In the 89th minute of the Spanish Super Cup final first leg last Sunday night, Barcelona trailed 2-1. They pushed for an equaliser when their forward Luis Suarez coughed up possession outside Real Madrid's box.
Real Madrid swept up field. The ball arrived at Marco Asensio's feet on the left wing about 40 yards from goal. Without breaking stride, he nudged the ball forward and then bombed the ball into the top left-hand corner of the net. Barcelona 'keeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen, who had been back-pedalling furiously, could only wave it into the net before landing on his backside.
The wonder strike has effectively killed the tie. Barca—ravaged mentally by Neymar Jr.'s absconding to Paris Saint-Germain—will have to overturn a two-goal deficit (and the cushion of three away goals) in the second leg at the Bernabeu. The irony is that, but for the vagaries of the transfer market, Asensio could well have been scoring at the other end of the Camp Nou for Barcelona. At a pivotal juncture in his development, it was nailed on that he would join Barca.
Asensio was born in Mallorca—one of the Balearic Islands that sit off the coast of Catalonia in the Mediterranean—in January 1996. His Dutch mother christened him Marco after the famous Netherlands and Milan player Marco van Basten. It was an inspired decision.
Asensio was only nine years old when he came to the attention of football agent Horacio Gaggioli, the man who was responsible for brokering Lionel Messi's complicated move from Argentina to Barcelona during the winter of 2000-2001. Gaggioli, who lives in Barcelona, crossed over to the island to see Asensio play. He was smitten.
"I liked him a lot," says Gaggioli, who has worked as Asensio's agent since being introduced to him. "He was grandisimo, a great footballer. He was spectacular in every sense. He had things you could see would make him an important player, just like Messi."
What impressed Gaggioli as much as Asensio's athleticism was the young boy's personality—people warm to him. "He's a person that attracts other people to him," says Gaggioli. "It's a characteristic. There are only a few people who have this trait, and he has it."
As Asensio rose through the ranks of Mallorca's youth academy, graduating to the first team at only 17 years of age, his raw footballing talent created a buzz in football circles around Spain.
Phil Kitromilides, who works as a presenter for Real Madrid TV, remembers in particular watching Asensio run the length of the pitch in a match with Mallorca to set up a scoring chance. "It was so eye-catching that it made you excited," he says. "It got you thinking, OK, this kid could be very, very good."
At the beginning of the 2014-2015 season, Asensio was earning €1,000 a month with Mallorca and living at home with his brother, Igor, who was a police cadet, and their father, who worked in a supermarket, according to Marca. Asensio's fortunes changed dramatically that winter. He was coveted by Europe's top football clubs. "All of them," says Gaggioli.
Barca moved in to sign him. They bid €2.5 million for him (with an extra €2 million if he played in the first division). Mallorca insisted on €4.5 million up front. "Barca said, 'No, we're not able.' They lost the opportunity," says Gaggioli. "When they changed their mind after three months, it was too late." Real Madrid had stepped into the breach.
According to Asensio in a Real Madrid TV documentary (h/t Marca), the tennis star Rafa Nadal, who is a rabid Real Madrid fan and a native of Mallorca, phoned the president of Real Madrid, Florentino Perez, and urged him to sign Asensio. Perez phoned Asensio, purring down the phone: "Relax, Marco, you're going to be a Real Madrid player," per the documentary.
Perez was pushing an open door. Asensio has been a Real Madrid fan all his life. As a kid, he slept with a Real Madrid teddy bear. "His idol as a child was always Zinedine Zidane," says Gaggioli. "He used to have a huge picture of him on his wall."
Perez dispatched his private plane to pick up Asensio and his father in Mallorca. They were whisked to Madrid, given a tour of the Bernabeu and the club's training facility, Valdebebas.
A deal was inked. Real Madrid agreed to pay Mallorca €3.9 million and allowed them to keep him until the end of the season. "The offer from Real Madrid for Asensio was 20 times better than Barcelona's in every aspect, football-wise and financially," says Gaggioli.
