x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

'Little Pedro' is a big leaguer

Once a rank outsider to make Spain's squad, the Barcelona winger has chance to start against Holland in the World Cup final tonight.

Pedro Rodriguez, front, earned his place in the semi-final against Germany and would have scored Spain's second goal of the match if not an error in judgement. The Canary Islander has nevertheless improved and made Vicente Del Bosque, his coach, a happy man.
Pedro Rodriguez, front, earned his place in the semi-final against Germany and would have scored Spain's second goal of the match if not an error in judgement. The Canary Islander has nevertheless improved and made Vicente Del Bosque, his coach, a happy man.

JOHANNESBURG // Pedro Rodriguez was almost the last man into Spain's squad of 23 for the World Cup. He knew it, and knew where he stood on the hierarchy's ladder when, with all the squad numbers distributed, the established players sticking to their favourites, he was left with the number two.

It was, others noted, a most peculiar number for a winger to wear. Helpfully, Raul Albiol, the defender, offered to swap: Pedro wears 18. That number was widely expected to stay hidden beneath a training bib for most of the campaign, with the player stuck on the bench, occasionally trotting up the touchline. Yet Pedro played his first competitive game for his country as a substitute in the opening fixture of the tournament, sent on for 13 minutes to try to salvage a point from a surprise defeat against Switzerland.

He came on again against Portugal and against Paraguay, where his speed and directness aided Spain's football. In the quarter-final he struck the post late on, and from the ricochet David Villa's goal put the Spanish in their first World Cup semi-final. Pedro's reward? A starting place against Germany in Durban last Wednesday night. He had been chosen ahead of Fernando Torres, a player four years and about eight top-level seasons his superior in terms of experience and about 10 times his better in terms of reputation and public acclaim.

Vicente Del Bosque, Spain's coach, told reporters that Pedro "had earned his place during the quarter-final. He gave our game more precision and a bit more depth with his direct running". In the semi-final, Pedro might also have provided Spain with an extra goal, in addition to the one with which Carles Puyol settled the outcome, but he paused, faced with an advancing goalkeeper and then looked to shoot when Torres, who had come on as a substitute, seemed better placed to his left.

"It's OK," Del Bosque reassured him, knowing that the winger had felt crushed by having made a poor decision in such a weighty game. "He played very well." Del Bosque will face one of his tougher choices tonight on whether to stick with Pedro, the 22-year-old Canary Islander, or reinstate Torres, scorer of the goal that made Spain European champions two years ago. The coach is evidently satisfied that Pedro will suffer no vertigo at the rapid promotion the past 18 months have given him.

He clearly has assured himself that Pedro Rodriguez is not longer "Pedrito", or Little Pedro, the name he was known by until a few months ago. Pedro is a product of Barcelona's fabled youth academy. He is a contemporary of Gerard Pique, Cesc Fabregas and Lionel Messi, but unlike that celebrated trio, who were playing in the same youth teams from the age of 14, Pedrito arrived later and made a far less stunning impression.

Recruited from the Canaries at the age of 16, he was small and wiry, and played as a central striker, looking to exploit his speed. He made steady but unremarkable progress, and by 2007 some of the coaches at Barca doubted that he would make it to the first team. Some even suggested he be released. Then Pep Guardiola, coach of Barcelona's B team, tried him as a winger and he thrived. A year later, Guardiola assumed the job of coaching the first team and at the end of a gilded first season in charge, put Pedro on the bench and gave him a few late minutes on the field, in the Champions League final in Rome.

By last August, Pedro was scoring regularly, setting a record by having hit the net in every competition Barcelona played in - league, European Cup, Super Cups, Copa del Rey, Club World Cup - and easing Thierry Henry and then Zlatan Ibrahimovic out of the first XI. Through all this he retained a callow shyness, and seemed to wear a permanently benevolent grin. One day Barcelona changed the name on his jersey from Pedrito to Pedro. He had grown up.

Yet it was still a surprise when Del Bosque named him as a traveller to South Africa. Another surprise was to see him come off the bench in the first match. But such progress has he made that, tonight, the surprise would be not to see him line up from the start. sports@thenational.ae