NXGN x Euro 2020: The making of Spain starlet Pedri
By Rik Sharma
Though you could be forgiven for thinking otherwise, Pedri does not, in fact, come from a Pep Guardiola fever dream.
The 18-year-old - who placed fourth on Goal’s NXGN list of the world’s top teenage footballers in March - has been La Liga’s breakout star of 2020-21, leaving Spain coach Luis Enrique no option but to call him up for Euro 2020.
The question has slowly morphed into if he will start for Spain this summer, rather than if he would merely make the cut.
Few imagined such a scenario at the start of the season, and fewer still the year before, when he made his debut for second division side UD Las Palmas at 16. Just a kid then, still a kid now, even though he conducts himself with startling maturity.
Pedri has 52 Barcelona appearances under his belt in his debut season with the Catalan giants, plus three Spain caps. He has proven he belongs with the elite, forming a thrilling partnership with Lionel Messi. The pair share a near-telepathic connection, and it is Pedri’s potential that could yet convince the Argentine to stay at Camp Nou.
The Pedri story started a long way from Camp Nou, though, even if his playing style is uncut La Masia. He emerged far closer to the west coast of Africa, on the Canary Islands, the Spanish archipelago 2,500 kilometres away from Barcelona.
Pedro Gonzalez Lopez was born in Tegueste, a town of around 11,000 people on the island of Tenerife. He was an average student, according to his teachers at the Maria del Carmen Fernandez Melian school, but when the bell rang, it was time for him to shine. He would take football seriously in the playground, his sights set on the top from an early age.
The midfielder, born after the 2002 World Cup, comes from a Barcelona-obsessed family, who host a ‘peña’ - fan club - in Tegueste, in their Tasca Fernando bar. Once a skinny child who might get an earful for kicking a ball around inside the establishment with his brother, now Pedri appears on the screens, carrying the hopes of the fans and, this summer, his country too.
He would watch another Pedro turn out for Barcelona, also from the Canary Islands, making his mark on the wing as they won the sextuple in 2009 under Guardiola, although stylistically Andres Iniesta is Pedri’s blueprint. His father, Fernando Gonzalez, showed him videos of Michael Laudrup and fed him off dinner plates bearing the Barca badge.
Fernando was a goalkeeper back in the day. “Not as good as Pedri, or even his shadow,” he told El Periodico, going on to run the cafe after its founder, Pedri’s grandfather, fell ill. He works the bar, while Pedri’s mother, Maria Rosario, and grandmother, Candelaria, are in charge of cooking up a storm.
Pedri joined local side Juventud Laguna in 2015 from a youth football academy and was head and shoulders above the rest, if not in height then in quality, sporting the No.8 like Iniesta.
Juventud coach Ayoze Hernandez coached Pedri for the final year before he joined Las Palmas in 2018, and even at the age of 14, his style was already set.
“Pedri loved the ball,” Ayoze tells Goal. “He adored having it all the time, before training, after training, during training. He always played in the middle.
“I always thought, with luck, he'd make it in professional football. What I never imagined was at 18 he’d be at Barca. From the day he left us, Barca basically signed him. We were amazed, it was a meteoric transition in very little time.
“His team-mates are still in the Juvenil (Under-18) level here now, and he’s at Barca. When he was at Las Palmas and had free time he came to see us, spent time with his friends here. Now they’re in Juvenil and he’s at Barca. Imagine that!”
Pedri dominated matches with Juventud, much to the chagrin of opponents and rival coaches. “I remember a game against a team from the south, Marino, their coach complained Pedri was capable of attacking and yet also running back to recover the ball,” says Ayoze.
That work ethic has stood him in good stead at Barcelona, where he played every single La Liga game until the final week of the season, when coach Ronald Koeman gave him a rest ahead of the Euros, with nothing left at stake.
At Juventud there was a pre-season exercise where Pedri’s group were taken to a nearby mountain, La Esperanza, for stamina training. An all-terrain car was used to mark the way and Pedri followed it for the full seven kilometres, while his team-mates lagged behind, dots in the distance.
“At the end of games we’d say, ‘Pedri do you want a refresco (soft drink)?’,” recalls Ayoze. “He’d say he didn’t drink refrescos because they kill muscle. He already had in his head that he wanted to be a professional footballer.”
