Meet Rayan Cherki: The 16-Year-Old Lyon Prodigy Tipped to Emulate Kylian Mbappe

Tom Williams@tomwfootballSpecial to Bleacher ReportFebruary 27, 2020

Lyons French forward Rayan Cherki celebrates after scoring a goal during the French Cup round of 64 football match between Bourg-en-Bresse (FBBP) and Lyon (OL) on January 4, 2020 at the Stade Marcel-Verchere Stadium in Bourg-en-Bresse. (Photo by ROMAIN LAFABREGUE / AFP) (Photo by ROMAIN LAFABREGUE/AFP via Getty Images)
ROMAIN LAFABREGUE/Getty Images

Bewildered by the flurry of tricks to which Rayan Cherki had subjected him, Nantes left-back Charles Traore did what any player might reasonably be expected to do in the circumstances: he fell flat on his face.

Hemmed in against Lyon's right-hand touchline and with two Nantes players closing in on him, Cherki shuffled the ball from his left foot to his right, then rolled it to the right using the sole of his left foot and feinted to move forwards, only to bring himself to an abrupt halt. It was at this point that the hapless Traore lost his balance and found himself face-down on the turf, a position from which he watched helplessly as Cherki nonchalantly knocked a pass down the line to an overlapping team-mate.

Within seconds, Cherki had sped into the Nantes penalty area and been brought down by Thomas Basila. Moussa Dembele's spot-kick was saved, but Cherki's slide-rule pass gave his team-mate the opportunity to atone moments later, and the former Celtic striker rounded Alban Lafont and rolled in what proved to be the decisive goal in a 4-3 win. Having scored Lyon's first two goals and set up their third for Martin Terrier, Cherki finished the mid-January Coupe de France tie at Stade de la Beaujoire with two goals and two assists to his name. And all at the age of just 16.

Speaking after the game, Terrier described him as a "phenomenon." A picture of Cherki from the match, his right foot provocatively placed on top of the ball, adorned the front page of the following day's L'Equipe, accompanied by the headline: "CHERKI SHOW!" An admiring Kylian Mbappe showed his appreciation for Cherki's performance in a tweet that made playful reference to his own distaste for being reminded about how young he is, writing: "Don't talk to him too much about his age, eh."

As much as Mbappe knows about life as a teenage football prodigy, even he cannot compete with Cherki when it comes to precocity. At the age that Cherki was when he made his first-team debut for Lyon earlier this season (16 years and 63 days), Mbappe was still over nine months away from his first taste of senior action with Monaco.

Stocky and square-shouldered, his face framed by carefully sculpted black facial hair, Cherki does not look like your average 16-year-old, and the feeling that he must surely be older than his stated age only becomes more pronounced when the ball arrives at his feet. A versatile attacking midfielder or No. 10, Cherki is remarkably two-footed and allies breath-taking technical dexterity with dazzlingly inventive dribbling. Traore was not the first defender to have been embarrassed by the teenager, and he will certainly not be the last.

"I see him a bit like an extra-terrestrial, in the sense that he decides games with technical skills that you've never seen before," Cyrille Dolce, Cherki's coach with Lyon's under-15s, told 20 Minutes last year. "I've never known which was his stronger foot."

With the list of players to have graduated from Lyon's academy featuring such names as Karim Benzema, Hatem Ben Arfa, Alexandre Lacazette, Nabil Fekir and Anthony Martial, the club's fans have learned to keep a close eye on OL's youth teams. So, in spite of his tender years, Cherki's emergence had been anticipated for some time.

Clips of his outlandish skills and jaw-dropping solo goals have popped up on social media at regular intervals over the last couple of years, with each one serving to whet the appetite a little further. A year ago, in an away match for Lyon's under-18s against a team called Bretigny from the suburbs south of Paris, Cherki's outrageous shimmies, stepovers and rainbow flicks thrilled the home fans so much that they started urging his team-mates to give him the ball and then asked him for his shirt when he was substituted towards the end of the game.

"Lyon is one of the few clubs in France where there are guys on Twitter who can tell you all about the under-14s, for example," says Lyon fan Charly Moriceau.

"They all said, 'Watch out—Cherki is going to be a star.' There's been a buzz about him for a long time. After what happened against Nantes, there was a sense of satisfaction at having been proved right. The Lyon fans get mocked a bit because we're so desperate for our young players to do well and we really bang on about them. So it's always nice when you can say, 'See?'"

