A few years ago, you would have been justified for thinking that Nolito's career would wind up going nowhere. In the middle of 2013, he was coming off an unspectacular loan spell at Granada after a good-but-not-great year and a half with Benfica in Portugal. He was sold to Celta Vigo for a song, and it looked like he would be just another decent player scuffling from team to team.
Then something happened: Nolito became really good.
Something clicked for Nolito, then 26, when he got to Celta. The tricky winger had always shown flashes of the potential that once interested Barcelona, but rarely did he consistently do much with it. At Celta, though, Luis Enrique finally seemed to find the key to unlock Nolito, who quickly emerged as one of Celta's best players.
Even after Enrique left to lead Barcelona, Nolito continued to flourish, and he's scored 37 league goals for them from the wing in the last three years. More than that, though, Nolito finally broke into the Spanish national team, and the early results have him performing as one of their best players.
For years, the Spanish national team was something of a superstars club, the best Spaniards from Barcelona, Real Madrid and the Premier League's biggest clubs. It was a dream team in most every sense of the word, and between 2008 and 2012 they dominated, winning the last two European Championships and a World Cup in between. In the last couple of years, though, age has caught up to them, and they've found it difficult to integrate new talent into the squad effectively.
Enter Nolito, who is now 29 and well into the prime of his career, a prime that may wind up being extended by his slow start. He earned his first senior Spain cap in late 2014 after his country's embarrassing failure in the World Cup that summer, and he's quickly established himself as a viable attacking option, scoring four goals in nine caps before Euro 2016 began, including a brace against Bosnia and Herzegovina during their warmup friendlies in May.
Those performances saw Nolito earn himself a starting role in the Euros, and Spain has been all the better for it. He was one of their few positive performers in a late 1-0 win over the Czech Republic in their first match, and in Friday's 3-0 win over Turkey he was one of their brightest stars, setting up Alvaro Morata's first goal mere moments before scoring one himself to bury Turkey before the first half was even over.
Credit: user BrutonSpenstar on r/soccer
His dynamic and ever-dangerous presence on the left wing has forced teams to play Spain more honestly instead of just packing the middle to bog down La Roja's possession game, now having to account for Nolito instead so as to not over-expose themselves. He's filled a huge hole in their side, and done it without Spain's usual star power.
From Barcelona hopeful to second-division castoff to journeyman to one of the best players in the Spanish national team at a major tournament. It's been a long and bizarre path for Nolito, but given where it's taken him he probably wouldn't trade one bit of that journey for anything else.