Las Palmas snapped him up in May 2018 for their U18s side, but not before he spent a week on trial at Real Madrid in February, after a scout came to the Tasca Fernando.
It did not go well.
There was tremendous snowfall which disrupted the Spanish capital, with not even the Blancos’ first team able to train. Pedri was stuck in his hotel for two days of his trial, but was able to step out onto the training pitches twice.
“They told me I wasn't at the right level,” Pedri told radio show El Larguero of the experience. “I thank those who told me that I wouldn't make it; now I’m at the club I have always loved. Putting on a Madrid shirt was strange, I’ve always been Barca.”
Las Palmas coach Pepe Mel observed Pedri and decided to promote him to the first team in July 2019. “There was one doubt. It was a reasonable doubt. The main doubt, that only Pedri could resolve,” Mel tells Goal.
“Could he do what he did against kids with professionals? They are stronger physically, play at another speed, it was going to be a lot more challenging. We brought him to Marbella for pre-season and saw our doubt was wrong. He went out to have fun, he didn’t care who he was playing with.
“Against Real Betis, a testimonial for Ruben Castro at the Benito Villamarin, he played 90 minutes. He was up against Joaquin all game long. And, frankly, he did well. He was the best player. Not just for Las Palmas, but in the whole match. So I wanted to keep him.”
Pedri signed his first professional contract, although again, Real Madrid appeared. Mel, a former product of Madrid’s La Fabrica academy, was still in contact with some of his old friends from those days.
“I had a chat with Madrid’s Emilio Butragueno, he was a team-mate of mine,” he says. “I told him what was happening with Pedri. Madrid were aware of everything.
“But not just Madrid, I spoke with the Real Betis president about him too. Pedri is lucky in the end; he’s where he always wanted to be and Barca were the one team that truly pushed for him.”
Madrid did not heed Mel’s advice and Barca struck. Now, Pedri was only ever going to pick his family club. Las Palmas were in financial difficulty and Barca signed Pedri for just €5 million (£4m/$5.5m) in September 2019; with clauses meaning that fee could eventually arrive at €30m (£26m/$37m), which still seems cheap.
This happened while trying to integrate into a dressing room full of seasoned pros at 16. “I was sh*tting myself,” Pedri admitted to Tiempo de Canarias. “I didn’t know what to do. It was Aythami who came over and told me to talk to him if I needed anything. He helped me a lot.”
Las Palmas captain Aythami Artiles, 35, was his de facto ‘godfather’ in the dressing room.
“We lived close and he’s 16, entering a professional dressing room, so it’s normal,” Aythami tells Goal, sitting in his sun-drenched lounge.
“Like they did with me, the big captains took me in. So I did it with Pedri, a kid with a lot of heart, very humble. It’s important that he feels backed by the veterans, in my case I am the captain (so I did). I think this is happening to him at Barca too.
“The first time I saw him in training, I thought, this kid is very good. He has something different. He will go wherever he wants to go in his career.”
With the Barcelona deal done, Pedri still had a full season with Las Palmas ahead of him. And yet, his impending switch to Camp Nou was no distraction. Anyone who knows him insists part of the reason Pedri has taken each new step upwards naturally is due to his upbringing, his parents.
“He is a very calm kid. He’s very intelligent, he has good manners,” says Ayoze. “With some luck this prototype of player, for his quality, his mentality, and the way he was brought up at home, his education, is the prototype of player we believe can make it.”
Aythami agrees. “He’s got great values and a great family behind him that advises and supports him,” notes the defender. “If what happened to him happened to me, I don’t know what would be going on in my head.
“It’s madness, from Juvenil to Barca in a month and a half. But he took it on as if it was anything else in his life. Everything stayed the same. He kept doing the same thing, he was the same person.”
Pedri's quality was obvious, his passing exquisite, his running endless. In the 2019-20 season, he played more minutes than any other outfield Las Palmas player (2,833 across 36 games), while becoming the youngest scorer in their history, at 16 years, nine months and 23 days. Pedri added three more goals that season, along with seven assists.
But beyond what he did with the ball, what he did without it was also crucial. He is the ultimate modern player, with flawless technique but also an engine.
