The way the story goes, one day when he was in fifth grade, the home in Drapeau-Fougères near Rennes, where Eduardo Camavinga lived with his parents and five siblings, burnt down, leaving them with nothing. The next evening he was back at training. Football was his escape, he said, and it was theirs too. He had been born in a refugee camp in Miconge, Angola, to where the family had fled from war in Congo, before heading to France when he was two, and now his father Celestino told him that he was their hope. He was 11.
“I had to escape a war, and maybe that helped me: all those problems have made me stronger,” he said this summer. “But above all, my family has helped. When I play, I play for them. It is nice to be able to give something back.”
Already the youngest player ever to play for Rennes, aged 16 years and 4 months, and soon to become the youngest to represent France since the war, at 17, Camavinga had just signed for Real Madrid for 30m euros. On Wednesday, he came off the bench to help rescue them, two goals down on aggregate to Manchester City in the Champions League semifinal, second leg.
He is just 19, not that you would notice. Not that it was new either, and that’s what makes it so significant.
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At the end of another absurd night, Rodrygo insisted: “God looked at me and said ‘it’s your day.'” With 40 seconds of normal time remaining, Real Madrid needed two goals to level it against Manchester City. Ridiculously, they got them, 88 seconds apart. “We were dead,” the Brazilian said but then they rose again. He had scored them both – he might have had a hat-trick in 2:58, ending it before extra time, but for a superb save from Ederson. Then he provided the pass from which Madrid got a penalty. Karim Benzema scored it, but not without offering it to the Brazilian first.
With 89:20 on the clock, the score read 1-0, 3-5 on aggregate. By the time the stadium clocks said 94:14, it read 3-1, 6-5 on aggregate, the most implausible, inexplicable comeback completed to send Madrid through to the final. If this was divine inspiration, and plenty thought it was, Rodrygo was the kid called upon to deliver it, but he didn’t come alone. This miracle of miracles couldn’t be performed by a single man, sensational though he had been. And he knew it.
Rodrygo left the Bernabeu and headed a couple of kilometres up the Castellana for dinner. It was 3 a.m. by the time he left, but he still didn’t sleep — how could he? — so he spent a while reliving it, going through the photos and the videos, the comments.
The next day, he was still at it. One of them was a clip show of what his teammate Camavinga had done when he came on. Rodrygo tweeted it out. “What a player,” he wrote, with love emojis alongside. He’s not the only one becoming enamoured, and it’s not a surprise either. Watch it, and there’s a lot to like. Better still, watch the whole thing back and pick out your moments.
The minute — 81:21 to 82:21 — that includes Camavinga delivering the clever pass from which Benzema got behind City, drawing Ederson’s first save and him dashing back and diving in on Bernardo Silva, at the other end and on the other side, when it looked like the Portuguese would get behind Madrid. Or the tackle that stops Silva getting into Madrid’s area in the 105th minute. A personal favourite: the flat, speared ball from right to left that opened the whole pitch up in one pass, dropped right on his teammate’s foot.
Or how about the superb cross to Benzema to set up Rodrygo for the first goal?
And then there’s the run that led to the penalty, running from deep in his half, past Rodri, who can’t keep up. On to the area where, waiting for the right moment, he slips it to Rodrygo to play into Benzema, who is taken down by Ruben Dias.
But it’s not just that, and not just what he did, which was a lot — four tackles, 26 passes, five duels won — but the variety of what he did. The way he did it. And what it did to them, his team. The calmness on the ball, the quality of the touch, the ability to turn away from opponents. The willingness, but not the over-willingness, to play, to take responsibility. To take risks, but the right ones. The capacity to be here, and then there. The energy that Carlo Ancelotti always talks about: “energia,” as he says, not quite correctly.
And all this against Manchester City, remember. And Chelsea. And Paris Saint-Germain.
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This is no one-off. It is a pattern, a policy. And it is a hell of a player, pulling his team through, absolutely transformative. Not just any team, either: Real Madrid. What was that his dad said? You’re our hope. In all three games, when Madrid needed to change things, they turned to Camavinga and Rodrygo. Against PSG, the first change, Camavinga came on for Toni Kroos with the score 0-1 after 57 minutes. Benzema scored four minutes later and Madrid won 3-1. Coming on with him was Rodrygo.
Against Chelsea, Camavinga was also the first change, again coming on for Kroos. The score was 0-2. Real Madrid lost 2-3, enough to go through. Against City, Rodrygo was the first change, on 68 minutes, again for Kroos at 0-0. Seven minutes later, 0-1 down, Camavinga and Asensio were introduced for Modric and Casemiro. Madrid won 3-2.
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Three knockout games at the Bernabeu against the French, European and English champions. Without Camavinga on the pitch, three “defeats” (0-1, 0-2, 0-1), aggregate score 0-4. With Camavinga on the pitch, three “wins” (3-0, 2-1, 3-0), aggregate score 8-1. No, it doesn’t work like that. And the first legs haven’t been included — no minutes in Paris, 16 minutes in London with the team already 3-1 up, 20 minutes in Manchester at 3-2 down in a game they eventually lost 4-3 — but nor should it be dismissed. This is not chance.
