It was the season before last, when Eduardo Camavinga was playing for Rennes and still just 17, that an opposition player suggested a shirt swap ‘before he signed for Real Madrid’.
Perhaps nobody should be too surprised that it turned out to be prophetic. On Sunday, fitness permitting, Camavinga will play for Real Madrid against Barcelona, the teenager making his first appearance in El Clasico, club football’s biggest fixture.
This can feel like a tawdry old business at times but the global game still has a way with stories and few are more inspiring than that of Camavinga. The boy born to Congolese parents in a refugee camp in Angola is already France’s youngest player in a century.
This is a rare talent, maybe even the complete midfielder. Sixteen years old when he was named man of the match as Rennes defeated Paris Saint-Germain, progress since has been serene. Real Madrid paid £34.4m for him and few doubt it is a bargain.
Millions will be touched by Camavinga’s tale before his journey is through but his success is felt particularly keenly at AGL-Drapeau Fougeres, the club that nurtured him from the age of 11. Last year, he returned to open the pitch they have already named after him.
Christophe Communier is a teacher by trade but he doubles up as club secretary and was coach of the U13 team in Fougeres when Camavinga joined them at the age of 11. “He was already at a higher level than the others,” Communier tells Sky Sports.
“He was a very good player, of course he was, and that is why he played with the older players. But we could never have imagined at this time that he would go on to become one of the best players in the world with Real Madrid and with France.”
Instead, he remembers a happy boy who loved life at the club.
“He enjoyed everything that he did here. He played football with a smile. He played tennis with his friends. He was always very polite and he still is. I met him again last year and even though he is now a professional player, he came up to me and he was easy to talk to.
“When his schedule permits, he will come here to see friends and to meet the children.”
As Communier talks to Sky Sports, he is overseeing a training session at the club, just 45 minutes from Rennes up the A84. As ever, he is watching over the next group of youngsters who are hoping that they can replicate the journey made by Camavinga.
It is a club with a history of producing talent. Lorient midfielder Fabien Lemoine also spent his formative years at AGL-Drapeau Fougeres. Time, however, like children, can be cruel. “He is 34 now and the children here do not really know him,” says Communier.
“They all know Eduardo Camavinga, especially because he comes back here. To the children, Eduardo is a star. For example, I have got young people in front of me now. A lot of them have a Stade Rennais jersey with the name of Camavinga on the back.
“For the children, it was actually more exciting when Eduardo was at Rennes because it is so close and we feel that link. Real Madrid is so far away. But most of the people here are watching the matches on television, of course. It is the biggest club in the world.”
Camavinga had little memory of his difficult start in life when he arrived at the club. But fresh in the memory was the house fire that he and his family had suffered. “He came to us just after that,” Communier explains. The Camavinga family lost almost everything.
The father turned to the son and told him that he represented their only hope now. Such pressure might have overwhelmed a young boy but there is no indication that it did anything other than inspire. Asked about it since, Camavinga has seemed untroubled.
His maturity has always been remarkable.
“I think it made more of a difference off the pitch than on it,” suggests Communier. “He was always smiling. It was his way. Maybe that was because of his beginning in life. Maybe his parents told him to be happy because of all that they had been through before.”
It is this, his character, that has impressed Carlo Ancelotti.
“Yes, it has surprised me a bit, that is the truth,” said the Real Madrid coach. “We all know the quality he has, physical and technical. Then on the pitch he has shown his personality. We did not know about that. What happens in games does not worry him, he is confident.”
No wonder football does not faze him. Nicknamed Iceman by his team-mates, precocious hardly does Camavinga justice. He ranked among the top 10 tacklers in Ligue 1 last season but he is a difficult player to pin down because he is a passer too, a dribbler even.
The move to Real Madrid was a bold one. He has joined a team in transition but time is a luxury afforded nobody in the Spanish capital. Camavinga’s response to such pressure? A goal within six minutes of his debut against Celta Vigo at the Bernabeu.
Over in Fougeres, the overriding emotions is pride, although perhaps they could be forgiven some disappointment that funding for their role in Camavinga’s development is unlikely to be forthcoming. Communier insists that reports of a windfall are incorrect.
“Most of the newspapers said that we would have hundreds of thousands of euros because of his move to Real Madrid. If he had stayed until he was a bit older before signing the contract with Rennes that would have been the case but he was too young.
“Maybe Stade Rennais will give us money but they do not have to.”
Still, the impact of Camavinga’s success is being felt in other ways. He continues to inspire the young boys and girls on the pitch that now bears his name. Ahead of El Clasico, there is an awareness that just to be part of this young man’s extraordinary story is a privilege.
“When you ask the children here who are six or seven, what they want to be when they are older, they all say the same thing.
“They all want to be Eduardo Camavinga.”