Lamine Yamal’s wonder goal leads Spain past France and into Euro 2024 final

Maybe this is how new empires rise. Out of the ruins of the old, with fresh visions and fresh blood, a supremacy that creates its own logic as it goes, until it begins to feel inevitable. Spain have taken the hardest possible road to Berlin, conquered Italy and Croatia and Germany and now France: their longest winning streak since 2010, a first final since 2012, and perhaps the strongest indication yet that this is a team worth remembering.

Indeed to anoint Spain as worthy finalists is to damn them with crushingly faint praise. In a way they have made this tournament, perhaps even saved it: shown that amid a fatberg of low blocks and tired, malfunctioning attacks it is possible for football to express as well as extinguish. Their women are already world champions and on Sunday the men have a chance to emulate their model: a little craft, a little graft and just a sprinkling of magic.

It was also the night 16-year-old Lamine Yamal became the youngest goalscorer in the history of this tournament, a triumph not just for his own prodigious talent but for the system that produces him and trusts him to thrash in a 25-yard thunderbolt. Dani Olmo added the winner on 25 minutes and yet for all the early drama this was a game that gripped right to its finish.

Perhaps posterity will forget just how ominously France started the game, with an early goal for Randal Kolo Muani and an early yellow card for Spain’s 38-year-old makeshift right-back Jesús Navas, which is exactly what you want when you have to play 76 minutes against Kylian Mbappé. But ultimately. Didier Deschamps’s team were a flimsy disappointment, not just out-passed but out-thought, devoid of solutions and brutally taunted in the closing minutes, as Spain kept the ball to a fiesta of olés.

How, exactly, did Spain manage to turn it around? Over the coming days those five scintillating first-half minutes will be wound and rewound at great length, and yet perhaps the only real conclusion worth drawing is not in terms of tactics but mentality. A goal down, in danger of being eaten alive, Spain simply intensified their efforts: a team utterly disdainful of the idea that they could ever be second best.

Lamine Yamal scores Spain’s superbly struck first, which arcs towards the top-left corner of Mike Maignan’s goal. Photograph: Christina Pahnke/sampics/Getty Images

This is of course a function of belief, and Luis de la Fuente’s side have this in abundance. But it is also a function of self-assurance, a well-drilled system in which everyone knows everyone else’s jobs. No Robin Le Normand, no problem: Nacho simply slots in and has a monstrous night. No Pedri, no problem: Olmo simply picks up where he left off against Germany.

And if in doubt, get it to the wingers. At which point we should be clear: for all their pace and verve, Lamine Yamal and Nico Williams are not wingers in the traditional, chalk-studded sense. Indeed both goals came when they drifted into the centre, giving their full-back a brief dilemma, narrowing the pitch, sowing confusion.

Kolo Muani opened the scoring. It had not been coming. But Ousmane Dembélé played a nice whipped pass to Mbappé, who was played onside by Navas and then allowed to cross for Kolo Muani: France’s 87th attempt of the tournament from open play, and their first goal. Navas was booked shortly afterwards. As the famous meme has it: call an ambulance… but not for Spain!

Perhaps France reckoned they could simply manage this situation. Sit back, pass it around, maybe hit on the break. And against most teams, this would probably work. But Spain keep coming. Olmo, to Álvaro Morata, back to Lamine Yamal, and suddenly the ball was sailing into the top corner: a frankly ridiculous goal, and a moment that seemed to overcome Lamine Yamal slightly, a reminder that this is still just a child with a child’s feelings, for whom this abundant gift must just feel quite weird.

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Four minutes later, a cross from Navas, cleared indeterminately, and in that moment perhaps Olmo doesn’t exactly know what he wants to do with it. All he knows is that he wants the ball. Brilliant feet, brilliant determination, and an emphatic finish that clipped the heels of Jules Koundé on the way in.

Suddenly, having built a gameplan on letting Spain have the ball, France decided they actually wanted it. Half-time came and went and while there were few extrinsic signs of panic, not much was happening for them either. Nacho and Navas were doubling up on Mbappé, maskless for the first time since the opening game. Adrien Rabiot and N’Golo Kanté were both disappointing, basically traffic islands cut adrift by Spanish passing, and were withdrawn after an hour.

Spain were still intermittently creating openings of their own: Mike Maignan had to scamper 45 yards out of his goal to tackle a steaming Williams. But perhaps it was inevitable, given those tired legs, that they would begin to drop back a little, and as we reached the business end, the pace began to sag and France began to encroach with their usual mesmerising menace.

They were unfortunate that a golden chance from 12 yards fell to left-back Théo Hernandez on his weaker foot. They were unfortunate when Mbappé cut inside late on – he couldn’t, surely? – and blazed over the bar. But on the ledger of this night, and this tournament, they can have few complaints. The old empire is bloated and decadent and joyless. A new world is coming.


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