Friday 18 March 2022, 15:00

The meteoric rise of record-breaking Malu

  • Malu Gaspar made history by debuting for Braga’s first team on Sunday

  • The 15-year-old had never even been on the books of a football club until recently

  • Her sensational rise includes representing Portugal’s U-16s

Oh, to be 14 again. “I loved that time in my life,” said Maria Luiza Gaspar, a nostalgic smile on her face. Malu, as she’s better known, enjoyed strolling along the picturesque sands of Vila do Conde, a secretive paradise in northern Portugal, hanging out with her friends, scrolling through on social media, watching Netflix and kicking a ball around on weekends. “It all seems like a lifetime ago,” she told FIFA of a lifestyle she had, astonishingly, until a few months back. One of those aforementioned hobbies, indeed, led to her doing none of the others anymore. Malu turned 15 in November, earned her first international call-up in December, debuted and dazzled for the Portugal U-16s in January, was promoted to the Braga B squad in February and, on Sunday, shattered the 101-year-old record books of Sporting Clube de Braga, becoming the youngest player, of either gender, to represent the first team.

“There’s no way of believing all this has happened to me,” exclaimed Malu. “It’s incredible. Things really have happened so, so quickly. We all dream but I couldn’t have possibly dreamed all this would happen as quickly as it has.” Malu was born in Niteroi, which is separated from Rio de Janeiro by Guanabara Bay and is known as ‘Smile City’. There was only one thing that made her smile as a kid. “Ever since I was really young, the only thing I wanted to do when I wasn’t at school was mess around with a football,” she said. “That’s what made me happiest. I have loved kicking a ball around with my sister for as long as I can remember.”

Malu’s smile was temporarily straightened in 2016 when, suddenly, her father told the family they would be relocating to Portugal, where his parents lived, while he did a master’s degree. The sisters may have been sceptical, but they quickly fell in love with the Iberian country. To their delight, so did their parents. A six-month stay turned into permanent residence and, for Malu, the quintessential life of a teenage girl… until recently. “My life has changed drastically,” she explained. “This year I’ve been called into the first-team squad and have training every day. “I have to go to school and then I have training. My friends are always complaining that I can’t hang out with them anymore. I really wish I could, I miss them, but this is what I want from life and know that I have to remain completely dedicated. “My focus was never to become the youngest player, to break some record. My focus has always been becoming a professional. “It’s obviously a really nice landmark and I’m really happy, but I won’t let this go to my head. I know I have to keep working hard, to keep getting better and better so that I get more opportunities with Braga and the national team.”

Her first international call-up is something Malu will never forget. “It was indescribable,” said the girl who idolises Cristiano Ronaldo. “It’s the dream of every player to get called up by their country. I was beyond happy. I cried my eyes out with emotion. “It was funny because I’d just started having lunch when I got the message. I was stunned – I didn’t even know the national team knew who I was. I felt so nervous – but that nice nervousness, you know – that I couldn’t eat any more! (laughs)"

Malu Gaspar lines up with the Portugal U-16s

That lunch may have been wasted, but Malu’s first audition in the red of A Selecção das Quinas certainly wasn’t. She dazzled as Portugal pocketed three victories from four games, including one that made history in February. “No Portugal women’s team, from any age category, had ever beaten Germany,” said Malu of the 2-0 win in February. “Beating them was an indescribable sensation. It was an extraordinary feat. I don’t have words to explain how happy we were. “But it was the result of our hard work: the coaches, the players. We proved that we can down any national team.” The next age-group up are carrying on the baton as they go in search of a place at the FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup India 2022™. Despite being a Pot 3 side, they thrashed Pot 2 representatives Finland 6-0 to reach the next phase of European qualifying, where Ines Simas was unplayable as they sunk Italy 2-1 on Wednesday in their Group A7 opener. “Look, I’ve just broken into the U-16s and I’m very happy,” she said. “But, yes, I do dream of the U-17 World Cup. It would be amazing.”

Malu nevertheless has a grander fantasy: to play alongside her sister Maria Antonia, a deep-lying forward, 20, who boasts a wicked shot and had represented Portugal at youth level, in a UEFA EURO or a FIFA Women’s World Cup™. “My sister is my best friend,” she said. “Everything I’ve learnt in football is down to her. All the plays, the mentality, everything. She always took the time to explain everything to me – what was right, what was wrong. This was huge for my evolution and I’ll always be grateful. “She’s an outstanding player. I’ve always played with her, but I’ve only just started playing with her in matches, properly. It’s incredible. She’s just returned from a long injury and playing alongside her was really special. It would be incredible to go to a big tournament with her.” Just imagine the Gasaprs' dining table if that was to happen...