Andoni Zubizarreta, the Barcelona sporting director, had been convinced. Back him, he informed the board, and they could have a player for the ages.
Marco Asensio, a 17-year-old midfielder of unbounded talents owned by Real Mallorca, a financially cramped team in Spain’s second division. He’d had just a number of months of senior football under his belt, but by the 2014–15 season he’d begun to seize the notice of Europe’s elite.
Barcelona was the first in contact with Mallorca. A €4.5 million bid was swiftly put forward, littered with various instalments.
To Asensio, a sensible and learned character, the idea of the move was absorbing. That side, the side of Pep Guardiola’s domineering, relentless, all-conquering era, the one that swept all before them, had coaxed him. He was ready to move. Albeit, to the nemesis of his childhood team.
He was reportedly scouring for a house in Castelldefels, a municipality famed for its long beaches hugging the coast of the Mediterranean Sea. For several weeks, at least, all signs indicated the shift to Catalonia was on the cusp.
Where the two clubs diverged, however, was the method of the transaction. Mallorca’s requirements for the transfer were straightforward. They demanded all payment be received up-front. Yet, curiously, the Barcelona director general — Antoni Rossich and even Zubizarreta were not devised to pay this and, subsequently, spurned the deal.
Rather amazingly, they later splurged €5.5 million on a deputy, the São Paulo right-back Douglas dos Santos. The now 27-year-old Brazilian has played three times for the Catalonian club and currently resides on-loan at Portuguese club, Benfica.
Significantly, Rafael Nadal, the tennis icon, and Mallorca admirer, alive to Barcelona’s recent blindingly-clear miscalculation, reached out, double-quick, to Florentino Pérez, the president of his beloved Real Madrid, telling him about a young, dazzling Mallorcan he must sign.
Pérez should remember the name well, of course. Twelve years ago, as Asensio and his family opted to stroll along the Puerto Portals Marina - a glamorous Mallorcan port- they, by chance, stumbled upon the yacht of Pérez. Maria Gertruida, his mother, the first to make the identification, sought after him for some photos. Maria told him, her son, the tiny boy standing alongside her, would one day be a player for his team.
Maria, suffering from cancer, passed away in 2011. Nowadays, when he casts his mind to her, he knows she is always supporting him from above. He knows she will be there for every moment. Each goal he scores, he dedicates to Maria, the woman who knew first, the destiny of his son.
Nadal’s call had influenced Peréz and prior to one of Asensio’s games for Mallorca that season, Peréz phoned him, revealed a Madrid TV documentary. In that conversation, he uttered words Asensio had longed to hear.
“Relax, Marco,” he assured the forward. “You’re going to be a Real Madrid player.”
He wouldn’t sleep without it. If the somewhat junior Marco Asensio wasn’t cradling the miniature stuffed lion - which sported the 2004–2005 Real Madrid kit - in his bed, he would not rest. His brother, Igor, would occasionally test his allegiance by switching the jersey for Athletic Bilbao’s. Though, he’d quickly detect it and command the jersey of Real be returned.
Another night-time superstition, too, had consumed him — oggling at his prized poster - which exhausted his entire bedroom wall - of Zinedine Zidane, the player he held a deep adoration for.
As Asensio and his brother caught plays of Zidane’s artistry for Madrid on the television they would instantly race out toward the garden, (a grandparent planted grass to allow them to play football) and attempt to recreate the move, not halting until a satisfactory execution. His inner Galactico was unleashed early on.
Aged 10, Asensio - Mallorcan born and bred - elected to stay rather than relocate to Barcelona to enroll in the Espanyol academy. He partook in three training sessions over five days, and was shown the school but, ultimately, he decided that remaining in his hometown was the best option for him.
That he had hardly entered double-figures and was already practicing with 15-year-olds in the Mallorca u13s age group, was a testament to the aptitude Asensio boasted.
Brandon Thomas, a teammate of Asensio at Mallorca, was at first confused seeing the tiny dark-skinned boy team up with the squad. His confusion was soon met with a realisation, then unraveled into awe.
“Marco was amazing, it was a delight to see him,” he confessed in a Madrid TV documentary. “He was incredible.”
Though, no one more fully understood the importance 0f providing his children with an education in all sports, than Gilberto Asensio, regardless of, both, Marco and Igor’s common prowess in football. He enforced that they, in addition, place their focus in other areas. His sons often played tennis, basketball and Maria accompanied them to swimming, as she did since they were infants.
It seemed beyond the question, however, that Marco Asensio would trail any other path than the one his father pursued. Gilberto, a former attacking-midfielder represented Barakaldo Club de Fútbol, the Basque Country club.
