Lyon's Rayan Cherki, 16, has Kylian Mbappe purring over his potential
On Thursday, the day after a very disappointing and underwhelming scoreless Ligue 1 draw at home to Amiens, the official Lyon website published an interesting article. It was entitled: Cherki, the light in the dark. The piece highlighted the impressive entrance into that game of 16-year-old Rayan Cherki. The OL academy prodigy came on in the 66th minute and created more chances and brought more spark than the rest of his teammates combined in 90 minutes. He hit the post with a remarkable volley and forced Regis Gurtner into a great save from his long-range shot.
"He brought a lot of energy. He was dangerous and dropped deep to get the ball and create danger," manager Rudi Garcia said of his teenage charge after the game. "He has so much quality."
After the final whistle, the boos rained down from the disheartened supporters, but not for Cherki. He received an ovation.
The article on the club's website was taken down very quickly because as much as it praised Cherki, it was very critical of the rest of the team and Garcia after such a poor result. Nevertheless, the Lyon fans know that they have a gem in their squad. You don't burst onto the scene like Cherki did without having something special. He is not a 16-year-old that you play because of a raft of injuries. In a top team such as Lyon, you play a 16-year-old because he is absolutely breathtaking.
Cherki has always been something of a genius. He made history in the UEFA Youth League (the U19 Champions League) by becoming the youngest player to score in the competition at 15. In every age group of France youth teams, he was always the best and always playing a year or two above. Yet 16 is still so young. When he made his professional debut earlier this season, coming on in the 83rd minute in October at home against Dijon, he became the first player born in 2003 to play in Ligue 1 and the second after Liverpool's Harvey Elliott to feature in one of Europe's big five leagues. It was the destiny of a gifted kid.
In January, in the Coupe de France game against Nantes, he scored two and assisted on two more. On this occasion, he became the youngest player in Lyon history to score a brace for the first team. The next day, he was on the front page of L'Equipe with the headline: "Cherki show!" No other 16-year-olds -- not even Kylian Mbappe -- had that honour. At that age, actually, the 2018 World Cup winner had yet to make his professional debut.
After the game Mbappe tweeted: "Don't speak too much about age," with a picture of Cherki and his match stats. Fair to say he already has the approval of the PSG superstar.
It is fair to say that even among his teammates, there is a wow factor. When he first joined the squad in the summer for preseason, some jaws dropped over what he was doing in training.
"From the first day, I have been so impressed," Martin Terrier said. "He is polite and mature. He is focused and listens on and off the pitch. Alongside with his talent, this is his big strength."
The work ethic and the determination might come from his family. Cherki's father, Fabrice, was a good technical player in the Lyon area. He was always mad about football, and he projected the career he never had onto his sons. He has five boys, and football runs in their blood. Rayan is the middle child and probably the most talented. The eldest went to the Evian and Nimes academies but never made it as a pro. The second will become an agent to deal with his brother's career, and the younger two -- aged 5 and 8 -- are already very good players. Next to all these boys, their mum oversees everything.
The Cherkis have a good example to follow: the Mbappes. The two families are actually quite close, and there are worse mentors than Kylian and his parents when you are a football prodigy. At 16, the world is Cherki's oyster.
"He will go from strength to strength, but he is only 16," said Anthony Lopes, the Lyon goalkeeper who has followed the teenager's progress for the past 10 years. "He needs to get some experience, to work at training. But so far, he has showed everyone that he has the talent but also broad shoulders to be consistent over a season."
Perhaps the best story to sum up Lyon's No. 18 comes from Roger Martinez, his first coach at L'AS Saint-Priest: "When I was first saw him, he was 6 years old. He could do everything with the ball already. He was unbelievable. He could do keepie uppies with both feet. For me, he is a genius. He has always played with boys two years older than him. Everybody knew he would make it because he was so special."
Ten years later, Cherki is following in the footsteps of the great players produced by the Lyon academy, such as Hatem Ben Arfa, Karim Benzema, Alexandre Lacazette and Nabil Fekir. Remember Cherki's name -- he might just be the next in line at Lyon.