By the 75th minute, that Madrid had all gone: there was no Kroos, Modric or Casemiro. The only starter left was Fede Valverde. Madrid’s midfield, as they pushed men forward, was essentially two men: him and Camavinga. If you want to count the wingers, Vinicius and Rodrygo, that makes a four-man midfield. Their ages: 23, 21, 21, 19. Energia, indeed. By the end, they were joined by Dani Ceballos, 25, who had replaced Karim Benzema. Jesus Vallejo and Lucas Vazquez had also come on, the final line-up a pretty unfamiliar one, making this all the more extraordinary.
Asked afterwards if this showed that Madrid’s future is in good hands or if it may already be here, Ancelotti replied: “Yes, but for 70 minutes, Casemiro, Kroos and Modric had a great game. Their work was fantastic. We knew that we could suffer at the end. I took them off, but [only] because of the energy levels. The future is secure: we have those three who will continue to play and behind them these young players.”
The doubt may be: for how long? Should some of those young players be ahead now? Should they be reduced to replacements later in games? Could they play a more central role? If Camavinga for Kroos worked so well, why not start like that? Is it time for the generational change already, for a phasing-out of the old guard? Why, in short, haven’t the kids played more?
They are questions worth asking, and the impact that Camavinga has had when replacing Kroos may provide a compelling argument, but there are reasons.
Camavinga started with a goal and an assist on his debut, but he slipped from the side around Christmas. In the league, he has started 11 times, Valverde 17. But those are decent figures and in total, they have played 49 league games between them. As Ancelotti often insists: the focus on who starts a game is increasingly misplaced; those who end it are often as important. Matches have their moments, conditioned by what comes before and by, well, the condition of players. Starting the game is not the same as ending it.
And when stripped down to the most simple thing of all, when it comes to selecting an XI the answer to that most basic question of all — who are your best midfielders? — is still probably Casemiro, Kroos, Modric. (Ancelotti has also often been keen to reinforce them with Valverde in a kind of “do-everything role” alongside them, which he will surely replicate in the final.)
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Kroos and Modric have completed more passes than anyone left in the Champions League, while no one really does what Casemiro does. A new era is always uncertain. You don’t change a structure just like that. Transitions are difficult to time, the shifts not always occurring when you expect them to, and certainly not easy to impose. There are hierarchies to respect, status earned over many years, a trust and faith built with time. A sense that some players are a guarantee, they know exactly what a moment demands: they have been here before.
Physical condition fluctuates; mental state does, too. Players defy age (hi, Luka!), making a watertight case for inclusion just when you think they might be about to move on, just when you had planned for them to do exactly that, the replacement ready, succession put on hold. Remember Martin Odegaard? A superb player, perhaps brought back too soon, but not one you were seriously going to play ahead of Modric or Kroos. That can create friction and frustration. The development of those emerging is uneven too; progress isn’t linear.
Camavinga is 19, remember. And this is Real Madrid, a place that has chewed up a lot of talents, a special pressure placed on the new arrivals.
When Ancelotti was told that Camavinga was coming to the club — the only signing along with Alaba — he was delighted. He had seen a lot of him, convinced that this kid was going to be special. He saw his first touch, the capacity to turn and face the play, a clean striker of the ball. At Everton, he’d become increasingly convinced that energia was ever more important in football — more so than it had been last time he was at the Bernabeu — and that trend would only continue. He saw that in Camavinga, a player destined to be the future of Madrid’s midfield.
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When Ancelotti met Camavinga, he also saw the character, the ease with which he dealt with it all, which helped. But he also saw some elements still to be learnt — how could there not be — and knew that there was time, a process to be followed not forced. Not by him, anyway: it is up to players to play so well that they change plans, obliging coaches to give them opportunities. And then to go and do it again, week after week.
When Camavinga scored and assisted on his debut, everyone was delighted, but that brings its own demands, its own risks, its own pressure. In Ancelotti’s mind, players have to be protected, a balance found between encouragement and exposure. There were moments when Camavinga got cards that — cliché alert — could be attributed to the enthusiasm of youth, glimpses of things still had to learn in terms of positioning, knowing when to stay, where exactly to be.
His early removal from some games, his subsequent absence from the team, wasn’t about pointing the finger; it was more about insulating him from others doing the same. It also wasn’t done without dialogue. Besides, no player is alone: there are 25 others in the squad, and only 11 on the pitch at the start of each game. Camavinga’s lack of continuity at that point was conditioned too by the return from injury of Kroos, the form of Modric, Valverde’s improvement after a difficult start. About, above all, doing what was right for the team. About doing the best by him and by all of them, trying to judge when his moment had arrived.
On Wednesday night, in the biggest game of the year, it did and Camavinga came on to carry them through. It wasn’t the first time and it won’t be the last, hopes resting on a 19-year-old kid.