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Exactly a year ago Wednesday, on Sept. 18, 2018, Ansu Fati couldn’t get a game with kids his own age. It was the UEFA Youth League, Barcelona in their soon-to-be-demolished Mini Estadi, against PSV Eindhoven.
Today, he has become the youngest footballer to score for the senior team in the Camp Nou. He has somehow managed to vault over Joao Felix to become the “it kid” of world football, and it’ll be not only a surprise but also a disappointment to romantics everywhere if he doesn’t get game time against Borussia Dortmund in the Champions League on Tuesday.
Football, not to mention Ansu, is truly a remarkable phenomenon, a dream maker in the way that boxing once was.
Three hundred sixty-four days ago, it was a 10-minute cameo for a precocious then-15-year-old. On Saturday, during the 5-2 defeat of Valencia, it was announced by the Spain national team coach that Ansu is being persuaded to commit to a future with La Roja, having lived in the country long enough to qualify as naturalised.
It’s last weekend’s goal and assist against Los Che that are on most people’s lips. But I swear, you can take your pick of the standout moments since three weeks ago, when with 12 minutes left against Real Betis, Ernesto Valverde opted to ignore the claims of Samuel Umtiti, Ivan Rakitic and Arthur on the Barca bench and introduce Ansu to what is — now — an adoring world.
Please take note: Valverde didn’t put Ansu on because there was nobody else deserving of the remaining time against an already crushed Betis. Nor because there was a striker crisis. Carles Perez had done extremely well, and Antoine Griezmann was strutting around his new, and tinsel-strewn, stage. Nobody — and I mean nobody — would have complained had 16-year-old Ansu been left to remember a special day when he was called up to the first-team squad but left with nothing but memories — rather than minutes.
Valverde put him on because he’s exceptional.
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Immediately, Ansu gave notice as to why Manchester United, at the head of a long queue, devoted significant man hours and were ready to invest huge financial resources in trying to prise the striker from Barcelona’s academy last June. Quite frankly, there was a stage in the spring of 2019 when United would have been forgiven for thinking they were going to get their man. Excuse me: their boy.
Back to that in a second.
When he came on against Betis, Ansu played startlingly: young but patently mature; slight, as a 16-year old should be, but tough enough to hold off grown men as they jostled and pressed him; possessed with really sharp acceleration and lovely technical skills but smart enough to pass or trot back to cover when the rules of La Masia training said he should; also confident enough to produce a little bundle of dribbles, one-v-one jousts and one sizzling shot that nearly brought him a goal.
He didn’t just know the rules. He knew what he was capable of, and he felt at home instantly. That’s for the privileged of talent and mentality. It looked like football’s version of Freaky Friday — a 28-year-old in an adolescent’s body.
What Ansu didn’t look like was the last 16-year-old to make such a head-turning impact on world football when he burst into the first team: Wayne Rooney. Or even the physically much more powerful Kylian Mbappe.
I recently listened to Rooney admitting that if he hadn’t spent his life, by the tender age of 16, around boxing — training, understanding what constitutes real toughness, learning to hit and be hit — then “I’d never have been able to cope with being promoted to Everton’s first team so young.” Rooney went on to do pretty well, if you consider 16 major trophies, including the Champions League, and becoming England’s all-time leading scorer notable achievements.
But Ansu hasn’t had that Golden Gloves life; no sweaty gym, no jumping rope, no gum-shields and sparring. He has had La Masia, which is a funny old part of the Ansu story — such as it is so far.
I was at the ceremony in October 2011 when Barca’s new Oriol Tort Masia was opened — an €11 million investment where talented kids could be accommodated, schooled, fed, kept safe, developed and, generally, taught “the Barca way.” Recently, against a background of even this new, advanced and very promising facility producing precisely zero footballers for the first team in the subsequent eight years, a very long, exhaustively detailed and pretty critical report was published in the Catalan media. The reliable Xavi Torres, in the newspaper ARA, painted a pretty desolate picture: space meant for talented sports kids converted into offices; emotional well-being training courses flopping; elite kids, with home bases too far away to travel to Barcelona training, left in hotels because La Masia’s rooms (accommodations for just more than 40 footballers instead of the planned 83 when the facility opened) were often occupied by young players who’d been loaned out to lower-grade local teams or who were substitute material in the Barcelona youth system. Not elite.
