Soccer  

Barcelona’s Ansu Fati set to shine for Spain at World Cup

Anssumane Fati, better known as Ansu, only turned 20 on Halloween (Oct. 31) but has already experienced more highs and lows than many players will during their entire careers. In Qatar, as part of Luis Enrique’s Spain squad and playing at his first international tournament, he is looking to tick off the ultimate high in football by winning the World Cup.

Not even Lionel Messi, the player whose No. 10 shirt he inherited at Barcelona, has won the game’s biggest prize. Many feel Messi’s career deserves a World Cup trophy, but Ansu could be forgiven for thinking he is also due a break after effectively losing the last two years of his own career through injuries.

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The prodigious forward left Guinea-Bissau for Seville aged six; left his parents in Seville to move to Barcelona at 10; broke his leg in two places aged 13; made his first team debut at 16; and became the youngest scorer in the Champions League and a Spain international at 17. But just as he was getting started, he was cut down at the cruelest time, for both himself and Barca, who were about to have a Messi-sized hole to fill.

Ansu finally returned to full fitness this season, but Barca coach Xavi Hernandez is managing his minutes carefully. He has started just five games in all competitions, appearing off the bench in 15, and there are legitimate questions about how injuries will influence his present and future.

Luis Enrique had enough doubts about Ansu to leave him out of the squad in October. But his goal-scoring exploits throughout his short career convinced the Spain coach he could be needed in Qatar. ‘Tiene gol,’ they say in Spain. Literally: He has goal. This is his journey to the World Cup.

Ansu was born in 2002 in Guinea-Bissau, which was a Portuguese colony until 1974. On the west coast of Africa, the country is one of the smallest on the continent in terms of both population and area. Nearly 70% of the 1.9 million population live below the poverty line and 25% of inhabitants suffer from chronic malnutrition. They are also football crazy, just like the countries that surround them.

Sources close to Ansu say he never stopped playing. Most kids in Guinea-Bissau don’t get the chance to harness their talent elsewhere, but that opportunity knocked for Ansu when he moved to Seville at the age of six.

While Ansu had been playing wherever, whenever and however he could in Guinea-Bissau, his father, Bori, had been working in Europe. Sources say he played lower-league football in Portugal, but he was never going to make a living from the game. He eventually found work in the small Spanish town of Herrera and, in 2008, after obtaining the necessary paperwork, he brought the rest of his family over.

Ansu is one of six children, three boys and three girls. The youngest, Miguelito, was born in Spain. He is now also part of Barca’s academy. The older brother, Braima, was also at Barcelona. However, after reaching the B team, he gradually dropped down the pyramid.

Due to working away, Bori was not aware of Ansu’s talent. The residents of Herrera soon were, though. Jose Luis Perez Mena, the director of the Escuela de Futbol Peloteros, was told by some friends about a young kid tearing it up in the local sports hall. He was already acquainted with Bori, so when he found out it was Ansu, he quickly brought him into his football school.

“He didn’t have his own ball or anything in Guinea-Bissau,” Perez Mena told ESPN ahead of the World Cup. “They were a poor family. They came to Spain without anything really. We bought him some boots and some kit; when we saw him playing it was something completely out of the ordinary. I have never seen anything like it.

“It was such a huge surprise. He had to play with kids three years older because those that were his age could not compete with him. I remember in one tournament, he played the first game and told me he would not play anymore because it was not a challenge for him. There was so much difference between him and the others that he got bored.”

Some originally thought that Braima, four years older than Ansu, was the better player. He was actually the player that Barca came for first, eventually taking both brothers. For Perez Mena, there were never such doubts.

“Braima was very good but more of a team player,” he adds. “He did well at Barca but with Barca B, he hit a ceiling and didn’t go any further. He was a good player, disciplined, but Ansu was something completely different. I have been in football for 50 years and I have never seen anything like it. I have never seen anything like Ansu in my life.”

Perez Mena describes a “cheeky but good kid” who took care of his teammates and was clearly aware of his ability. At one tournament in Madrid, Ansu’s last with the Escuela de Futbol Peloteros, they stayed at the houses of host teams. The team Ansu stayed with were one of the worst in the competition. He asked Perez Mena if they could let them win a game.

“I told him no,” Perez Mena laughs. “In the end, when we played them, he didn’t score and we drew the game. Then we had to play Atletico [Madrid], Getafe, Rayo [Vallecano] and he told me ‘I’ll fix this…’ and he fixed it. He scored at least four goals in each game, we were champions, he was named the best player at the tournament and the top scorer. Then he went off to Barcelona.”

