In August 2018, Real Madrid's Juvenil B team (under 19s) travelled across Spain to Sant Pol de Mar, a seaside town along the Catalan coast, to play a pre-season tournament. They ran into Barcelona on a bumpy Astroturf pitch and got thumped 5-0. There was one boy in particular who broke their hearts. He was a 15-year-old kid, a few years younger than Real Madrid's players. His name was Ilaix Moriba. They won't forget him in a hurry.
In the first half, Moriba scored two goals; the first was a scorcher from about 25 yards out, the second one he flashed into the net from an acute angle after bustling free from two covering defenders in the box. The goal that secured his hat-trick was just plain bad manners.
When a Barcelona team-mate touched the ball to him in the centre circle to start the second half, Moriba rolled it forward a couple of feet with the sole of his boot. He looked up for an instant, spotted that Real Madrid's goalkeeper was marginally off his line and lobbed him. The ball grazed the crossbar on its way into the net.
A few days later, Damia, a former Barcelona player who is coaching Catalonia's under-18 team, went along to see Barcelona's Juvenil B team play in Sabadell against a rival Catalan club, Mercantil. Damia was there to scout the match. It was the first time he saw Moriba play. Moriba stuck out a mile from the other players on the pitch.
"Straight away when I saw this guy," says Damia, "I said: 'Wow, he's a very good player.' The opposition players were all about 17 or 18 years old. He was just 15, and he was the best player on the field. It was stunning.
"He's very good at passing and controlling the ball. He's not the best I've ever seen in those departments. I'm sure about that. There are young players who are more skilled in those facets, but in coordination, how he protects the ball, how he's able to run with the ball and his shooting really catches your attention."
Moriba was born in the port city Conakry, Guinea's capital city in West Africa, in 2003, but he's lived most his life in Spain—he is with Spain's squad in Brazil preparing for their opening match against Argentina on Monday in the FIFA U-17 World Cup.
Oscar Hernandez, who worked as a coach with Barcelona's youth academy from 2007 until 2017, vividly remembers Moriba causing Barca's youth teams trouble when he turned up to play against them as an Espanyol player.
"Every time he played on Espanyol teams against Barca they suffered a lot because he was so good," says Hernandez. "He was more developed physically than the other players—he was a different dimension—and his talent was obviously innate. He was the kind of player who is very destructive. He caused them grave problems. It was obvious that Barca had to sign him."
And they did. Moriba joined Barca in 2010, although he's not the identikit possession-based Barca-type midfielder. Part of it has to do with his big, impressive physique—and he has an aggressive, ball-winning personality to match his size. He's always knocking players out of his way to get on the ball.
"Ilaix has something that differentiates himself a lot from the other academy players who play in the No. 6 position," says Hernandez. "Traditionally, they have great positional sense and great touch. They're good for circulating the ball, for keeping possession. The academy is full of No. 6s who play like Xavi Hernandez or Sergio Busquets.
"He has a quality that other No. 6s at Barca don't have, though—he's box-to-box. He's very good in front of goal. He can pick up the ball and burst forward with it. He can create play. He's good in the air. He's very multifaceted. Apart from the fact that defensively he's very aggressive. He's a complete player."
Denis Silva Puig, who coached Moriba on Barcelona's Juvenil A team (after he plucked Moriba from the club's Juvenil B team after only a couple of months playing with them last season), stresses, too, Moriba's football brain.
"I remember first seeing him when he [was about nine years old], he was very elastic," says Silva Puig. "It was obvious he was better than the others even though he was already playing with boys a year older—the movements he made, the way he cut inside.
"He's physically very strong, but he's also a very intelligent player. Most people don't appreciate this. Here he's called the '[Paul] Pogba of Barca' because he's like a young Pogba, but also he is very, very intelligent—and that is his big potential. He is a top player, no doubt.