Anyway, you get the picture.
However, it was the very existence of La Masia — a residence that would be safe, paid for and educational and that bore the world-famous stamp of the Barca academy — that persuaded Ansu’s dad, when the family were ready to leave their original Spanish home of Sevilla, to move to the Camp Nou and not the Santiago Bernabeu.
“Madrid offered more money. They offered a house for the family, everything, but when I went to Valdebebas, they didn’t have a residence for their young players, and Barcelona did. So when Albert Puig [now an assistant at New York City FC] persuaded me that they had a better project we chose Barca,” Ansu’s father, Bori, told Cope Radio.
Real Madrid offered higher rewards, but it was the availability of a well-renowned residence that won the day for the Fati family. When that facility opened, Pep Guardiola said, “If there’s one thing that can never stop at Barca, it’s the Cantera [youth system].” His words echo from then to now as the club discovers that, potentially, it has a new Cantera super talent on its hands.
Please go back and watch Ansu’s moments in the first team, if you will. He makes decisions in exactly the same way as people such as Andres Iniesta, Xavi, Pedro, Sergio Busquets, Sergi Roberto, Cesc Fabregas and Lionel Messi were taught to in years gone by. Also, go check the moment in training while both Messi and Luis Suarez are injured when Ansu scores with a midair, back-heel volley. Valverde is watching, and you can almost hear his jaw drop and his brain think: “I’m the luckiest coach in the universe. This kid’s getting more game time against Osasuna!”
Whatever has gone awry in the La Masia system, residence and football education, enough has gone right with Ansu’s development that what we are witnessing is not simply an astonishing, all-time freak of footballing nature. So-called Barca DNA has been drilled into him.
I wonder, in light of what we are seeing from this ambidextrous, confident, centre-of-attention kid — who, it would seem, is being firmly tucked under the arm of the Messi family when it comes to evolving his career — what is going through the minds of people such as Xavi Simons, Eric Garcia and Take Kubo.
Let’s start with the wonderful Japanese talent. Their ages differ slightly, but he and Ansu formed an absolutely jaw-dropping attack partnership for Barcelona’s youth teams before the FIFA ban meant Kubo was repatriated. Eventually, though some believe Barcelona’s now-sacked general manager Pep Segura could have worked harder to re-sign Kubo, the bewitching forward chose to move to Real Madrid when reentering Spanish football. He’s now on loan at Mallorca and having to work hard to get game time.
Garcia, too, played some matches with the emerging Ansu, who’s nearly three years his junior (Garcia will be 20 in January). But when faced with temptation from Manchester City, Garcia chose in January 2018 to move to the Etihad Campus. Admittedly, now that Aymeric Laporte will miss the next six months with a knee injury, the Catalan might get more opportunities, but he has just three senior appearances for Guardiola’s first team — the same number as Ansu has for Barcelona.
Then there’s Simons. A tad younger than the striker who now has two goals and an assist in the whirlwind time since his debut three weeks ago, the Dutch kid with the Sideshow Bob hair, the massive social media profile and the super-agent Mino Raiola must be wondering: “Should I really have bust out of Barca and headed for Paris Saint-Germain if Ansu is already getting this kind of opportunity?”
Perhaps all three of these young bucks will thrive and Ansu will find the road forward rocky. You never know. But it’s not hype to state that, currently, we are watching an outright phenomenon.
There are no guarantees that he will enjoy 16 or 17 years of the quality and achievement that whiz kid forebears of his type — Rooney, Messi, Raul, Ronaldo or even the ascendant Mbappe — have racked up. However, the safer bet — taking into account who this kid is, how he plays, what he’s been taught, the family behind him and the influence of wise heads such as Messi, Busquets and Gerard Pique — is that he probably will.
And that’s not hype. That’s appreciation of someone who has already made history. Football, the greatest sport ever invented, will just keep on doing this to us. Thank heavens.