Eduardo Camavinga is not your average teenage football prodigy.
The game has known plenty of players who have made their professional breakthroughs while still in the acne and bumfluff phase of their lives—Pele, Diego Maradona, Wayne Rooney, Lionel Messi, Kylian Mbappe—but almost all of them have been attacking players.
A coach can throw on a young forward safe in the knowledge that the worst that is likely to happen (barring a disastrous rush of blood to the head) is that they give the ball away in a harmless area of the pitch.
What makes Camavinga's emergence with Rennes so remarkable is that the 16-year-old generally plays in front of the defence in a midfield holding role—a position where even the smallest miscalculation can prove fatal. In the recent history of Europe's five major leagues, only Cesc Fabregas has managed to hold down a first-team place in a similar position at the same age. Even then, the Spaniard was brought into a well-oiled Arsenal team that tended to dominate its opponents, rather than a mid-table outfit scrapping tooth and nail for every available point.
Camavinga, who turns 17 on November 10, is not being used sparingly either. Despite having only made his first-team debut in April, the Angola-born youngster has played more minutes for Rennes in Ligue 1 this season than any player except for Hamari Traore. And it is not hard to see why. Elegant, tactically intelligent and almost spookily composed, he has produced man-of-the-match displays against Paris Saint-Germain and Marseille and has performed with a level of consistency that puts even seasoned central midfielders to shame.
After shining in Rennes' 1-1 draw at Marseille in September, Camavinga was asked on Canal+ where his apparent fearlessness came from. "I've always been like that," he replied, a little bashfully. "I was often moved up a year, so playing with bigger players doesn't scare me."
When he made his debut against Angers at the age of 16 years, four months and 27 days, Camavinga became the youngest first-team player in Rennes' history. Against Monaco in May, he became the first player born after January 1, 2002 to have started a game in one of Europe's top five leagues. The raking pass with which he set up Romain Del Castillo to score the winner in Rennes' 2-1 win over PSG in August made him the youngest player to record an assist in the French top flight. Weeks later, he became the youngest player to be named Ligue 1's Player of the Month.
He already has a Nike sponsorship deal and is represented by French football agent Moussa Sissoko, whose clients include another celebrated Rennes academy graduate in the shape of Ousmane Dembele, now at Barcelona. Under contract with Rennes until 2022, Camavinga has been linked to several of Europe's biggest clubs, with Real Madrid reported to head a list of suitors that also includes Barcelona, Arsenal, Tottenham Hotspur, Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund.
As one of Camavinga's first football coaches, Nicolas Martinais has watched the tall, rangy teenager develop from an early age, but even he has been surprised by the speed with which his former protege has become part of the furniture at Roazhon Park.
"The ease and the maturity he shows on the pitch are incredible," Martinais told Bleacher Report. "He's on the ball a lot, he rarely gives it away and he's very mature. That's what knocks you out. For his age, it's really amazing."
Martinais started coaching Camavinga in September 2011, when a merger between two amateur football clubs in Fougeres, a town 50 kilometres northeast of Rennes in western France, brought the eight-year-old under his care. The third child of six, Camavinga was born in Angola in November 2002 and moved to France at the age of one. His parents moved the family to Lille initially before relocating across northern France to Fougeres.
The story goes that as a child, Camavinga was a keen judoka, only for his mother to push him into playing football because he kept breaking things in the family living room. AGL Drapeau Fougeres, the local team, were the beneficiaries, and Martinais has vivid memories of the extraordinary precocity that Camavinga showed in their training sessions.
"All the exercises we did, we'd have just finished explaining them and he'd have already understood everything," Martinais said. "With some of the others, you had to repeat yourself and show them again. He got it straight away. We had to come up with new drills to challenge him, because he was twice as advanced as the others. It was all so easy for him."
By early 2013, Rennes were showing interest, but then disaster befell the Camavingas when a fire caused by an electrical fault ravaged the family home. The destruction of the family's passports and personal documents delayed the completion of Camavinga's move to Rennes and held up his attempts to gain French citizenship. (Camavinga finally obtained French citizenship earlier this week, paving the way for a first call-up at youth level by France.)
Martinais arranged for people to donate furniture to the Camavingas, and he remembers being on his way to make a delivery to them when he received a phone call from Julien Stephan—then coach of Rennes' under-19s, now coach of the first team—asking if the youngster would be able to take part in an end-of-season youth tournament with a view to the club taking him on. The promise of a professional contract with Rennes was a light amid the darkest gloom.
"His father took the kid in his arms and told him, ‘We've been through this terrible event, but this is what's going to lift us up,'" Martinais recalled. "When he signed pro, Eduardo said to his dad, 'Do you remember what you said when the house caught fire? Well, here we are.'"
Landry Chauvin took charge of the Rennes academy in February 2015—a post he had previously held between 1992 and 2007—and remembers being bowled over by Camavinga's respectfulness and professionalism.
"I was the director of the academy for five years, and I never had any problems of behaviour or attitude with him. Never, never, never," Chauvin told Bleacher Report. "Nor did anyone else. He respects the coach as much as the cleaning lady or the supervisor of the academy.
"He's always questioning. He'd be the first to watch the video footage of his matches. He had some little problems with his adductors when he was younger, and he'd be the first to do his muscle strengthening exercises. He understood straight away that his body was a tool of work, and from that point on, he did everything he could to look after it.
"He'd be the first to go and see the head of education to ask, 'When can I make up for the lesson I missed this morning because I was training with the pros?' He was a pro, basically. But a pro with the smile of a child, which is fantastic."
Chauvin won the Coupe Gambardella, France's youth cup, with Rennes in 2003 and has helped a succession of promising young players achieve professional status. In his eyes, Camavinga stands comparison with any of them.
"He has this simplicity that brings the ball to life," Chauvin said. "He touches the ball as much as anyone else, but sparingly. He doesn't need to carry it. He passes the ball, he makes himself available; he passes, he makes himself available.
"The best midfielder I've had at 16 was Yoann Gourcuff. [Camavinga] reminds me of Yoann Gourcuff at the same age, but a left-footer. I knew Blaise Matuidi when he was at Troyes at the same age. For me, Eduardo is more advanced than he was."
Stephan, who gave Camavinga his first-team debut last season, has been cautious in his praise of the midfielder, making sure to emphasise the areas of his game—namely his right foot, his long-range passing and his shooting—he can still improve. Chauvin is convinced that once Camavinga has fully settled into the team, "he'll score seven or eight goals a season." Though he has generally played as a holding midfielder, Camavinga has also been used further forward, and Stephan believes he has a sufficiently broad skill set to master both positions.
"If I need an eight who breaks the lines and who runs, I'll put him there," the Rennes coach said recently. "If I need to have someone in front of the defence who's stronger at winning the ball and more aggressive, I can put him there as well."
Camavinga still lives at the Rennes academy, which sits next door to Roazhon Park, and is studying towards a baccalaureat specialising in economics and social sciences. In many ways, he is a typical 16-year-old. Then he steps onto the pitch.