After four years in Herrera, Ansu moved to Barcelona, leaving his parents behind shortly before turning 11. He had briefly played for Sevilla, his local LaLiga team in the south of Spain, but they stopped playing him when it became apparent he would join Barca. Teams had regularly watched Ansu as word spread about his exploits at the Escuela de Futbol Peloteros, but Barca had an ally in Perez Mena.

“It was crazy,” he remembers. “[Real] Madrid, Barcelona, Villarreal, Espanyol, Almeria, Zaragoza and loads more teams all asked about him. We wanted him to go to Barca because we knew La Masia would be the best [for his development]. That’s what we advised Bori and we spoke with Albert Puig, the coordinator at Barcelona’s academy at the time, and they took both brothers, first Braima and then Ansu.”

Ansu only had Braima for company until his mother, Lurdes, and other siblings followed a year or so later. His dad would move permanently in 2018. However, he quickly struck up relationships on the pitch as part of a youth team that included Japan’s Takefusa Kubo and Spain’s Eric Garcia, two other players at the World Cup in Qatar.

“He missed his family, but he settled well at La Masia,” his first Barca coach, Dani Horcas, tells ESPN. “In his first year with us, we won everything, except one game, which we drew at Espanyol. We won it all: the league and every single tournament we played in. Everything. It was seven-a-side and Ansu was one of the two midfielders. Take Kubo was ahead of him and they had an incredible understanding.”

Ansu became addicted to that winning feeling.

“He trained really well because he is such a competitive player, but we had to reel him in at times,” Horcas smiles. “He did not like losing. He wanted to win every mini-game in training, every passing drill, positional games… everything.”

Ansu’s race through La Masia was halted in 2015, though, when he broke his leg in two places in a derby against Espanyol. He was out of action for almost a year. Horcas says the injury hit him hard, but if everything happens for a reason, perhaps that time early in his career prepared him for the toils to come later.

You can have all the talent in the world, but you often need some luck to make it to the top. Or at least to make it to the top as quickly as Ansu did. With Messi, Luis Suarez and Ousmane Dembele all injured, then-Barca coach Ernesto Valverde surprisingly drafted Ansu into the squad for a LaLiga game against Real Betis in 2019.

That same summer, youth team coach Victor Valdes, the former Barca goalkeeper, had to personally buy Ansu new boots while the U19s played in Russia because his were not fitting of a player of his caliber and were causing him problems. Weeks later, against Betis, Ansu became the youngest player to play for Barca since the 1940s in the league and the second-youngest ever. He was 16 years and 298 days old.

What followed was a whirlwind few months in which Ansu, who likes to come inside from the left, made a mark on the game with his nose for goal like few teenagers have managed in the 21st century.

He was 16 years and 304 days old when he scored his first goal against Osasuna. In his first Barca start, he scored and assisted a goal inside the opening seven minutes at home to Valencia. A Champions League debut followed and then, on Dec. 10, he became the European competition’s youngest-ever scorer when he netted against Inter Milan aged 17 years and 40 days.

A Spain debut arrived the following year before his 18th birthday and his first international goal came in his second cap against Ukraine. Spain had fast-tracked the process for Ansu’s nationality with Portugal also pushing for his allegiance.

“Ansu could have chosen Portugal, they offered us nationality,” Bori told ESPN. “But he said to me: ‘Dad, how am I going to opt for Portugal if I don’t even speak Portuguese? You brought me to Spain and this is where my friends and my life are.’”

All of that made Ansu one of the hottest players in football, both for agents and other clubs. Bori and a representative called Marc Lacueva have always been involved in his career, but others have come and gone. Junior Minguella, the son of the famous agent Josep Maria Minguella, was replaced by Messi’s brother, Rodrigo, in 2019. A photograph of a smiling Messi hugging Ansu after his debut later went viral.

While Rodrigo was involved, sources have told ESPN that Manchester United made a move to sign Ansu, who at the time had a €100m release clause. Then-president Josep Maria Bartomeu shut down any deal. Ansu signed a revised contract with his clause rising to first €170m and later €400m. No other club has come close to signing Ansu since, but his switch from Rodrigo to super-agent Jorge Mendes in 2020 did raise some eyebrows at the club. However, under Mendes, Ansu signed a new contract last October until 2027 with a €1 billion release clause.

