x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

The teenager has moved quickly up the ranks at the Camp Nou and also impressed coach Luis Enrique.

Munir El Haddadi made a goalscoring debut for Barcelona. Cal Sport Media via AP Images
Munir El Haddadi made a goalscoring debut for Barcelona. Cal Sport Media via AP Images

“I’m going to Osasuna,” tweeted 15-year-old striker Munir El Haddadi in 2011.

The Madrid-born player with Moroccan parents had been rejected by both Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid and his agent was looking at other options. The pair were about to leave for Pamplona when a Barcelona representative in Madrid saw the tweet. He called Munir’s agent.

“Have you signed for Osasuna?” asked Jose Luis Colomo.

“Not yet,” replied Antonio Gabaldon.

Colomo, who had watched the young striker, told the agent that he would call Barcelona. He rang Antonio Puig, the head of Barca’s youth football department. Barca were interested, so Munir held back on signing with Osasuna.

The Catalans dispatched Garcia Pimienta, coach of a junior Barca team, to Spain’s capital to watch Munir and verify accounts from their man in Madrid that he couldn’t stop scoring for the junior teams of Rayo Majahonda, a third-division club.

He scored 32 goals in 29 matches in the 2010/11 season. Majahonda are an informal feeder club for Atletico Madrid, and the current Spanish champions, who boast an excellent youth system, arranged for El Haddadi to go there, but they didn’t follow up their interest.

Hence Osasuna’s approach, shrewdly subverted by Barca. The striker, who was noted for being strong, quick and a fine finisher for his age, was indeed considered hugely talented and he also liked the idea of Barca, not just over Osasuna, but Real Madrid, who were now showing interest again. Manchester City, Getafe and Rayo Vallecano also approached his agent.

The clincher was that Barca provided full-time accommodation for their young players in the famed Masia academy, which Madrid didn’t offer for their local youngsters. Munir moved 600 kilometres to Barcelona, where he has been since.

Whether Colomo reading Munir’s tweet will prove as prophetic as former player and coach Carles Rexach signing Lionel Messi on a napkin when he was 14 remains to be seen, but Munir has progressed rapidly.

In a social-media age of six-second highlights of goals, he came to wider attention at 16 by chipping Zaragoza’s goalkeeper from 30 metres in a Juvenil A game.

Munir started last season with the club’s Under 18s, and eventually became the top scorer in the Uefa Under 19 League, with 11 in 10 matches, including two in the final against Benfica.

The second of those goals, from three metres inside his own half again chipping the goalkeeper, also went viral.

In March, he made his debut for Barca’s B team in the Spanish second division, where he scored four times in 11 games toward the end of the season as they finished third in the league. League rules prevented them from competing in the promotion play-offs.

With Real Madrid’s Castilla reserve team relegated, no other Spanish club has a second team in the second division aside from Barca and that team was expected to provide the platform for Munir this term, though he was attracting numerous suitors.

Real Madrid tried to sign him and Arsenal hoped to repeat what they had done with Cesc Fabregas a decade previous by enticing the player, but Munir had renewed his contract, signing a deal in January 2014 that would keep him at the club until 2017.

He was still on a youth-team salary, but much has happened since January. His contract was improved in March when he made his Barca B debut and a buyout clause of €12 million (Dh57.8m) added. That would increase to €35m in the then-unlikely event of him joining the first team.

In the Marca guide to football published this month, a 418-page book which is highly influential within Spanish football, Munir is listed as a minor B team player.

That was sent to print just six weeks ago. Now he finds himself with the first team.

It is a surprise for new Barca manager Luis Enrique.

“A lot of players don’t realise that [Andres] Iniesta and Xavi had lots of games on the bench,” said Enrique of young players. “Only Messi walked into the first team. Young players have to understand, adapt and learn. They have to learn little by little, otherwise there is too much pressure on them.”

Yet by Barca’s first home game of the season, played last weekend, Enrique started Munir.

With Luis Suarez banned and Neymar not fit, the man with “Munir” on his shirt made his goalscoring, first-team debut at home to Elche after a sleepless night worrying about whether he would play.

The chance of that happening increased significantly after a pre-season in which he led the team in scoring and moved ahead of established striker Gerard Deulofeu in the queue for the first team.

Deulofeu has since gone on loan to Sevilla, but Munir, who turns 19 tomorrow, has become the most talked-about young player.

Enrique said he had “no fear” about starting him in front of 68,105 fans against Elche. Munir began in attack with Messi and another Barca league debutant, left-winger Rafinha, 21, who was Enrique’s best player while on loan at Celta Vigo last season.

The sleep-deprived youngster did not freeze, but struck the top of the crossbar in the 23rd minute after being set up by captain Andres Iniesta. In the 46th minute, new signing Ivan Rakitic chipped the ball over the defence and Munir struck the ball goalward with the outside of his left foot. A dream goalscoring debut was complete.

Enrique was delighted with the performance and also praised Munir, stating: “Let’s not exaggerate, he has a lot to do, but we have great expectations of him. Let’s see if they are realised.”

Munir received an ovation when he was replaced by Pedro in the 67th minute. His week got better when he was named in Spain’s Under 21 team to face Hungary and Austria in September.

The Moroccan Federation also want him to represent the country and he previously has said that his priority was to play for “my country of origin”.

Barcelona and Munir’s agent have agreed to meet in one month to discuss a new contract, which will surely dwarf his old one.

With Suarez and Neymar to return to play along Messi, the youngster is neither ready nor likely to be starting every week. He is also unlikely to tweet that he’s about to leave Barcelona for another club anytime soon.

sports@thenational.ae

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