Euro 2024: Yamal and Williams are writing a new chapter for new-look Spain

Football

GELSENKIRCHEN, Germany — Somehow, a Riccardo Calafiori own goal was the only difference between Spain and Italy on Thursday on a night when La Roja’s exciting wingers Nico Williams and Lamine Yamal once again showed they will be a force to be reckoned with at Euro 2024.

It was Williams’ second half cross, flicked on by Álvaro Morata, which Calafiori turned into his own net as Spain made it six points from six and booked their place in the round of 16 with a game to spare.

For Italy, their fate in the competition will go down to their last game against Croatia, but they will have few complaints about the result at the Arena AufSchalke. It could — and should — have been more. Spain ended the game with 21 shots to Italy’s three. After losing possession in a competitive game for the first time in 136 matches against Croatia, they took the ball back here, but without losing the new directness which is increasingly characterising this side under coach Luis de la Fuente.

They look well balanced, with Rodri anchoring the midfield, but it is Williams and Yamal who have that ability to bring people to their feet. They are the youngsters who have sparked hope that a fourth European crown could arrive this summer.

To wander around Gelsenkirchen before the game was to take a walk down memory lane. Names of heroes from the past filled the back of the shirts of the fans of these two storied football nations. Spain supporters toasted Luis Enrique, Raúl González and Andres Iniesta. Roberto Baggio and Andrea Pirlo were popular names among the travelling Italy faithful.

Laced amongst them, though, were the names of those trying to write a new chapter in their country’s history in Germany. Yamal and Williams’ names were omnipresent, especially among the younger generation. They were then omnipresent on the pitch.

If eyes had often been on Yamal so far, if only because of his age — he became the youngest player to feature in the finals at 16 years and 338 days old in Spain’s opener — then this time it was Williams’ turn to step up — who at 21 is hardly a veteran himself. Within two minutes, the Athletic Club forward had turned Giovanni Di Lorenzo to set up Pedri, whose header was saved by Gianluigi Donnarumma.

The pattern was set. Another brilliant solo run followed, Di Lorenzo looking dizzy, and Williams then headed a Morata cross wide when he could have done better.

Not to be outdone, Yamal then dribbled in from the left, beating three Italian defenders before feeding Morata. Again, only the 6’6″ frame of Donnarumma kept the game goalless. By the break, Williams had completed four take-ons while Yamal had three. The other 20 players on the pitch had completed three between them.

Speaking after the match, Williams said “I think it’s my most complete performance with Spain and I hope to kick on and be able to help the team as much as possible. I’ve always dreamed of being involved at this level, playing in the Euros and winning Player of the Match.”

The King of Spain, Felipe VI, had flown out to Gelsenkirchen for the game — and he was suitably impressed.

“It’s great to watch them play, we’re just missing a goal,” he told reporters at half time. “But the sensations are good and the chances we have created… it’s been a great first half.”

Spain’s dominance forced the Italy coach into a double substitution before the second half, but it did nothing to change Williams and Yamal’s impact. It was Williams’ cross, nudged on by Morata, which led to Calafiori’s own goal.

Once ahead, Spain didn’t ease up. Yamal, coming inside again, whipped off a fine effort with his left foot which shaved the post. Williams then thumped the bar from the edge of the box. By now, “Nico” chants were filling the stadium, Spain’s 12,000 supporters outnumbered but out-singing their Italian counterparts.

Spanish newspaper Marca had seen it coming. “Two Ferraris against Italy,” was the headline on their front page on Thursday alongside a picture of Williams and Yamal, a nod to the Italian supercar. They may not yet be established at the top level like Rodri, who is widely seen as the one world class player on this team, have the experience of Morata or the Golden Boy awards of Pedri, but they are increasingly the poster boys of this Spain team.

That is because they offer something different to past Spain teams, who were more focused on touch and possession at times. They have diversified the ways in which De la Fuente’s team can win a game. They also offer a glimpse into a more diverse Spain.

The story of Williams’ parents coming to the country from Ghana is well known. Yamal, meanwhile, is the son of a Moroccan and an Equatorial Guinean who was born in Catalonia and grew up in the poor neighbourhood of Rocafonda, outside of Barcelona. His roots are stitched on his boots in the form of the national flags of his parents’ homeland and the numbers 304 — the zip code for Rocafonda.

Williams entered the dressing room to praise from teammates and family. “My teammates applauded me in the dressing room and I’d like to thank them for helping me out with their ability on the pitch. When I grabbed my phone, the first message I saw was from my brother straight away, a voice message. He provides unconditional support for me. This is for him, my parents and the Williams family,” he said.

The new-look Spain was too much for Italy. The problem was if they doubled up on the wingers, there was space inside for Pedri and Fabián Ruiz. In the end, they could not stop Spain, who must now be considered among the favourites to win Euro 2024.

The day had actually started with good-humoured food banter between the two sets of fans. “Aperol Spritz is better than Sangria,” and “Pasta is better than Paella,” were the hand-written sides held up by the fans of Italy, who remain holders of this competition. Food rivalries have been a theme of this tournament. One Spain fan responded by simply holding up his shirt which had “Lomo ibérico” (a cured, high-quality Spanish meat) scribbled on the back.

All that actually mattered in Gelsenkirchen, though, was that Williams and Yamal were better Italy’s widemen Federico Chiesa and Davide Frattesi.

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