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Back in 2012, Manuel Llorente, then president of Valencia, was flipping through the sports pages of a newspaper when a piece of news startled him as much as it did infuriate him. It was not a flimsy gossip concerning the imminent transfer of Jordi Alba, their then best player, to Barcelona. But that of Barcelona invading their youth academy and prising out two of their brightest kids, a 10-year-old and an 11-year-old, who they were discreetly nurturing.
In his plush, trophy-stacked room at the Mestalla Stadium, Llorente fumed: “We are angry at Barcelona because we cannot understand how a club this big need to take players who are 10 and 11 years old from your youth ranks.” But he also realised it was the plight of smaller clubs like Valencia. The Barca-Madrid lure is so irresistible for the kids and their parents that they would latch on to the slightest of offers. “We are small fishes in the pond. We can’t do anything other than be defected, and defected right from the youth academy,” he cribbed.
The 11-year-old was Abel Ruiz. Barcelona’s scouts bumped into him in the Torneo de Brunete, a premier club championship featuring 20 junior clubs of the first division, where several young Spanish legends create their first big impressions. Big-built and pacy for his age, he stacked up goals with quick-fire succession, and in another two months, he was training at the La Masia academy. “I had a great tournament, Barcelona saw me, they spoke with my parents. That Barcelona came for me at when I was so young never stopped surprising me,” he says.
He, of course, was too young to realise the furore he would trigger or the cultural shift from Valencia to Barcelona, from home to academy. “Only when Barcelona face Valencia do I have a divided heart. I love both teams and support them too, but I can’t obviously play for both,” he says.
Initially, he found it difficult to adjust to his role in Barcelona too. “It was tricky, because a No 9 is used to playing in the box and Barcelona want you further away. It’s complicated and even more when the rival locks themselves in their box,” he told the Spanish newspaper The Sport.
However, he made rapid transitions from one age-group to another, and it was only a matter of time before some of his goal-scoring videos went viral, like his cheeky goal against Girona. The goalkeeper was closing in on him, and there was not much space or time for him to dribble past him and fire the goal. So he chipped it over him, the ball ballooning into the net.
But there weren’t too many of such footages, for he’s not someone who would dazzle a goalkeeper, but a more direct player, who would pull the trigger at any moment he senses an opportunity, a trait that was evidenced several times in this FIFA World Cup. His first goal against Niger was a classic instance. From the side, he could see the robust frame of Juan Miranda steaming down the flanks. So from a central position, he drifted to his left and gathered the low cross, before smearing it past three converging defenders and the goalkeeper. All in less than half minute. There was no wicked swerve or dip, but just brute force.
In essence, it was a poacher’s goal, the protagonist sensing the trajectory and weight of the cross, outmuscling his markers to the ball, shifting his direction and cleverly finding that tiny but vital space to unfurl that vicious strike. He wouldn’t think about crafting the perfect goal, just scoring a goal was enough to fill him up, be it scrappy or languid, with the shoulder, face, knee or chest. If he went to a firing range he wouldn’t waste five shots missing the target in the hope that he could revel in the glory of a sixth and final lethal shot to the dummy’s head. He’d bury all six shots in the chest.
His aerial abilities-though he’s yet to score off a header in this tournament, courtesy North Korea goalkeeper Sin’s stunning saves-too are remarkable, even beyond his age. He must be 6ft tall or thereabouts, but could get above much bigger defenders by timing his jump to perfection. He makes every muscle work to his advantage and when he clatters into a defender, it’s he who usually gets up first.
His under-17 Spain coach Santiago Denia sees several qualities in him that he says would make him a regular contributor for Spain in the imminent years. “He ticks all the boxes. He scores poachers goals, can make goals, take on players and hold the ball up to make goals for other players.” A very conventional hitman, and not the modern-day centre forward who is called to perform a number of differing roles.
A glance around world football reveals the shortage of traditional strikers, or rather their waning status. While there are sufficient creators, wingers and false no 9s around-a position Messi redefined through dropping deep and pulling wide to link the play and disrupt opponents’ marking structures-the conventional centre forward has gone out of vogue. So much so that Arsene Wenger once famously quipped: “Europe doesn’t produce classical centre forwards anymore. Only Latin America does.” Hence perhaps the exorbitant transfer fees shelled out for procuring their services.
Though Spain indeed won a Euro, the third of their golden era, without a conventional striker, and so did Germany without one in the last Euro, managers of late have shown an urgency and sent a desperate SOS for conventional foxes-in-the-boxes types. Spain, finally, seems to have unearthed one in Real Madrid’s Alvaro Morata. The latter is his favourite, but it’s Lewandowski he’s modelling on: “I’m a player with good finishing, quite direct, I bear the ball well with my back to goal. I consider myself a complete forward. I’m focused on Lewandowski, for me he’s the most complete forward there is,” he recently told Spanish newspaper The Sport.
Back in La Masia, his technique is likened to the legendary Marco Van Basten. No wonder several European bigwigs are behind him. But Ruiz’s priorities are clear: To stay in Barcelona, until “they lose confidence in me.” Several clubs will hope they will. Valencia, though would keep fuming, though Llorente has long gone.