Marco Asensio's road to Real wasn't easy but he's now poised for greatness
Watch him play and there's an unadulterated freshness to him, a nothing-is-impossible vibe that gets crowds -- even those used to watching Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale and Luka Modric on a weekly basis -- on their feet.
It's fun. It's innocent. It's a kid playing unbridled football and doing it with joy. Sometimes it feels as if Marco Asensio popped out fully formed, perhaps straight from a Japanese cartoon, as if he'd been playing alongside Captain Tsubasa until last year. But that's not who Asensio is or where he comes from. He's 21 years old and his journey thus far has been equal parts predestination and equal parts pain and darkness. Both have contributed to take him this far.
Where do you want to start? The manifest destiny part?
OK. His parents named him Marco -- as in van Basten, the epitome of the graceful, lethal center-forward, who announced his painful retirement from the game following his umpteenth knee operation at just 30 years of age. It was Aug. 17, 1995, and Maria Gertruida Willemsen was four months pregnant with Asensio.
When Asensio was 9, his parents ran into Florentino Perez, the Real Madrid president, and introduced themselves: "Mr. President, this is our son, Marco, and one day he will play for Real Madrid." Florentino himself tells the story.
When Asensio was 18, Rafa Nadal -- who, like Asensio, is from Mallorca and saw him tear up the Spanish second division -- called Florentino, urging him to sign his fellow islander right away. (Yes, all celebrities, legendary tennis players and billionaire club presidents included, know each other.)
At 20, Asensio was one of the last players cut from the defending European champions, Spain, despite having just one season of top-flight football under his belt. Vicente del Bosque called him one of the brightest talents in Spain; nobody disagreed.
Yet there's a flip side, too, one that is not just about a precocious youngster playing up two or three age groups and making his professional debut at 17.
Ex-pros like to tell stories of all the sacrifices -- the blood, sweat and tears -- they made in the name of football. And, yes, it takes hard work to get to the top. No pain, no gain. But Asensio is on a different level to most. As a boy, he suffered from a developmental dysfunction that meant every time he stepped on the pitch to play, the joints in his legs and ankles would flare up angrily. Doctors told his family there was no cure: The issue would resolve itself as he grew older and his body developed.
Adrenaline and the sheer love of football kept him going but he was literally playing through pain, something his father would reveal years later. When Asensio's games ended, there were times when the inflammation was so extreme, he couldn't even walk and had to be carried home.
To someone else, it might have seemed like a his maker was a sadist who enjoyed playing the cruelest of jokes: imbuing a child with an inexhaustible love of football as well as the skills to play it better than most, but at the price of excruciating physical pain.
That was physical pain. A few years later, Asensio took on a different sort of pain when his mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer. She died when he was 15 and unless you experienced something comparable at a similar age, there is no way to begin to understand the sense of loss and grief.
These are the experiences that forged him. It doesn't mean they necessarily made him what he is today, but in a sport where everyone has a foundation myth, a backstory meant to help us understand where they came from, this is his. And perhaps the early adulation did accustom him to the cameras and pressure of playing for Real Madrid. And maybe the pain and loss contributed to the mental toughness we see out there today, the confidence to play with abandon.
Whatever the case, this is the present. And what's evident is that Asensio isn't just Real Madrid's future, he's a big part of the here and now. The fact that he leapfrogged Lucas Vazquez (who did go to Euro 2016) and James Rodriguez to a place on the bench in Cardiff speaks volumes -- as does the fact that Real Madrid didn't push out the boat any further on Kylian Mbappe. Maybe the Monaco wunderkind, despite all the stories of Cristiano Ronaldo posters on his wall, really did want to go home to Paris to be part of the "project" and there was nothing more Real Madrid could have done. But knowing Asensio was around definitely softened the blow.
If Asensio felt nerves, whether for Real Madrid or for Spain -- witness his demolition of Italy in the World Cup qualifier earlier this month -- he doesn't show them. Last month, I spoke to a veteran scout who looked at him long and hard when he was at Mallorca and followed him both on loan at Espanyol and later at Real Madrid.
"Sometimes, with young players at smaller clubs, they're the main man and they're happy to carry the team. They thrive on the responsibility and they stand out because they're simply better than those around them," he told me. "Then, they move up and suddenly there's half a dozen guys ahead of them. Some shrink away and get spooked. Others defer to the stars and end up playing within themselves. They rarely take risks and focus on executing and making the senior players better.
"Asensio is a different type entirely. He works for the team but at the same time, the way he plays, he doesn't look like he has any doubt that he belongs alongside Bale or Ronaldo. He approaches the game as if he was their equal. If anything, he's even better now that he's surrounded by better players."
That's what's so exciting about Asensio. You appreciate the present and he's increasingly important in the here and now, but you marvel at the possibilities ahead. Thirteen (chuck in Isco as well) into 11 doesn't go and by the end of the year, he may well end up coming off the bench more often than he starts. But the anticipation for the day when this team is built around him only whets the appetite further.
Gabriele Marcotti is a Senior Writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.