Eduardo Camavinga is not accustomed to waiting. This is a man for whom everything has happened in a tremendous hurry. The youngest player in Rennes’ history, at 16 years and four months. The youngest to be named player of the month in Ligue 1. The youngest male France international for more than 100 years. For Camavinga, the trajectory of his career has been steep, swift and spectacular. Until, that is, he joined Carlo Ancelotti’s Real Madrid, and was forced to bide his time.
Camavinga signed for Madrid on the final day of last summer’s transfer window, an all-action midfielder coveted across the continent. The fee, £26.6m with add-ons, looked a bargain for a teenage prodigy of rare versatility and poise. With Toni Kroos and Luka Modric well beyond 30 and Casemiro having just crossed that threshold, Camavinga was rapturously welcomed in the capital, and immediately tipped to take the Bernabéu by storm.
At which point, not much happened. It took Camavinga a month to get his first start. It was November before Ancelotti trusted him with a full 90 minutes in the league. Of his 39 games for Madrid this season, 23 have come as a substitute. He was on the bench for their last 10 Champions League games, including their entire run through the knockout stages. He will probably start on the bench again in Saturday’s final against Liverpool. And yet, with the possible exception of Karim Benzema, there is no Madrid player whose contribution will be more eagerly anticipated, no player of whom Liverpool will be more wary.
To discover why, you need to look beyond the simple numbers. Camavinga has been Madrid’s 15th-most used player in this season’s Champions League, contributing just a single assist. But their run to the final has been secured on the back of three stunning second-leg comebacks against Paris Saint-Germain, Chelsea and Manchester City. Without Camavinga, they would probably have lost all three.
Against PSG, he replaced Kroos on the hour, allowing Modric the freedom to roam further forward and link up with Benzema, whose hat-trick turned a 2-0 aggregate deficit into a 3-2 win. Against Chelsea, his introduction immediately transformed a game that Real were meekly surrendering but eventually won 5-4 on aggregate. Against City, he was simply everywhere: coming on after 75 minutes, breaking up City attacks, spreading play quickly, playing the cross from which Madrid would score the first goal in a remarkable 3-1 comeback victory.
What linked all three performances – 125 minutes during which Madrid scored eight times and conceded once – was speed. Camavinga is a player of immense physical gifts – pace, agility, balance, strength – but his real talent is speed of thought, the ability to see things quicker than anyone else. To snuff out the counterattack when it is still a concept. To play the forward pass with just enough speed and spin. His long diagonal balls are notable for their flat, skimming trajectory, switching the angle of attack without allowing defences time to reset themselves.
All of which raises an interesting question: if Camavinga is so good, then why hasn’t he played more? Why isn’t he starting? “I don’t like not playing,” he admitted in an interview last week. But he’s also a realist. He knows that in Modric, Kroos and Casemiro he is trying to dislodge three of the greatest midfielders in the modern game. And so for now Ancelotti has convinced him – with his usual charm – to channel his energies into a high-impact closing role, seizing games against tiring opponents.
“He must learn and gain experience,” Ancelotti said earlier this season. “He doesn’t have it yet, but he’s only 19 years old. Every day that he trains with Modric, Kroos or Casemiro is a master’s degree. Camavinga is the present and the future of this club.”
And all the evidence suggests that Camavinga is learning. After all, he has always had to grow quickly: born in a refugee camp in Angola, brought up in Fougeres in the west of France, groomed for footballing stardom from an early age. When he was 11, his family lost everything they owned in a house fire. “You will rebuild this house,” his father told him. Now, as a man, Camavinga may be about rebuild Madrid.
After years of gravity-defying excellence, Kroos appears to be in gentle decline. Modric is still brilliant but will turn 37 in September; meanwhile, the pursuit of Aurélien Tchouaméni from Monaco is a recognition of the need for a long-term replacement for Casemiro. For almost a decade this trio have defined the identity of a Madrid team that crave control, that gradually try to strangle opponents. Camavinga represents a different ideal entirely: quicker, more dynamic, more vertical, more aggressive. If Modric and Kroos show where Madrid have come from, it is Camavinga who shows us where they may be going.
And so to Paris in the springtime, and a game that many of Real’s veterans – right the way up to Ancelotti himself – will probably take in their stride. By contrast, this will be the biggest 90 minutes of Camavinga’s short career, even if he will probably spend a fair chunk of them watching from the sidelines. Either way, for those of us waiting to see what this most precious of talents can do on the very biggest stage, the wait may just be over.