Rocafonda is where Lamin Yamal grew up – a 16-year-old, if you can.
The Barcelona winger’s football development was amazingly fast in his first team match against Real Betis at the age of 15 years, nine months and 16 days on April 29, 2010.
That same evening, he became the club’s youngest player since La Liga’s inception 90 years ago, and earlier this month he netted in a 2-2 draw with Granada on October 8 to become the competition’s youngest goalscorer.
Real Madrid consider him one of their most dangerous opponents in El Clasico this weekend and expect everyone who watches him to take the joy in his stride. The talent will inevitably draw comparisons to Lionel Messi – with talks at Barcelona and beyond about the need to carefully nurture his development.
At Rocafonda you always know it’s special and it remains firmly connected to the place. According to one resident, it is his “family and emotional core”.
Rocafonda is a neighborhood that is part of Mataró – a city of about 120,000 inhabitants about 40 minutes from Barcelona by the coast. It is located in a geographically unique place, but it is a humble neighborhood in the middle of prosperous cities.
Looking down from the hill on a Sunday afternoon, the Mediterranean glows a stunning turquoise, especially in the sun. It’s October, but people are walking the streets in short sleeves, temperatures more typical of August than fall.
The area around the local municipal sports field will be filled with children and parents ready to watch Rocafonda’s Juvenile A (Under 17) take to the field. Some spectators lean forward and lean their elbows on the bars next to the pitch – a very common image of Spanish regional football in stadiums without stands.
Yamal couldn’t play in this stadium. But he started on a concrete soccer field where kids who couldn’t afford the registration fees at local clubs played. It is one of the focal points of the area and has ‘Rockafonda’ engraved on its head.
Only in number 304. There are more graffiti on walls, on garbage cans, everywhere. It refers to the local postcode: 08304. When celebrating his first Barcelona goal, Yamal marked the code as a reference.
Across the street, there are more signs of connection between Yamal and this place – a small bakery run by his uncle and cousin Abdul of 23. At the entrance, a picture of Yamal in his Barcelona shirt is filled with the flags of Morocco (his father’s homeland), Equatorial Guinea (his mother’s) and Spain, where he was born.
Surrounded by fresh pastries, bags of bagels and soft drinks, Abdul and his son await the oncoming rush. After Yamal made his debut against Barca’s first team, the bakery was crowded beyond its strategic position. Soon, many children, hungry after playing football, rush here to buy their favorite snacks.
Yamal’s grandmother Fatima appears. She is very young and very kind, always grateful for her interest in her grandson. She was the first to move her family from Morocco to Spain 35 years ago. She came alone first and brought her children. Abdul has lived in Rocafonda for 30 years.
Fatima was present during her grandson’s childhood, as were Abdul and all his children. They grew up together. But when Yamal was three years old, his parents separated and he went to live for a while with his mother, Sheila, in La Torreta, one of the neighborhoods of Roca del Valles, a town north of Granollers.
His mother gets a new job at a fast food chain and there she meets Inocente Diez, one of the key figures in Yamal’s future.
Diez ‘Kubala’ (after Barcelona legend Laszlo Kubala) was known locally as a footballer and encouraged Yameen’s mother, Sheila, to sign up her son for the club he coached, La Torreta.
“You can tell he’s special,” Diaz told The Athletic. “At that age, you never know what’s going to happen, it’s a big industry. But he seems to have been touched by a magic wand.
“When he returned to live in Mataro, many days his father was not with him for training, so he would call me and ask me to drive him. We always talk on the road and I used to tell him that one day Barca will come and sign him. He kept telling me no, no, no.
“He was a very shy boy, very reserved. He was very sweet and charming. He listened to my advice, he still comes to see me sometimes. He is very humble and still very close to his old friends. He does not like to show himself.”
La Torretta is sick and helps the family keep playing when they are in financial trouble, as they do with other children.
It was common to see scouts at matches of regional lower league clubs trying to invest in young players like Damm or UE Cornellà. But Yamal’s case was rare. He went straight to Baraka.
The story goes like this: One day someone saw him from the stands and then called Barca and said that they should have done a simple test. He took only one and He started training with them in 2014 when he was seven years old.
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Even though he went to school at Granollers and played at La Torreta, Yamal Rocafonda was still at home. There he created a life with his friends and aunts. Even when he later moved to a boarding school at Barcelona’s youth academy in the west of the city, that connection remained.
When he first joined Barça, the club provided a taxi service for him and some other kids to go to training during the week. She would drive him to Barca games on weekends when he was in La Torretta with his mother. When he was with his father, who did not have a car, he was often picked up in the morning by one of his youth coaches, Jordi Font.
“He spends most of his trips sleeping,” said Font, who coached Yamal at Barca’s under-10 side in the 2016-17 season. “At that age, car activity was a time when we had sleeping pills for kids and even travel. He wasn’t much of a talker, only with his teammates. But he was not generally one of the most talkative.
Rocafonda is a neighborhood with mostly new construction in the 1970s. It was a simple working settlement – for local residents and economic migrants from other parts of Spain.
That demographic has changed over the years. Gradually, the first families who arrived in Rocafonda were emptied and many of the buildings left when the people got old because they could not raise any housing. When it was built, the place looked like a modern urban development in a city where the historical part was very old, but in some buildings the construction was not of high quality and renovations were not done. Some apartments still do not have heating.
“This is a neighborhood with a different urban plan, one of the best in the city,” said Maria Maggio, a former teacher and member of the Rocafonda Neighborhood Association.
It is an area with many opportunities but also many limitations.
Rocafonda has a reputation as a troubled area in the wider region due to reports of violence between rival gangs in certain areas or the number of vacant buildings occupied by squatters in recent years. Residents say yes, there can be fights, but overall it’s a safe neighborhood with lots of family life.
“The quality of humanity is very good, but the economic and family conditions are sometimes very difficult,” said Majo. She has worked here for 41 years and has seen how many of the poor family situations in the area have ended up in university.
She believes that since his debut with Barca, Yamal has served as an example to many children who have seen him build a successful future for himself through hard work and dedication.
The past few months have been a whirlwind in Yamal’s life. Compared to Messi, he went from being an unknown teenager to becoming an international star.
He set records: the youngest player to play for Barça for a century, the youngest player to play in La Liga, the youngest player to start a Champions League match, the youngest player to play for Spain, the youngest player to score a goal for Spain.
… and Spain’s youngest scorers
Xavi has become one of the players to reckon with. The Spanish Football Federation was quick to give him the competition – not because he saw it as out of place. He made Barca fans forget about Ousmane Dembele. All this at the age of 16 – he celebrated his birthday in July.
Yamal’s family and those who have followed his remarkable recovery closely say that his special ties to the neighborhood where he grew up are significant. And though his world has changed, his aunt, uncle and grandmother Fatima still live here. His father no longer lives in Rocafonda, but he frequents the trail. He often goes to local bar El Córdobas, where he proudly displays another Yamal Barça shirt.
Many people here claim to know the football player, and each of them points to his humility; How much has changed despite everything. You know that he has not forgotten the narrow streets of Rocafonda, the smell of the sea on the wind, and the three numbers that are part of his identity: three, zero, four.
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(Top photo: Eric Alonso/Getty Images)