Spain’s Euro 2020 pain softened by Pedri’s emergence as Iniesta’s heir

Spain’s Euro 2020 pain softened by Pedri’s emergence as Iniesta’s heir

There was a moment 101 minutes into the wet, wild Wembley night in which Spain lost a place in the final but found a future when Pedri dribbled around the referee. Why? Because he had to and because, well, why not? Because he can, neatly finding his way beyond Felix Brych just as he repeatedly found a way to escape much tougher men. A shift of his weight and the Spaniard wriggled free to play another pass. To complete it too.

Of course. The semi-final of Euro 2020 between Spain and Italy was well into extra-time and still Pedri had not put a pass or foot wrong. It was not just the fact that he had completed every pass when 90 minutes came, the 65 completed of 67 by full time – a third more than any Italy player – and it certainly was not because he spent the night playing safe; rather it was the smoothness, the awareness, the balance, the ease of it all, socks low, body too. It was everything.

By then, though, it felt like nothing, too. Standing on the halfway line, Gerard Moreno to his right, Dani Olmo to his left, Pedri watched Jorginho roll in the decisive penalty and broke down. Spain had been denied the chance to return in five days, although their manager insisted they would be back not long after.

Pedri had come a long way fast to have been here at all. On 8 July 2020 he had been defeated at Real Oviedo in the second division; on 7 July 2021, he had been defeated by Italy in the semi-final of the European Championship, producing a performance that suggests there will be many more moments like this. Inconsolable, he sobbed into Thiago Alcântara’s shoulder. Aymeric Laporte embraced him too, and Luis Enrique, but the tears kept coming.

Nor were they just his. Álvaro Morata in particular looked lost, the outcome too cruel. In the dressing room, though, Luis Enrique told them to dry their eyes, instead taking pride and a lesson from the pain. “Don’t cry, get up again,” he said. “You have to learn to lose – in fact you learn more in defeat.”

At Wembley Spain had learned, one newspaper headline suggesting Pedri had completed his “doctorate” there: he had graduated at a stadium where the sign hanging over the rope preventing people from walking on the grass says “players enter and legends leave”. Suggesting this Spain team is legendary would be pushing it; suggesting they may yet become so would not be. “Hopefully this can be the start of something very big,” Eric García said. This is a young team that had “fallen with honour”, the better side against the tournament’s outstanding team.

They had done it with men who are not stars, at least not yet. Brighton had more players in the squad than Real Madrid. Barcelona and Atlético had five between them. Ferran Torres is 21, Pau Torres 24, Olmo 23. Olmo was superb at Wembley as a false nine. “His performance was incredible, textbook,” Luis Enrique said. “It was not normal.”

Which was when Luis Enrique broke off and, unprompted, said: “But, please, has anyone noticed the tournament produced by a kid of 18 whose name is Pedri? Anyone who knows anything about football knows that no one has ever seen that from anybody at the age of 18, not even Sir Andrés Iniesta. It’s incredible, just unique.”

Raised in Tegueste, Tenerife, little Pedri told his dad he wanted a haircut like Iniesta, until his dad pointed out that it was not a cut exactly. There was, though, much else he could emulate, from the shyness to the skill, the judgment of time and space, the ability to turn from opponents, holding the ball. That sense of total control and the calmness that goes with it, a gentle, easy superiority. “I play like I’m in the garden with my brother,” he says. Asked recently if he ever gets nervous, he replied: “I might have before my debut with Las Palmas.”

Playing at a place they called the fridge, chilled by the wind coming off the hillside, Pedri was always special, his Las Palmas manager, Pepe Mel, now famously looking at him and remarking: “There goes a millionaire who doesn’t know it.” There was something different about him, an athleticism – he ran 800m and the 400m hurdles – but above all a unique touch and awareness built of small games and enjoyment. “I play for fun,” he told Marcos López in El Periódico. It’s a serious business, but he seems almost not to notice.

“Football is losing technique in favour of physical [attributes],” he has said, “but you have to trust in talent, because those players repay you.” Luis Enrique did, not only including him in the squad but in the side – initially an unpopular decision, vindicated now. “There are times when facts define things better than words,” he insisted. “Pedri is unique, totally different.”

The facts that revealed the manager’s admiration were simple: three games running Spain went, exhausted, to extra time, yet Pedri missed just one minute all tournament – when he was withdrawn to bring on Rodri, a penalty-taker, in the 119th minute against Switzerland. At 18 years and 215 days, no one has ever played a knockout game of the Euros younger, Wayne Rooney’s record gone. None of which seems to impress him, which is precisely what does impress others. “What surprises me is his maturity,” Koke says. “He’s the present and future of the national team.”

“I told him: ‘You’re going to the Euros before you can drive,’” Morata said. “I’m amazed by him. It’s like he’s 40. There are those of us who need a long time to learn to manage errors, the pressure. Others have that as standard. At 18 very few players have his personality. He’ll be one of the best players in Spain’s history for sure.”

That was before the third group game; it looks a safer bet after the one against Italy. A gorgeous angled ball almost put Mikel Oyarzabal in after 12 minutes; a clever flick got him out of trouble 10 minutes later; and then a pass through an opponent’s legs drew “olés”. And that was just the start. In the notes from Tuesday night, there is a scrawl that says: “Pedri, though.” Another marks the moment a pass went astray, which wasn’t even entirely his fault. It’s many pages in.

The problem is that next come the penalties, watched from halfway (protected perhaps), all that effort ultimately insufficient. It was some effort, too: no one by the end of the semi-finals at Euro 2020, a competition he would not have reached had it actually been in 2020, will have run farther than Pedri – even though it comes at the end of a calendar year in which he has played 70 matches, starting at Oviedo’s Carlos Tartiere stadium and ending at Wembley. Only, it has not ended yet. The Euros are over; next stop Tokyo and the Olympic Games.

Barcelona are not happy – another measure of how important Pedri has become – but they cannot prevent him going for many reasons, including the most simple of all and probably the very reason that he is so enjoyable to watch. “I understand,” Pedri said, “but I love playing football.”

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