Welcome, Gavi, We’ve Been Waiting
More than 60 years ago, Pele announced himself to football fans with an unforgettable first World Cup goal against Wales. On November 23, the 18-year-old Gavi scored an even better one. He and Spain offered a dazzling glimpse of what lies ahead.
The debate over the greatest footballer of all time will never end. Was it Alfredo Di Stefano, the Argentine maestro who even Pele considered the most complete footballer of all? Was it Johan Cruyff, the talisman of a Netherlands side that revolutionized the sport with their Total Football? Was it Diego Maradona, whose unmatched dribbling skills, balance and tenacity saw him dominate the World Cup in Mexico in 1986?
Or was it Zinedine Zidane, whose playmaking skills and big-match temperament inspired France to World Cup and European Championship wins? What about the modern-day duo of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo? And how good was the Brazilian Ronaldo, O Fenômeno, perhaps the most devastating forward of all?
The one thing that is beyond debate is the identity of the greatest player in the history of the World Cup. There is Pele, and then there’s daylight. No one else comes close to matching his sustained excellence. A teenage star when Brazil first won the World Cup in 1958, he was still around and in his pomp 12 years later, when an even better team – perhaps the greatest World Cup side of them all – brushed aside Italy 4-1 in the 1970 final.
First impressions matter, and though we don’t have the benefit of multiple angles and technicolor to appreciate it better, Pele’s first World Cup goal in the 1958 quarterfinal against Wales was a masterpiece. Controlling Didi’s pass on his chest while standing near the penalty spot with his back to goal, Pele then flicked the ball behind him with his right boot while turning 180 degrees to face the goal. The defender marking him looked on bemused as Pele then let the ball bounce before poking it past the goalkeeper and into the corner. He scored an even better goal in the final, and there was plenty of other glimpses of genius in the 12 years that followed, but that first announcement of his ability was impossible to forget.
On November 23, Pablo Martín Páez Gavira – shortened to Gavi on his shirt and the teamsheet – outdid even the great Pele. Just 18, and with a face that wouldn’t look out of place on a 13 year old, he showed the wider world what Barcelona fans have already known for well over a year. This is a once-in-a-generation player, someone with the potential to be even better than Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta, the twin fulcrums of the greatest Spanish side of all (2008-2012).
No matter how many times you watch the replay, you can’t stifle the gasps or the feeling of awe. Gavi is about five yards outside the box when Alvaro Morata looks up and floats a cross just behind the penalty spot. By the time the ball drops, Gavi has sprinted in and sliced the ball on the volley with the outside of his boot into the corner of the net.
There are various words to describe the finish. Preposterous. Ridiculous. Unreal. Those are just three of them. If you asked all the footballers playing in this World Cup to try and replicate that, over 80 per cent of the attempts would end up closer to the corner flag than the corner of the net. There are few skills more difficult than striking a ball moving nearly at a right angle to you on the volley. Gavi did it so nonchalantly that even multiple replays couldn’t take away the sense of wonder.
Xavi was 20 when he first played for Spain. Iniesta was 22. Neither was remotely as accomplished at 18. The ceiling for Gavi is scarily high. He and Pedri, a relative veteran who turns 20 tomorrow, ran the midfield, and ran rings around a Costa Rica team whose aging stalwarts had no answer to the speed and precision with which Spain moved the ball. The thing with Gavi and Pedri isn’t just how well they pass the ball. It’s how they invariably know which spaces to move into to receive a pass from a teammate and then move the ball on. At times, the Spanish dominance was painful to watch, with Costa Rica not even getting near the ball.
When the World Cup draw was made, one of the most mouthwatering prospects was the Spain-Germany contest this coming weekend. It pits Gavi against another precocious teenager, Jamal Musiala. Musiala’s footwork and speed are so eye-catching that some call him Bambi after the deer. What Germany’s shock defeat to Japan has done is make the Spain match a must-win for them. Spain too will not want to leave qualification to their final game against Japan, whose speed on the counter could well unnerve their aging full-back duo of Jordi Alba and Cesar Azpilicueta.
It could well be the perfect platform for Gavi to show that he, and Spain, are the future. Germany will be compelled to pour forward, and as they do, Gavi and Pedri will have plenty of gaps to move into. Their passes through the lines will also ask plenty of questions of a German defence that looked all at sea once Japan committed to attacking them at pace.
This World Cup may have come a bit too early for Spain and Gavi, though it would be a huge surprise if they didn’t make at least the quarterfinals. But with Gavi in the middle of the park, picking his passes and surging forward to score magical goals, this is a team set to dominate for years to come. As with Pele in 1958, Gavi’s goal was a glimpse of the future. And it looked beautiful.