Warren Zaire-Emery enters the room and a crowd of media flock to him, waving their microphones and cell phones in his direction.
They’ve been waiting for him in the depths of the Parc des Princes, leaning over the bar that separates the players from the press, because yes, he’s actually 17 years old and not a seasoned professional.
And yes, he might still be in school.
And yet he has just spent the evening wowing the home crowd at Paris Saint-Germain and running circles around AC Milan’s UEFA Champions League midfield.
For most of this new experience, which amounts to a barrage of quizzes, Zaire-Emery holds his own, just as he shows remarkable maturity on the pitch for his team. But then, just for a split second, there’s an almost reassuring reminder of his childhood.
He is explaining how he managed to stay on his feet for PSG’s first goal, despite Tijjani Reijnders scoring. the desperate attempts to bring him down and how he held steady enough to pick out Kylian Mbappe, one of the best players in the world, to open the scoring and change the game. “Yeah, I think so,” he says of having used physical means. “So it’s how to get past you, there’s a lot of factors that make, that make…” he pauses, as the enormity of what’s happening finally dawns on him. With a preliminary suggestion from a reporter. “Make a difference?”
“Exactly!” He smiles.
Zaire-Emery, the quiet teenager from Aubervilliers, announced his arrival in the Champions League on Wednesday night. He led the show as PSG returned to winning ways, providing two assists, a return which saw him overtake Theo Walcott as the youngest player to create two goals in European competition. He also became the youngest player to play for PSG in 20 competitive games in just one appearance.
But there was more to this show than just statistics. It was a serious display of elite mentality, the embodiment of inexplicable fortitude and technical ability. Zaire-Emery showed intelligence – able to make interceptions and counter-attack by reading the patterns of the game. But he also combined strength with unmistakable grace, adding a subtle flair to his obvious dexterity, all while appearing perfectly at ease. PSG’s third goal, put away by Lee Kang-In, was the crowning achievement of the night, a whistle-stop tour of all the qualities you’d want to see in an experienced midfielder.
Besides he’s not used to it, he’s not yet an adult.
“He is an unexpected player, young and does everything well, offensively and defensively,” said Luis Enrique. “He has a good vision of the game, he knows how to make decisive passes. At his age, he is a perfect role model for all young people who dream of becoming professionals. I’m very happy for him.”
The PSG coach said earlier in the season that he was lucky to come to the club and have a player of Zaire-Emery’s stature in front of him. From that first moment, the youngster has been integral to his plans. He started all but one of the team’s preseason games and has also played in all but one of the team’s games. The one he missed was this weekend, against Strasbourg, due to injury.
Zaire-Emery is a revelation, but he’s not exactly out of the blue. He made his debut for PSG last year under former coach Christophe Galtier. He was actually brought into first-team training under his predecessor Mauricio Pochettino in 2021, as he was outperforming the under-19s and attracting attention with outstanding UEFA youth league performances. He was only 15 years old then.
A graduate of PSG’s academy, Zaire-Emery grew up in the eastern suburbs of Paris and first played for Aubervilliers, the club coached by his father, Franck. He is a PSG supporter and would go to matches like his brothers. His grandmother was an important influence and he used to play football on a field near her home. After he joined the PSG academy, she would take him to training as well.
At PSG, he immediately stood out. Not just because of his flawless technique but his intelligence on the ball.
“It’s hard to say about one quality, I’m afraid to forget one,” Yohan Cabaye, PSG’s assistant academy director, said The Athletic last month. “He is a real player. Don’t forget his age. What he does, at 17, on the field, not many players can do. Last season I thought, You can throw him on the field and he’ll adjust and he’ll be good. He can play in all teams. In my opinion. Throw him on the field, he can play.”
Galtier tried this last season. Injuries and suspensions meant that he did not have a right back away in Troyes in April so he decided to try Zaire-Emery. Not surprisingly, he excelled. And that’s despite the cacophony of off-field drama that overwhelmed the club at the time, and everything else besides.
Of course, Zaire-Emery was combining training and games with Lionel Messi and Mbappe with school work. “I come to training in the morning and in the afternoon I have no rest, I have to go straight to class and in the evening to study and do well there,” he told Amazon Prime after the victory at Troyes. “I’m taking my baccalaureate (a national academic qualification taken in France at the end of high school) in June and July.”
On the field, he is passing all kinds of tests now and the ratings keep falling. His delicate delivery for PSG’s goal away at Newcastle, a game from which only he emerged with credit to his name, made him the youngest player to register an assist for PSG in the Champions League and the youngest to do so in the competition since Jude Bellingham. for Borussia Dortmund in 2020 (17y 121d). He was also the first player born in 2006 to play in Ligue 1 and became PSG’s youngest ever player when he made his debut against Clermont in August last year.
His rise has not gone unnoticed, including France coach Didier Deschamps, who was in attendance at the Parc des Princes on Wednesday night. Zaire-Emery was made captain of the Under-21 team by Thierry Henry in August, but he seems to have grown out of that role too.
For his club, he is already becoming integral, not least as they begin a new era built around younger and French talent. He is the image of a new generation.
There is a lot of weight to carry, at a club like PSG. But this young player, with limitless potential, seems to be taking it all in stride. “I don’t think it’s a matter of age,” he said after the game. “It’s a matter of mindset.”
(Top photo by Aurelien Meunier – PSG/PSG via Getty Images)
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