The Madrid press revelled in the coup. Marca's front-page headline on 25 November 2014 announcing the signature read: "Goal against Barca."
"Barcelona were not quick enough," says Aitor Lagunas, editor of the literary football magazine Panenka. "It was one of their biggest mistakes in recent years. There was such little difference in the payment. It was obvious that Marco Asensio was a different kind of player. It was another success for Real Madrid and another failure for Barcelona."
Asensio was presented as a Real Madrid player on this day two years ago. In an emotional speech, he gave thanks to his father, brother, Gaggioli, and to his mother, who died from cancer in 2011: "My mother, who I know that from heaven is always supporting me," he said, breaking into tears.
Asensio is the most prized of the current generation of coming Spanish stars, with Saul Niguez and the slightly older Alvaro Morata and Isco among them. Early in his career, Asensio's father, a proud Basque man, tried to entice Athletic Bilbao to sign his son, but the club refused, as it would have breached their strict rules on signing Basque-only players.
On the back of the debate, Lagunas ran a poll during the summer in which he asked his followers on Twitter who were supporters of Athletic Bilbao if they would favour changing their club's recruitment policy to accommodate the sons and nephews of Basques on their team. A majority voted in favour of changing the rule.
"They were saying cases like Marco Asensio shouldn't happen again," says Lagunas. "The Twitter vote expressed how big an impact Marco Asensio is making at every level in Spain. If a really conservative fan group like Athletic Bilbao is considering changing their philosophy after more than a century mainly because of Asensio, it shows you he is a special player."
Asensio's directness is exhilarating. It's something that Kitromilides stresses, drawing a comparison between the 21-year-old and his Real Madrid team-mate Gareth Bale; although Bale is more about "physicality," he adds, whereas Asensio has a "silkiness" to his breakaways.
"When you describe a player as being 'vertical' in English," says Kitromilides, "it doesn't convey quite the same meaning that it does in Spanish. Asensio is vertical. He's dynamic. He's one of the best counter-attacking players in the world. Not only is he quick, but he's very good at dribbling very quickly with the ball as well. He seems to have an understanding of when to give a pass on the counter-attack. We saw it last season, when he scored goals by charging into space against defenders."
Asensio also has an inner strength. He spent the 2015-2016 season on loan at Espanyol, amassing 10 assists in La Liga, as per WhoScored.com, making him the youngest footballer in Europe's five big leagues to reach double figures in that category, according to ESPN.
The consistently good performances while playing for a struggling Espanyol side—which finished five points from the drop—came on the back of a player-of-the-tournament display for Spain's triumphant team at the UEFA European Under-19 Championship.
It meant expectations ran high. He has remained unfazed, however. At a press conference during his loan season with Espanyol, he was quizzed about the effect of pressure on him. "I think pressure is something that doesn't exist," he said matter-of-factly, as per his Real Madrid TV documentary.
His ability to score debut goals in competitions would bear out this sentiment. He has an uncanny knack of scoring them for Real Madrid—in the UEFA Super Cup, the Champions League (as well as his first Champions League final against Juventus), the Copa del Rey, La Liga and last Sunday in the Spanish Super Cup.
Last season was a breakout year for Asensio. This season, which culminates with a World Cup in Russia, promises even more. On the domestic front, when Bleacher Report puts it to Kitromilides that Asensio might keep Bale out of the Real Madrid side, he says the question is framed incorrectly.
"He'll keep many players out of the team, not just Bale," says Kitromilides. "The way the Real Madrid style and squad has evolved, if Asensio comes in, he can come in for Ronaldo, Bale or Karim Benzema. They would adapt the formation of how they play. I don't think it's necessarily him keeping out Gareth Bale specifically. It will be him being in the team so someone else isn't in it."
All quotes and information obtained firsthand unless otherwise indicated.
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