PARIS, FRANCE - FEBRUARY 9: (L-R) Layvin Kurzawa of Paris Saint Germain, Rayan Cherki of Olympique Lyon  during the French League 1  match between Paris Saint Germain v Olympique Lyon at the Parc des Princes on February 9, 2020 in Paris France (Photo by G
Soccrates Images/Getty Images

The third of five brothers born to a father of Italian origin and a mother with Algerian roots in the Lyon suburbs, Cherki was six when his talents as a footballer first came to light. He had gone along to local amateur club AS Saint-Priest, where his eldest brother played, and was juggling a ball on an athletics track by the side of the pitch when he caught the eye of Roger Martinez, who would become his first coach.

"That's where I saw him for the first time," Martinez tells Bleacher Report. "He was playing with a ball while he watched his brother train. And I asked myself, ‘Who is this monster? How can a six-year-old kid do so much with the ball at his feet?'

"There was nothing I could teach him about how to play football. He was a kid who knew how to do everything."

After a year at Saint-Priest, the club that also helped to launch Fekir's career, Cherki joined Lyon, and he has been there ever since, spending most of his time at youth level playing with players aged one or even two years older than him. A knee condition called osteochondritis kept him out of action for a year when he was 13, but he quickly made up for lost time upon resuming his career.

In September 2018, just 33 days after his 15th birthday, he became the youngest goalscorer in the UEFA Youth League when he found the net in a 4-1 win over Manchester City. Last November, he became the second-youngest player to play in the UEFA Champions League (after former Chelsea left-back Celestine Babayaro), and when he opened his account for Lyon in a Coupe de France tie against amateur side Bourg-en-Bresse in January, it made him the youngest goalscorer in the club's history.

"There's been more buzz with Cherki because of social media and because of his precocity," Vincent Duluc, L'Equipe's lead Lyon reporter, tells Bleacher Report. "He's broken so many records, and that fuels the buzz."

Cherki's first appearances for Lyon's senior team have served to soothe the club's fans amid what has been a largely forgettable season, prior to this week's surprise Champions League win over Juventus. OL's disappointing league form, the unpopularity of head coach Rudi Garcia and tensions between players and supporters have created an edgy atmosphere at the Groupama Stadium at times, but Cherki's emergence has helped to lift some of the gloom.

After he made his first-team debut in a dreary 0-0 draw against Dijon in October, club president Jean-Michel Aulas said the teenager had been "our ray of sunshine on a rainy afternoon." More recently, Aulas told Tuttosport that Cherki had the potential to become "even better than Mbappe."

Fearful of seeing another teenage prodigy slip between their fingers following Willem Geubbels' contentious €20 million transfer to Monaco in 2018, Lyon tied Cherki down to a three-year contract last summer, with Aulas revealing that the club had made an "unprecedented investment" in a young player in order to do so.

Cherki's performances have helped to soften the blow of the serious knee injuries suffered by attacking midfielders Memphis Depay and Jeff Reine-Adelaide. Lyon were expected to bring in replacements for both players in the January transfer window, but Cherki's successful integration into the first-team squad meant that although OL signed Karl Toko Ekambi from Villarreal, they were happy to loan Tino Kadewere back to Le Havre after recruiting the Zimbabwean forward from the Ligue 2 club in a €15 million deal.

As ever with a promising teenage footballer, Lyon are trying to shield Cherki from overexposure. His playing time is being carefully managed, and Lyon recently decided to block all requests for interviews about him with club officials. On the pitch, the France under-16 international inevitably still has much to learn. He occasionally shows a tendency to want to do everything by himself, particularly when his side are struggling, and Garcia has warned that he needs to improve his decision-making.

"He's so attracted to the technical, expressive side of the game," says Duluc. "There's a risk that that will cause misunderstandings from time to time."

But the youngster is felt to have solid foundations beneath him, with L'Equipe reporting recently that his mother and father have sought advice on how to manage his career from the parents of Mbappe.

"What I think is good is that he's educated, polite, intelligent and hard-working," Garcia said. "And you're not like that if your entourage isn't like that. He's very, very well surrounded. If everyone continues like that, he'll have the career he deserves."

While nobody would want Cherki to get ahead of himself, what is clear is that he possesses the potential to become a truly singular talent.

"Rayan Cherki is Rayan Cherki," says Martinez, his first coach. "It's like [Zinedine] Zidane or Mbappe—there's only one."

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