightened by what he had just witnessed. Frightened by the portal to a new dimension his team-mate Lamine Yamal cut into with his left foot. The portal to a Euros final. The portal through which Yamal’s immense potential could be glimpsed.


Pedri watches Yamal’s goal in disbelief (BBC)

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

Olmo scored the winner against France. His goal was exquisite in its own right for its dexterity, its elusiveness, its affirmation of Spanish technical supremacy. Olmo was playing 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 cancelled out France’s opener. Up until then, it had looked like this might be Kylian Mbappe’s night. Mbappe had discarded his mask in the way a gladiator might throw one onto the bloodied sand of the Colosseum floor. A statement of intent. His vision was no longer impaired by the “horrible” accessory he’d been forced to wear to protect a broken and bruised nose. Inside 10 minutes, Mbappe even made 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, finally score.

We’ve grown accustomed at this tournament to no one coming back against France. They’re not supposed to, anyway. The only goal Maignan had conceded so far was a penalty from Yamal’s Barcelona team-mate, Robert Lewandowski, in the 1-1 draw with Poland. Maignan had saved Lewandowski’s first effort only for the referee to order it to be retaken for encroachment. Beating him would take something truly special. Something out of this world. “We were in a difficult moment,” Yamal acknowledged. “Nobody expected to concede a goal so early.”

When a Fabian Ruiz roulette ended in a tangle 30 yards from goal, Yamal collected the loose ball and moved to puncture the enthusiasm behind the French goal. “I picked up the ball and I did not think about it, I tried to put it where it went, and I’m just very happy.”

Standing up to him was France’s giraffe-like midfielder Adrien Rabiot. Clearly, Yamal thought he needed to wind his neck in. On the eve of the game, Rabiot had said: “We’ve seen he is a player who can deal with stress very well, he has lots of qualities of playing for his club and in a major tournament. We know what he is made of. He keeps a cool head, but it can be difficult to deal with a semi-final in a big tournament. It will be up to us to put pressure on him, but we want him to come out of his comfort zone. If you want to play at a Euro final, you need to do more than he has done up until now.”

Yamal responded on Instagram with a post of a hand moving a pawn on a chessboard. “Move in silence” read the caption. “Only speak when it’s time to say ‘checkmate’.” Yamal let his left foot do the talking. His move came in the 21st minute. Yamal hid the ball, at first, by wrapping his left foot around it to go outside Rabiot only to reveal it again by nudging it inside with the outside of the same boot.

Rabiot shifted from side to side like an Arctic crab. He threw out a claw as Yamal set to shoot, but Rabiot caught none of the ball. Neither did Maignan. He covered his goal as well as he could. The AC Milan goalkeeper’s gloved hand eclipsed the top corner, but it couldn’t shut 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 strike, on the other hand, was priceless. “We saw a touch of genius,” Spain coach Luis de la Fuente said.

It’s commonplace to hear people say perfection doesn’t exist. That it’s unattainable. But Yamal’s shot challenged that notion. “His shot was magnifique,” Didier Deschamps praised. It made Yamal, at 16 years and 362 days, the youngest goalscorer in Euros history. He will turn 17 on the eve of the final. The only gift Yamal wanted, he said, was “just to win, win, win. My objective was to be able to celebrate my birthday here in Germany. And I am very happy to celebrate it here with the team”. He then added: “I told my mum she does not need to buy me any present if we manage to win the final.”

As Yamal turned and dashed towards the enraptured Spanish bench, sliding on his knees in a state of euphoria, memories of a very similar goal the Barcelona winger scored against Mallorca flashed before the eyes of the Catalan journalists in the press box. But this was better. For the occasion. For the way it made Mbappe puff his cheeks 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.”


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

Yamal’s display will be condensed to the analysis of a moment. Rodri, however, expanded on it. “I personally went over to Lamine and congratulated him for his performance,” he said. “People will remember the game for his goal and what he did is something only a few chosen ones can do. But I personally thanked him for his defensive commitment. The recoveries, the tracking back, how he helped out the full-back. It’s been outstanding for a guy his age. I personally really rate this.”

At the end of the game, the Spanish players huddled together and jumped up and down in celebration at reaching the final. Yamal, initially, stood apart from them, nearer the halfway line like a star from a galaxy far, far away.

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

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