Diego Lainez is heading to Europe, having signed with Real Betis on Thursday.
Club America sporting director Santiago Banos said earlier in the offseason that the player was close to a move and made it clear that the Liga MX side would not stand in his way.
He proved his good as his word, paving the way for the Mexico international to pen a five-and-a-half-year contract with Betis.
The transfer represents the realisation of “a dream” for Lainez, who has never made any secret of his desire to play in one of Europe’s elite leagues.
But what will Betis be getting out of the deal? Will the 18-year-old Lainez prove an instant success in Spain like his compatriot Hirving Lozano in Netherlands?
In contrast to Lozano, we’ve yet to see a full body of work from Lainez. His league debut came when he was just 16, quite literally by accident.
America manager Ricardo La Volpe is used to giving minutes to young players and was looking to hand Costa Rican U-20 Gerson Torres some playing time in March of 2017 against Cruz Azul.
However, he soon found out that Torres hadn’t been registered with the senior team for that tournament and had to press Lainez into starting duty instead.
Since then, he’s been used sporadically by La Volpe and Miguel Herrera, his successor at America.
The glimpses of brilliance he showed in 2018 with America, in his first two games with the Mexico senior national team and with youth national teams at both the Concacaf U-20 Championship and in the summer at the Toulon Tournament, prompted many excited observers to hype up the diminutive but technically gifted Lainez as the long-awaited ‘Mexican Messi’.
Lionel Messi has been an inspiration to hundreds of rising stars, and the number of players who look to imitate his playing style must be in the tens of thousands.
Yet with Lainez, you actually can see the influence. It goes beyond simply being creative, small and left-footed.
“I really identify with him,” Lainez told Goal in 2016. “I really like his style of play, and I try to learn from him and do some of the things he does.
“I look to take players on a lot, play a lot of one-twos, but I also like to shoot from distance.
“I can play behind the No.9 or as a midfielder. Whatever is needed, I do it, and I can use both feet very well.”
It’s an accurate self-assessment of his profile but making such a momentous move at just 18 is obviously fraught with danger.
Lainez needs regular game time at this stage in his development but that will not be easy at Betis. Indeed, it is worth noting that he was not even a regular starter for America.
Lainez also will need to become a more physical player, though that will come with age and getting into a strength program at a top European club.
Improving his tracking back, getting more comfortable using his body, going against players bigger and tougher than him and fine-tuning a shot that has yet to yield an amazing goal haul will be the top priorities for Lainez as he starts his new life in La LIga.
Essentially, the ceiling for Lainez is incredibly high, as high as the expectations surrounding him. Indeed, it has already been argued in Mexico that leaving at such a young age could be a good thing, as it means he will avoid some of the issues that have dogged those who have gone before him.
Some of his predecessors suffered under the pressure of being labelled the country’s next big star and the hope that is that by moving abroad now, Lainez will actually be afforded more time and patience to grow as a player, and as a person.
Such an approach has certainly worked out well for Jesus “Tecatito” Corona, who pushed out of Monterrey at a young age, fought for a starting place in the Netherlands and now is starting with Porto in the Champions League.
Despite the success of Corona and Lozano, though, there’s no guarantee Lainez is on the path to stardom. Other America players who recently made the jump have struggled to find a place to call home, like Diego Reyes, or been late bloomers, like Raul Jimenez.
Still, Lainez’s move to Europe should be seen as good news for Mexico national team fans, even if they never got to see his best up close with America.
He has made a bold move at a very tender age but it could well prove the most significant step on a journey that everyone involved hopes will end with Lainez becoming a star for both Betis and El Tri.