“It was pre-season and so we did resistance work after training, and he was first,” recalls Aythami. “Where did this kid come from? We thought well, we’re tired from training, heavy workloads, but the next day he was first again. The best in football, and then the best in fitness.
“He’s slim but when we faced Cadiz, an aggressive team with strong players, he was not out of place. He stole the ball, he was in the middle, physically strong, smart, intelligent. And technically? You already know.”
Pedri was just doing what he had at Juventud. And now at Barcelona, what he did at Las Palmas. That’s all he needs to do. “He’ll go to play in his park, his house, with Barca, or Spain, in the same way, and that’s the big virtue that he has,” Aythami affirms.
“I didn’t give him any advice for the simple reason that he just had to keep doing the same thing. The only thing I told him was ‘pick up the phone when I call you, answer my Whatsapps!’. We didn’t know it would all happen so soon, (surely) he would go on loan, it would be hard - it was Barca.”
Most expected Pedri would be farmed out, but Barcelona coach Koeman decided otherwise. Like Mel and Ayoze before him, it was love at first sight. Mel advised whoever got the Barcelona job to keep Pedri close by, and was quickly proven right.
“Pedri has a virtue that is important in football, one that Iniesta had too,” he explains. “The capacity to make all players around him feel good, to make them better. So I had no doubt when he did that at Las Palmas he would be able to do it with [Antoine] Griezmann, Leo (Messi), [Sergio] Busquets, all those players. They were going to want him with them, not want him to go down to Barca B.”
Bayern Munich were sniffing around, but Koeman liked what he saw in pre-season and Pedri, 17 at this point, made his first appearance against Villarreal in a 4-0 win on September 27, Barcelona’s first game of the campaign.
His rapid ascension to the first-team squad even took the club by surprise. They had not organised a car to take him to the stadium, and he arrived at Camp Nou for some early games in the taxi of a family friend.
Koeman’s faith in Pedri, though, was high enough to hand him a start in El Clasico on October 24, with Barcelona losing 3-1 to Madrid. Koeman's side were wobbling, but Pedri was sublime in a 2-0 win at Juventus that steadied the ship. His first goal arrived soon after, sliding home at the back post to seal a 5-2 rout of Real Betis.
“I watch all of his games. If he doesn’t start, I don’t watch until he comes on. If they take him off I stop watching,” smiles Aythami, face creasing. “I suffer as if I was playing. If a pass goes wrong, it’s like I have misplaced it. If he scores a goal…”
That is the one area to upgrade. Pedri has missed good chances this season, and with more nouse could be touching double figures, instead of matching his tally of four from last season.
“I think in this regard he’s like Iniesta too,” points out Mel, a former striker. “He scored important goals but not many. Pedri is not a goalscorer. He’s better assisting, playing the final ball, being a fundamental piece of the team’s build up, but he has to improve on this front.
“If he wants to be a top, top player, among the greatest in the world, he has to score more goals. Barca dominate the ball and have so many chances, but he only has a couple of goals, so that’s where he has to be more effective.
“I told him a player who’s so brilliant and can see perfect passes and place the ball to the millimetre, not lacking technique, what he needs to do is pass it into the net. Not shoot too hard, use the inside of his foot and stroke it home. I think sometimes his anxiety to score makes him smash the ball. I think he’ll get that bit by bit.”
One player who does know a thing or two about finishing is Kylian Mbappe, and he made sure to swap shirts with Pedri after Paris Saint-Germain knocked Barca out of the Champions League in March. Class, it seems, recognises class.
Despite disappointment in Europe, Pedri was able to lift his first trophy before the season was out as Barcelona demolished Athletic Club to win the Copa del Rey in April.
The first of many for the teenager who lives with brother Fer in Barcelona, conscious of the benefits of keeping his family close. Pedri went back home at the end of the season, to disconnect and spend time with his parents before the Euros.
“The pride in him is huge here,” beams Ayoze. “The town of Tegueste and the island of Tenerife is very happy, everyone is following him. He’s the second player to arrive at Barca, after Pedro.”
And like Pedro, and his idol Iniesta, who scored the goal that won Spain their first World Cup in 2010, he has also made it to a major international tournament with La Roja.
Pedri has been ‘quemando etapas’ - burning through stages. And the next is about to begin.