Whilst rapidly sailing through the ranks at Mallorca, his body began to demonstrate it couldn’t keep up. For over 18 months, knee and heel issues suppressed him — his father, in the wake of games, was forced to assist Marco upstairs. Each night, too, he slathered his knees with a pain-relieving cream. Slowly, gradually, in his own pace, he was ushered back into total action. In due course, the medic would blaze the doubts and his ascent would continue.
The call was unexpected, he would say later, warranted, granted, but one that no youth player ever is truly prepared for. When he was launched into the first team fold, he was initially uncomfortable to score past ‘Dudu’, the team’s Israeli goalkeeper. Dudu would tell him to not be so shy, do not be so afraid.
In October 2013, Joaquín Caparrós, Mallorca’a senior-level team manager, chose to answer the gaping question that started surging around the Balearic Islands. According to some coaches, it could even have occurred one year earlier. Asensio, coming on in the 86th minute, made his debut for Mallorca against Recreativo de Huelva in a 1–3 loss. Two weeks later he would have his first ninety minutes under his belt, a year later he would have his first goal.
It was here that he grew into a starter, maybe, it was here, when Asensio realised that he’s no longer a boy; but a man.
A couple of weeks before La Liga was to start, Zidane rang Asensio.
He had just concluded his second pre-season tour with Real Madrid of the United States, on the back of what many would call a very successful loan spell with Espanyol. Yet, Asensio’s future lay in the balance. BBC, that gleaming triumvirate of Karim Benzema, Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo, were fixed in front of him, so too were James Rodriguez and Isco, the Galáctico and the magisterial star. No one reserved any uncertainty for his brilliance. Though this was Real, those of equal natural talents have come before, tried and fallen short.
He told him to come to the meeting room, for he had some essential news to divulge. Asensio, of course, was in the dark nor did have any sort of inclination as to what might transpire from their talk. He filled his father in on the situation, for all he knew this could be the end.
The meeting was brief but the consequence would be major. Zidane, the cool, graceful manager had two things to say. The first: Zidane, plainly, made it clear that he would stay, his renditions in pre-season were cold, hard proof that he was part of this team. The second, a result of the first, he would be starting in Trondheim, Norway, in the UEFA Super Cup on August 9. He quickly told his brother and father the good news.
This was the game, against Sevilla, in his competitive debut, that his electrifying excellence would be launched into the limelight of football. Real Madrid won 3–2; Asensio scored — he opened up his body and thumped the ball, from 25-yards or so, into the net and towards stardom.
“He had a complete game, not only for the goal,” Zidane affirmed in the post match interview.
That, in fact, was most-definitely the most fitting way to phrase it. The goal, in all its glamour, its deftness, its dexterity was not quite the most wonderful feature to be deducted from Asensio that night. There was something more telling to be withdrawn, something more impressive; his warrant at this level. This was a player, who was among his own, who had, more than anything, found his place, who had, ever so clearly, manifested he belonged at Real Madrid. Rodriguez, the €80 million man, was left on the substitute’s bench, however, you’d be forgiven for failing even to remember.
Over the course of the next year, more debut goals would be scored, in more competitions; they cast a long shadow. Each time they would become more lavish, an increased outrageousness would be attached to each succeeding goal.
Again, though, the conflicting theme stood, he was never just one for scoring great goals, he was also always a player of true substance.
Long have the Madrid faithful been nervously looking to the post-Ronaldo age. These days, it’s something they’ve just become resigned to. He will eventually move on, he is not, after all, eternal. The endless twilight he’s undergoing will come to a close, he’s showed the signs, measured, cautious signs, nevertheless, signs that it will happen. Ronaldo, at a reserved guess has two, maybe, three years of his best left in his seemingly never-ending tank.
A touch of irony surrounds the whole situation, really, that a youthful, homegrown, €4.5 million-costing boy will be Ronaldo’s heir-apparent and an extortionate figure, presumably what would be a world record-slashing one, won’t be exhausted on a flashy, new hotshot to swipe the number 7 jersey. The very answer lies right under their noses. Asensio will be there, as he’s always been, geared up, to supersede the leading light.
“It’s soon to say about the Ballon d’Or, but I think so,” said Asensio’s squad member, Lucas Vazquez, to Cadena SER on his chances of winning the foremost personal award in football one foreseeable day.
Indeed, it is too soon, but the pearl of Madrid, primed and ready as he’s showcased so far, definitely, proves worthy of the thought.
By Daniel Lee, a freelance football writer who features on Vice Sports Uk, Yahoo Sports and The Football Pink.