May 21, 2024

To the west of Los Palacios y Villafranca, where Barcelona and Spain prodigy Pablo Paez Gavira (aka Gavi) was born, are huge, soggy marshlands separating his tiny Andalucian town from the historic Guadalquivir river, which flows from the Atlantic Ocean almost all the way across to the Mediterranean Sea.

Right now, it’d be no surprise if the mayor proposed to the local council for a small airstrip to be build on land claimed back from the marshes, or for a flotilla of small boats registered to Bayern Munich, Chelsea, Juventus or Manchester City to be seen determinedly chugging their way up towards the town from the Guadalquivir’s junction with the Gulf of Cadiz.

That’s because things just got really crazy.

The football community in Spain already knew that Los Palacios, a tiny speck on the landscape in geographic terms, had produced not only this phenomenal 19-year-old known as Gavi, but also 27-year-old Fabián Ruiz (now at Paris Saint-Germain) and Sevilla‘s grandmaster, the 37-year-old Jesús Navas. This small place appears to be a massive anomaly: previously only known for its tomato and rice crops, it has produced three top-class professional footballers.

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The fact that Gavi, Ruiz and Navas have already won 22 major trophies at the club and international level — across LaLiga, Ligue 1, Serie A, the Premier League or at tournaments held in South Africa, Poland, Ukraine, the Netherlands and Italy — can be regarded as a little miracle. It shouldn’t be feasible. However, over the past few days, each man has stood out for their contributions. Navas delivered the cross for the late goal that finally split Spain and Scotland in their titanic tussle for Group A leadership; Fabian Ruiz was La Roja‘s standout player 72 hours later against Norway in Oslo; it was Gavi who cracked home the winning goal in that match as Spain beat Norway to qualify for Euro 2024 in Germany.

The Three Musketeers of Los Palacios strike again.

So that hypothetical flotilla of boats and need for a private airstrip for small jets both stem from the concept that officials and directors of football across the world, from Paris via London, Milan, Munich and Manchester, must be saying to their club’s owners: “No, I simply do not know what they put in the water down there, but I’m leaving right this minute to beat everyone to the next brilliant talent kicking a ball around Los Palacios.”

That Navas, the man who’s so fast that he ran across a swimming pool’s tarpaulin covering without falling in at the 2010 World Cup — and the only male player in history to have won the European Championship, World Cup and UEFA Nations League — comes from this basic, working-class community is neat enough. That Ruiz, a stunningly elegant midfielder who scored while winning the 2019 U21 European Championship final against Germany, should add trophies with Real Betis, Napoli and PSG while first having pulled his boots on as a tiny kid in the same Municipal Las Marismas stadium as Navas a full decade years before him makes it properly remarkable.

But that Gavi now completes the hat trick, playing for Barcelona a few days after his 17th birthday, winning LaLiga, winning the UEFA Nations League with Spain and now adding the crucial goal that defeated Erling Haaland and Martin Odegaard’s Norway, sending Luis de la Fuente’s team to Germany as favourites to win the Euros next summer? Well, that’s off the scale weird when it comes to world-class alumni of a community, population: 35,000.

Even at 5-foot-8, Gavi is a ferocious player. You’ll know that by now I hope. When he was a tiny kid with a ball, volleying it off the walls around Bar Casa Francisco on Avenida Sevilla in his neighbourhood, he didn’t want anyone else to join in. He didn’t see them as games of street football. Neighbours recall him being completely lost in his own world of controlling, turning, volleying and imagining scoring great goals — all at the age of seven and eight. Woe betide anyone who tried to take the ball off him.

Then there were the matches that quickly made him famous in the region. “I was a bad loser, there’s no question. I let my temper get to me a bit,” he recalled in an interview for La Vanguardia. When he first turned up, fierce, finely skilled and prone to not speaking very much, his earliest coach, Manuel Vasco, recalls there being an immediate confrontation.

“Gavi began with my team aged six, but there was a kid who’d already been with us for a year in his position,” he said. “As soon as I saw Gavi train I said to myself ‘I have to get this boy in the team!’ So I told him he’d be playing as a winger. He refused, saying: ‘No, coach … I don’t play on the wing!’ So I answered ‘Look, you guys all finish changing, I’m going outside now, but when I’m back in five minutes you’re either playing on the wing or on the bench!’ When I came back in, he accepted my decision and began to outplay everyone in the team and everyone in the league. It was unnatural.”

Within two years Gavi would be recruited by Betis where, in his “Benjamin” age category, he scored 96 goals during a single season.

By now, he’s already played over 100 times for Barcelona’s first team and has reached 25 caps for Spain about a year quicker than Cristiano Ronaldo did it for Portugal and two years faster than Lionel Messi for Argentina. Take note.

It was back in 2021 when Gavi, much to the derision of the Madrid media, was catapulted by Luis Enrique into Spain’s senior team against European champions Italy in San Siro. At the time, that made him the youngest debutant ever for Spain, but he and La Roja won 2-1 and I recall chatting to César Azpilicueta about Gavi’s remarkable triumph that night.

Azpilicueta, with Chelsea at the time but now on the books at Atletico Madrid, told me: “Usually when some kid makes his first start, you have to coach him on the pitch, urge him to be strong and do the same good things that brought him to the national team in the first place. It took me about two minutes to realise, with Gavi tackling and snarling and chasing Italians down, that I was going to have to try and hold him back a little!”

The anecdote helps explain something impressive about this young midfielder, given that Gavi himself eventually revealed a truth about which Azpilicueta was evidently unaware. The youngster explained in an interview with France Football: “That was the first time I felt pressure. My legs were trembling at the prospect of playing Italy at San Siro … but as soon as the match started, I felt totally comfortable.”

For him, it’s all about the ball; it’s all about competing and winning. He’s born for it. Everything else around the sport, including nerves, is just normal to him.

Gavi still shares an agent, Ivan de la Pena (known as the “Little Buddha”) with Luis Enrique and given how Barcelona were in a financial fair play mess this summer and Gavi’s new contract was the subject of a court battle, PSG tried to unite him with Fabian Ruiz at Parc des Princes. But, it transpires, Gavi thinks with both head and heart. Barcelona is his club. He’s a fan … and a fans’ favourite. PSG’s entreaties met deaf ears.

So far, this pugnacious, never-say-die kid who’s blessed with skill, vision and an overabundance of character has stats that make for interesting reading. He’s already scored with his left foot, right foot and with headers for Barcelona. The majority of his goals come against important rivals like Atletico, Real Madrid, Sevilla and Villarreal. Add to that 14 assists and you might — just might — be tempted to look beyond the two red cards and a steady flow of bookings. But that would be an error.

That thing about “he hates losing,” which has been evident since he was six years old, is deeply embedded in his nature. And while Xavi is working hard on mentoring his young star so that Gavi’s temper doesn’t get in the way of his meteoric development, he’ll nonetheless be missing from Barcelona’s next Champions League test, at home to Shakhtar Donetsk, because he was sent off in Porto a fortnight ago.

Ask people around Barcelona’s training ground and they’ll tell you that Gavi can be a little … chaotic.

Off the pitch, it’s all about dynamic forward movement rather than precision. Passports can be forgotten, laces can be left undone during a match: little things like that. On the pitch, Xavi wants Gavi to gradually let his brain and vision dominate over his legs and lungs. Why? Because he’s usually the player who does the most running: something Xavi is weaning him off. Or trying to. Quality over quantity.

Anyway, I have to stop now. There’s a train leaving for Los Palacios y Villafranca and, like everyone else who’s fascinated by football miracles I’m off to see what the heck it is they feed the children down there.

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