Kendry Paez: The precocious South American sensation Chelsea are set to spend more than £17m to sign
The finest footballing exports from the continent of South America are invariably associated with either Brazil or Argentina, but one precocious Ecuadorian is out to change the narrative.
Kendry Paez has long mixed it with the big boys. Having outgrown both the Under-17 and Under-19 sides, the attacking midfielder has already made his first-team breakthrough for Independiente del Valle in his home country at just 15 years old, inevitably drawing the attention of some of Europe's elite in the process.
A move to Chelsea beckons when Paez turns 18 in 2025, but his focus has recently been on national team duties at the South American U17 Championship on home soil - and he has been shining bright.
Ecuador currently lead the standings in the final stage, and in just seven games their 15-year-old talisman has provided six assists and scored once in a truly remarkable individual tournament.
It feels strange to look back at the origins of a career that's still in its infancy, but Paez has come so far in such a short time.
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Where it all began
Paez has come a long way, both metaphorically and geographically, in his budding career.
Born in Ecuador's second city, Guayaquil, in 2007, the midfielder took a huge leap of faith aged 11 by joining Independiente del Valle's academy in Sangolqui on the outskirts of the capital Quito, 260km to the north.
He played for three clubs at youth level before making his big move, including for Barcelona - the most successful team in Ecuador and one of Independiente's biggest rivals.
Paez's willingness to leave his hometown at such a tender age reflects the fearlessness he shows on the pitch; this is a player who is determined to succeed no matter what it takes.
- Getty Images
The big break
Paez's name has been on people's lips for some time in his home country - perhaps indicative of the huge expectation on his shoulders in a nation that isn't known for producing world-class talent.
However, it was in consecutive youth tournaments in the summer of 2022 that he made himself known to the world, including some of Europe's elite.
In July, Independiente's U18s won the Copa Milo on their home ground, and Paez was the star. With scouts from the likes of Barcelona, Real Madrid, Manchester City, Manchester United and Borussia Dortmund in attendance, the 15-year-old scored a brace in the final against Colombia's Atletico Nacional - sweeping home two fine finishes from the edge of the box in the first half.
The following month, he was voted outstanding player at the 2022 Next Generation Trophy in Salzburg, where Independiente's U15s defeated youth teams from the likes of Inter and RB Leipzig before suffering defeat in the final.
Paez's most telling contribution was an audacious lob from inside the centre circle against Leipzig. The ball didn't bounce once before hitting the back of the net.
How it's going
At just 15 years old, it seems Paez's days in Independiente's youth teams are already behind him.
His exploits in the U18s last year earned him a place in the first-team squad ahead of the 2023 Ecuadorian Serie A season, which got underway in February, as Independiente fast-tracked him amid interest from Manchester United and Borussia Dortmund.
He marked his debut against Mushuc Runa in style on the opening day, producing an instinctive, first-time volley to lob the goalkeeper and round off the scoring in a 3-1 victory, becoming both the youngest debutant and goalscorer in Ecuadorian top-flight history.
Having only been left out of La Tri's most recent U20 squad to aid his first-team transition with Independiente, Paez has been representing Ecuador at the aforementioned South American U17 Championship for the past month - and he seized the rare opportunity to shine for his country on home soil, captaining the side twice despite being just 15.
The midfielder has six assists and a goal in just seven game so far, including two against Brazil and his strike against Argentina. Ecuador remarkably lead the standings on goal difference in the final stage, and Paez has been a huge part of that despite a red card against Chile.
- Getty Images
Paez possesses all the attributes you would seek in a modern attacking midfielder; he has dazzling technical dribbling ability, his excellent vision lends itself to pinpoint passing, his feather touch helps him glide past opponents, and he is adept from dead-ball situations thanks to his wand of a left foot.
His height, too, is a significant advantage. According to Target Scouting, Paez already stands at 5'8 (173cm) and, given he is only 15, he still has plenty of room to grow. His rangy frame makes him a formidable opponent at youth level as he towers over average-height youngsters around him and make good use of his physical dominance.
Beyond all of that, though, he evidently has that elite mentality that can so often be the difference between success and failure when a player is first breaking through, and that is reflected in his ability and willingness to mix it with players who are several years his senior, and even lead them on the pitch.
That is something his club manager, Martin Anselmi, has perceived in him: "In Kendry we find someone daring. A boy who asks for it. He is 15 years old and he doesn't care who is in front of him, and he asks for it," he told Ole recently.
"He is different type of player. It is the first time that I have seen such a small boy and that...'Well, let's see, what are you made of', and he shows you, he challenges you."
In a previous interview, Anselmi added: "It is not normal for a 15-year-old boy in the first division to have earned the respect of the soccer world in such a short time.
"He runs, recovers, interprets the game, he is very intelligent to play. When we ask him to get into a certain position to generate an advantage, he does it. All his movements are trained, he takes them carried out perfectly, understands the game very well and is a guy who is very down to earth in all those ways".
Room for improvement
While Paez's mentality is clearly considered a major strength, some facets of it have also been called into question as he makes swift progress in his career.
Like some of the world's very best players, the teenager can struggle to keep a lid on his temper and is prone to launching tirades at his team-mates if they make a mistake, although that is something he seems to have worked on over time.
His discipline could also be considered a red flag. Paez was booked on his Independiente first-team debut, and picked up a straight red card before the hour mark against Chile at the South American U17 Championship for kicking out at an opponent. Although it was soft, he should have known better as captain.
The attacking midfielder has been guilty of overplaying in his own half too, holding onto possession for too long and eventually losing the ball. Though that would be excusable if he showed the willingness to win it back immediately, Paez has also been criticised for not tracking back.
The next...Jamal Musiala?
Paez has grown up studying the dribbling styles of compatriot and former Independiente winger Gonzalo Plata and, of course, Lionel Messi - even trying to imitate the former's ball-carrying technique.
However, when you consider his position, height, dribbling ability and vision, perhaps the most comparable players currently plying their trade at the highest level are Bayern Munich's Jamal Musiala, and - to a lesser extent - Dominik Szoboszlai of RB Leipzig.
Both Bundesliga stars are adept ball-carriers despite not possessing that low centre of gravity that is so often associated with the best dribblers around, and they supplement that with end product.
Although there is perhaps more trickery in his game, Musiala is at his best in tight spaces and is fearless in the face of multiple defenders, either finding a way through them or picking a pass.
If Paez can reach a similar level, he stands to become one of the biggest names in European football in the years to come.
What comes next?
According to Fabrizio Romano, it is Chelsea who have won the race to sign the precocious Paez when he turns 18 in May 2025, with a deal already in place with Independiente.
A fee that could rise to £17.6m ($21.9m) demonstrates the faith Chelsea have in the teenager becoming a leading talent as he prepares to join their burgeoning ranks of young players.
From Independiente's point of view, they have little doubt that their latest gem will succeed in Europe if he continues on his current trajectory, but he shouldn't be in a rush.
"Enjoy, because one day you're going to be 18 years old, and you're going to leave, and you won't have experienced all this, and it's going to pass you by," Anselmi said. "And don't think that you already won the world, this is every day.
"Because with your talent, yes... If you continue to be this committed boy, who trains well, who listens, he's going to do very well. Now, if you lose it, not that way. So, that is: try to always have your feet on the ground, because he is still a boy who played a good game today, but when he has a bad game, what are we going to say: 'In the end, this 15-year-old boy doesn't…'. We are like that. So, to try to keep the balance, with him, for better and for worse."
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