"He's a little bit, maybe modern—in the English football kind of sense. It's good to have him at Barca. The academy can't be all about the Riqui [Puig]s or the Monchus—small players with a lot of talent. Football trends change every year, every month, but Ilaix is here not because he is tall or strong, but because he is very good in every facet of the game."
Barcelona nearly lost Moriba last season. In January, he turned 16, the age at which players sign their first professional contract. This pivotal turning-of-age moment is an angsty time for Barcelona's fabled La Masia academy because it has lost several key talents at this juncture—from Cesc Fabregas, who joined Arsenal in 2003, to Eric Garcia, who made his Manchester City league debut in September.
Several of Europe's top clubs circled, sniffing for Moriba's signature, including Chelsea, Man City and Juventus. Jonathan Barnett, who has Real Madrid's Gareth Bale in his stable and recently become the world's biggest football agent, according to Forbes magazine, was overseeing the auction. The weeks of horse-trading took their toll on Moriba.
"It was probably the hardest moment so far in his football career," says Silva Puig. "He was in negotiations with the club. He suffered a lot because he couldn't play—for two weeks, he stopped playing [in case he got injured]. One day he sent me a message, 'Denis, I'm going.' Another day he came [to training] and afterwards he had to apologise because his agents told him he shouldn't come. Everybody thought he was leaving, but in the end, the club made a very big bet on him, and he stayed.
"They were a complicated couple of weeks for him. It's a tough process—a very young player that has to go through this, but football life is this way, and he is a mature boy that could deal with the stress. One minute, the boy is just playing football, trying to do his best, then his dad gets a phone call about a team that wants to pay them millions of euros for three years. Well, that's the craziness about football these days. Every day, younger and younger footballers are being [seduced].
"A boy of 15 or 16 years old has to decide if he wants to stay at home or leave for another country with his family and make more money. That kind of pressure definitely changes the way the boy is because instead of thinking about school things, this boy suddenly has to think about his family's financial wellbeing. I don't think any young boy can be ready for that strain, but it is the way it is."
Silva Puig mentions one La Masia graduate, who, on turning 16, came to the club's offices to negotiate his contract trailing a posse of seven people with a stake in his future, including the player's father, his agent and commercial and sporting brand reps. Silva Puig says there are also more down-to-earth academy players who come to contract negotiations with only their dad in tow.
"It depends on the environment the father decides because he will typically be his manager; the kid can't take decisions about who comes [to his contract negotiations]," says Silva Puig. "If the father is well balanced, the son should be OK, but if not, if the father is a bit [clueless], other people can influence him, telling him what to do, tricking him. The player's entourage will get bigger and bigger, full of people that want to live from the boy."
Barcelona struck a landmark deal. Moriba signed until 2022. He earns a reported salary of more than €500,000 a year. His agent Barnett picked up a commission of €2.5 million, part of which was diverted to Moriba's father. It's the first time Barca has staked as much on a 16-year-old. The door is no longer open for all its star academy players to be lured away by an irresistible offer.
"I think it is necessary for Barca to bet seriously on five or six academy players. And Ilaix Moriba is one of these serious bets," says Hernandez. "He is one of those players with characteristics to be on the first team. No doubt. He has extraordinary capacities, but let's see."
The pressure is on—not from Barca fans and the media, that will come later, but from within the club. Moriba has to deliver. One of the reasons cited in the sensational dismissal of Victor Valdes as a coach at La Masia earlier in the month was that he wasn't playing Moriba enough.
"Barcelona has really bet on him in terms of its sporting project," says Damia. "He's so young yet he is already being paid like a senior professional footballer—he's not even in the lower pay scales—and he hasn't even played for the first team. He will be feeling the pressure—and probably in a good way—from within the club because he's one of those two or three players the club is really betting on."
Time will tell if Moriba repays the club's faith in him, but the early signs are good. Just ask those Real Madrid Juvenil B team players who crossed him in Sant Pol de Mar last year.
Follow Richard on Twitter: @Richard_Fitz