That contract was primarily negotiated at a time when Ansu was still injured and shortly after they had handed him Messi’s No. 10. Sources say the club wanted to demonstrate their belief in him during what was a difficult moment.

“We were in no hurry, but we didn’t want to drag on the issue,” Barca president Joan Laporta said of the decision to hand him Messi’s shirt. “We didn’t put any pressure on Ansu. He said he would take the No. 10 if the captains authorised it. We want to take pressure away from him but the No. 10 suits him very well because of his style of play. The fans are in love with him.”

For Ronald Koeman’s Barcelona in the 2020-21 season, Ansu scored five goals in his first 10 games. Then, everything came crashing down when he tore his meniscus against Betis. Barca said at the time he would be out for four months after undergoing surgery. Over 10 months and four operations later, he finally returned to first-team football, scoring after coming off the bench in a 3-0 win against Levante in September 2021. The reaction from the fans and his teammates, lifting him in the air, was a rare spine-tingling moment at Camp Nou in the months after Messi’s exit.

Ansu’s career has been marked by a remarkable talent to score goals on memorable occasions. In his first professional season, he scored eight times from an xG of 4.67. In his second campaign, prior to his injury, his five goals had come from an xG of just 3.37. Somehow, despite being injured for so long, and suffering regular physical problems after returning, he managed to keep up that over-performance last season.

In 15 appearances across all competitions, spread across various points of the season as he battled fitness issues, he scored six goals. Those goals came from just 574 minutes of football and from an xG of 2.36. His first three seasons with Barca only produced 2,547 minutes of football yet he still scored 19 goals, despite his age, despite his injuries and despite the expectation which came with the No.10 shirt last term. Those goals came from an xG of just 10.4. Tiene gol.

However, that finishing has not been mirrored this season. While Ansu has remained fit, Xavi Hernandez has managed his minutes. He has made 20 appearances but the majority as a substitute. He has scored just three goals from an xG of 6.32. At times, he’s looked frustrated, too desperate to score. That has blurred his judgment and his decision-making.

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It also led to Luis Enrique leaving him out of the Spain squad for the final pre-World Cup international break. Luis Enrique says including Ansu was one of the last decisions he made, although sources close to the Spain coach say, given La Roja‘s lack of goal scorers, it is one he was always likely to make, especially with the luxury of a 26-man squad.

The hope is that Ansu’s golden touch from his first three seasons returns in Qatar. He scored in their final pre-tournament friendly against Jordan. It was his second goal for Spain in just his fifth appearance. He is at home with the national team, too, where there are a lot of recognisable faces. Club teammates Garcia (21), Ferran Torres (22) Pedri (19), Gavi (18) and Alejandro Balde (19) are all out in Qatar as well, in addition to the more experienced Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba. Sources at Barcelona actually suggest the emergence of youngsters Pedri and Gavi has helped take some of the pressure off Ansu’s shoulders to lead the next generation of stars at Camp Nou.

Others close to Ansu insist he never felt that pressure anyway.

“He’s always been a good kid and a big joker,” Horcas says. “He is a unique player and a big part of that is because he has his head screwed on. Some players, when they get where he has, especially so quickly, they go crazy, they think about other things. Ansu is humble. That is what has helped him reach this stage so quickly. That is down to his character.”

Perez Mena echoes those comments and has seen first-hand how Ansu has never lost touch with the community in and around Herrera that welcomed his family when he was six. Ansu donated 300 balls to the football school not long after his debut and earlier this year gave them 25 tickets for a Barca-Sevilla game. Perez Mena remains in regular contact with the family and was invited to the game against Inter in Milan last month.

“He doesn’t forget his people or his origins and he always has a lot of affection for everyone,” Perez Mena says. “In some ways, I think he is more prepared for [everything] than Bori. It’s incredible how well-prepared he is for life. I think a lot of that is down to La Masia, but also his experiences, coming from Guinea-Bissau to a different country, then leaving his family for Barcelona. I think all of that, plus the injuries, has made him very strong.”

The unspoken fear is that the injuries have slowed him down. After returning from the torn meniscus, his body has suffered in other areas, notably his hamstrings, due to the lack of activity. He turned down surgery last winter after pulling a hamstring in a Copa del Rey game against Athletic Club. He had been put off by past experiences and preferred more conservative treatment.

So far, beyond missing the second half of the campaign, that decision has bode him well, although sources close to him insist what he now needs is a run of regular games to tune his sharpness and show that he has not lost any of the pace, agility and finishing that he burst on to the scene with over three years ago. There is no bigger stage for that than the World Cup.