When Pedri stumbled through a challenge and swept inside to tee up Dani Ceballos, who crashed a long-range effort off the crossbar, we were given the first taste of the 18-year-old’s talent in Tokyo against Egypt. Only 16 days after Spain’s exit from Euro 2020, at which he was named young player of the tournament, Pedri was back on the pitch at the Olympics for his 66th game in 322 days.
That the Spanish football federation brushed off the protestations of Barcelona and the club’s manager, Ronald Koeman, over the inclusion of their young talent in Luis de la Fuente’s squad for Japan – contrasting starkly with the absence of the Egypt forward Mohamed Salah, who was not released by Liverpool – reflected its intent going into the Games.
Spain won gold in 1992 at the Barcelona Games by beating Poland 3-2 in the final. The team collected silver in Sydney 2000 after they lost to Cameroon on penalties, but they have not reached a final since.
Pedri is one of six members of Spain’s Euro 2020 squad in Tokyo. The Athletic Bilbao goalkeeper Unai Simón also started every match, and the Real Sociedad forward Mikel Oyarzabal scored the final goal in Spain’s thrilling 5-3 defeat of Croatia. Pedri’s clubmate Eric García, Villarreal’s Pau Torres and the RB Leipzig forward Dani Olmo also featured.
It is all well and good for Barcelona to plead for rest for Pedri but they too had fed on his seemingly insatiable desire to play and fielded him 52 times in the 2020-21 season.
The Tenerife-born talent found himself the target of Egyptian attentions in the Sapporo Dome on Thursday, with Akram Tawfik and Emam Ashour keeping a keen eye on him, limiting his time on the ball in the first half and prompting him to play higher in the second.
However, if the gruelling 3,526 mins he played for Barcelona and 14 games for Spain, including three back-to-back bouts of extra time at the Euros, had been wearying it didn’t show. Pedri’s movement and vision seemed as sharp as ever when he did snatch away from his markers and he provided the energy for Spain’s two half-chances of the frustrating scoreless draw on the northernmost Japanese island.
With Australia then Argentina up next Spain will be disappointed not to have opened with three points. Unlike in the women’s tournament, where three groups rather than four mean two third-placed finishers progress, the men’s tournament sees only the top two teams of each section go into the knockout phase.
The sight of Ceballos, the captain, hopping round the perimeter, boot off, at the close of the first half, with Spain having already withdrawn Óscar Mingueza with what looked like a thigh injury, will have dampened the mood further. The link-up play between Ceballos and Pedri had been a highlight before his ankle injury.
In added time Pedri was denied the opportunity to steal a win and the headlines as his half-volley on the edge of the box was blocked by the body of Egypt’s captain, Ahmed Hegazi.
There can be no doubt the midfielder is more than capable of shouldering expectation. What is unclear is whether his body can last the duration of another gruelling campaign not only unscathed but still delivering at the standard to which we have become accustomed. There is pressure on Spain to prove his inclusion was justified and after the draw in Sapporo there is pressure on Pedri and the team going into the next two games.