“If we’re talking pure talent, he’s the best in the world,” Xavi Hernández said. Luis Enrique called him “incredible, just unique”, declaring that no one had ever done what he had. And Julen Lopetegui, his predecessor as Spain coach, described him as “special, one of those that only comes along every so often”. As for Pedri himself, he just wants to play football, as he always did. “To enjoy myself, which is the best thing you can do,” he says, a simple line which defines him.
When the Barcelona manager made his big statement, there was a suggestion he had gone too far, so he “apologised” – by saying it again. Xavi had said Pedri reminded him of Andrés Iniesta – “the greatest talent I’ve ever seen” – which sounded like sacrilege but no one knows Iniesta better and nor was Xavi alone. Luis Enrique was the player tasked with welcoming Iniesta to the Barcelona first team; now Spain coach, he too drew the comparison after Pedri had graced the Euros aged 18, claiming: “No one’s ever seen that, not from even ‘Sir’ Andrés Iniesta.”
Xavi insisted that he was not just building up Pedri, not least because Pedri “doesn’t like eulogies”. “You can end up believing it,” Pedri says, and although his life has changed “completely”, he says his play has not and he gives the impression of being unaffected by it all, as if he is not listening and the pressure does not exist. The kid who turned up at the Camp Nou with his kit in a carrier bag would certainly never make a claim so grand, or indeed any claim at all. The parallel, though, is as pleasing as it is appropriate. “Iniesta always seemed to be a good person,” Pedri says. “And he had that calmness to play simply, to make it easier than it is. The way he could leave someone behind with a shift of gear always amazed me.”
Pedri grew up in Tegueste, Tenerife, as an Iniesta fan. His dad, Fernando, was a goalkeeper who reached the third division but gave up football to run the family restaurant. Tasca Fernando is frequented by surfers heading to the coast; it is also the HQ of the island’s Barcelona supporters’ club – one founded by his grandfather in 1994. Pedri has a photograph of himself greeting the club president, Joan Laporta, there when he was even smaller than he is now, and he wanted to cut his hair like Iniesta.
But it was not just emulation; it was also evolution, something more natural. There’s a how you play, not just a how well, conditioned by environment. Witness Canary Islanders David Silva and Juan Carlos Valerón: an ease with the ball, a pause. A few years ago, a book was published on Canarian character and how football is played on the islands. Practically a treatise, its opening theory talks of beauty, improvisation, creativity, even art, about taking your time. “It is not slowness, [it is] pausing time to turn the routine into the unexpected.”
Pedri was 13 when it was published but you can hear him on the pages. This is his place, which is one of the reasons he supported Adidas’s Run for the Oceans campaign against plastic pollution. “Footballers are in the privileged position that people listen,” he says, “and for a canario the ocean is so important: what are we without it? It’s our future, our life, and we have to look after it, make people conscious of the need to use less plastic. If we don’t, who will?
“I wouldn’t say there is a Canarian model, exactly, but there is a similarity between players and ideas, a ‘kind’: that idea of playing in the street or on the beach. The climate influences it and wherever you go in the Canaries you take a ball. You can tell that in that footballing identity; people who like to dribble, to have the ball, enjoy themselves with it.”
He admits: “Sometimes if two or three moves go by without you getting the ball you get a little bit bored.” The good news is it does not happen often, whatever his elder brother, Fernando, says. Pedri laughs. “He lives with me. When I get in I might have played a great game, but he remembers a mistake and he reminds me of it. He’s a pain, but a good one, trying to help me improve.
“He was a good player, very calm, a defensive midfielder who didn’t fight much. We would go down to Bajamar and play. Anywhere: the beach, on the courts, the concrete in front of the house, anywhere there was space. There were bollards to stop the cars and that would be one goal, a T-shirt the other. My dad used to be a goalkeeper. We would play kids against parents, and he would go in goal. The next day he couldn’t even move.” And did they play properly? “Yes, they went all out …” There’s a grin. “But they didn’t win.”
Increasingly, Pedri did. Snow ruined a trial at Real Madrid. Villarreal, Deportivo and Tenerife decided against him: he was small, skinny and didn’t say much. Las Palmas did sign him, although when Pepe Mel took over as coach he said they did not realise quite what they had, and promoted Pedri to the first team, aged 16. Barcelona signed him within a month, although he completed the season in the second division. He had played just 26 Barcelona games when Luis Enrique called him up. The decision to take him to the Euros was vindicated, voted Golden Boy 2021.
It was not without its price, especially as Pedri then headed off to the Olympics. He played 73 games in 2020-21; this past season injury limited him to just 12 league appearances. Talking now from Tenerife, he was not in the Spain squad for this month’s internationals. Come the World Cup, he will be. “I love playing, but it’s good to rest. It was crazy and it seemed every game went to extra time too [nine times Pedri played matches that went beyond 90 minutes]. Every time it happened I thought: ‘This can’t be…’ It all went so fast, but at the end of the season I was very tired.”
Enforced absence has only underlined his significance. Xavi sees in him the player who best reflects the identity he seeks at Barcelona. “Pedri gives us that pause, he doesn’t lose the ball, he’s always well positioned, he uses both feet. He dominates space and time perfectly: he’s a superlative player,” Xavi said. “We have to look after him.” Of the 12 league games Pedri played, Barcelona didn’t lose any. They won 10 – just one fewer than in the 26 games without him.
It was enough to score one of the goals of the season, putting three Sevilla players on the floor and the Camp Nou on its feet. A similar moment had come at Galatasaray, applying the pause, the world slowing down around him as opponents flew past. “I always try to be calm, to play like when I was little. In that move, you don’t really have time to think. It’s intuitive. I’ve always done it like that.”
Barcelona is the right place then? “I would try to play my game wherever I was, but it’s true that I would suffer more elsewhere,” Pedri says. “Some clubs are satisfied with winning, however they do it. Barcelona wants to win but to do it playing the ball, creating chances, with this idea. I like this football more.
“Xavi has a very clear idea, model: he is very clear about what each of us have to do: the inside midfielders have to be between the lines, the ball moved from one side to the other. The things he did when he played – and it was spectacular watching him – he tries to inculcate in us. The interiores have to hold our position. If you get out of position, then when you lose the ball you can’t press the way you need to: you won’t get there. He also wants the interiores to turn, face the opposition goal.”
There is a line from Juanma Lillo, now assistant coach at Manchester City, about Iniesta that fits Pedri, Valerón and Silva. Far from the idea of one-touch football, Lillo said Iniesta would take as many touches as he could, to draw opponents in, commit them and then play the pass, taking them all out of the game, creating time and space for teammates. He would embrace the risk because he could, because he knew at some subconscious level that he was better. Pedri applies it to Sergio Busquets: “He has to hold, attract, leave someone else one-on-one: we know he can face five, six and clean them out. You have to attract opponents, be able to go alone.”
That’s bravery, not the big defender diving into last-ditch tackles. “It’s having confidence in yourself,” Pedri replies. “You don’t have time to think but it’s trusting your ability, and you can tell when you don’t have that. It’s brave, too, to be physically strong, to take those risks; that’s not easy either. But it’s a different type of bravery. In the middle of the pitch, when the game’s at its worst, you have to have the confidence to ask for the ball and the trust to keep it.
“Recently, I think there’s been a turn towards the player who runs more than the player who is technical, who understands the game. Football is becoming more robotic but there are still those who break that rule. I still play to enjoy myself. I always do and that’s the best thing a footballer can do. If you’re enjoying it, you’re going to play much better.”