Gavi has only just turned 18, but his journey from the dusty playing fields of Andalusia to Barcelona star and now the World Cup bears all the hallmarks of a potential great.
“He still thinks he’s in the schoolyard,” joked his father Pablo Paez when asked about the irresistible rise of a boy playing with his laces undone and tongue pressed firmly inside his cheek.
A combative, urgent presence on the pitch, Gavi snaps into challenges with the work-rate of a midfield hatchet-man, but on the ball offers the creativity the world demands from a Barcelona playmaker.
“Nobody can say they don’t like Gavi,” said Spain coach Luis Enrique, who fast-tracked the teenager’s international career.
The youngster who climbed on the stage of the Chatelet theatre in Paris to receive the Kopa Trophy for the best young player in the world in October is the same player his first coach remembers.
At La Liara Balompie sports club 30 kilometres south of Seville, Manuel Basco, known as Batalla, remembers a boy who was “reserved, introverted, but a joker” who “already had this habit with his tongue. That I believe that Pablo will never lose,” he told AFP.
While rummaging through his phone and poring over the yellowed photos of Gavi, Batalla, now 64, has squinted eyes and pinched lips.
“He stayed with us for two years, from six to eight years old. Then (Real) Betis saw him play, and boom, they took him,” recalled the coach, who continued to follow his prodigy while he stayed in Seville.
But he was not able to follow the starlet’s progress for long. In 2013, while Betis were playing in a tournament in the Algarve, recruiters Barca spotted an 11-year-old Gavi, who was voted best player of the tournament and whisked off to Catalonia.
“At a young age, he wasn’t always the most extraordinary player on the pitch, but he was always very consistent. He was rarely worth nine out of 10, but always eight out of 10,” a scout based in Spain for a Premier League club told AFP.
Even his own parents were struggling to keep up with his rapid rise to fame. His father, who ran a bar in the village of Los Palacios y Villafranca, was hired as a handyman at Betis when his son was recruited there.
Then they decided to move to Barcelona at the start of their son’s journey to La Masia, a gamble for an 11-year-old boy, but one who was already very confident.
“Don’t worry. I will already be signed up by a big club by the time I am 12,” Batalla says he told his parents.
His former Barca youth coach Franc Artiga, currently coaching the United Arab Emirates U20s, told AFP that as a teen, Gavi’s competitive spirit was such that defeats drove him to tears.
“The competition motivates him more than anything,” Julen Guerrero, coach of the Spanish under-17 team, told AFP.
“When the pitch was small, bumpy, the match intense and rough, most players struggled. Gavi, he loved it,” said Guerrero.
Even today, he has difficulty sleeping before and after matches. But despite these flashes of anxiety, Gavi has kept a close link with La Masia.
When he started in the first team and in the national team at 17, he still lived in the same small room provided by Barca.
However, his daily life has changed. He extended his Barca deal until 2026 with an astronomical release clause of one billion euros and is driven to training by his teammates in luxury vehicles.
But he often stops for the fans and returns regularly to see his former teammates’ progress with Barcelona’s second string.
Gavi is just beginning but his career has accelerated in the space of a few months, to a dizzying extent. His professional debut, La Liga, the Champions League. Then the Spanish national team, where he became the youngest player to score for his country.
And now he is one of their main heroes and great hopes at the Qatar World Cup.
Spain vs. Costa Rica, 7pm
Position: Central midfielder
National team: Spain 13 games (2 goals)