From complete unknown to Barcelona record-breaker - how Ansu Fati is making Barca not miss Lionel Messi
Fati, 16, already Barca's youngest goalscorer, set a new La Liga record on Saturday as the youngest player in La Liga history to score and assist a goal in the same game in 5-2 win over Valencia
On Friday, three Manchester United players arrived straight from school to play in an under 23s game for their club. It’s impressive that they are playing at such a level so young, yet that pales in comparison to the precocious achievements of Anssumane – "Ansu"– Fati.
Fati, Barcelona’s 16-year-old forward, scored having been on the pitch for only five minutes two weeks ago to become Barcelona’s youngest ever league scorer. There was a blank on Osasuna’s scoreboard where the scorer’s face is usually displayed, since there was no photo on file. Fati doesn’t appear in the respected Marca guide for Barca’s first or second teams for this season either.
Yet in the close season, under new Juvenil A coach Victor Valdes, he was the standout player. That was after Valdes fixed him some new boots since the ones he turned up to training in were a “disaster”. The legendary goalkeeper describes Fati as “an assassin in the box who needs freedom".
On Saturday night, Fati started his first game for the Catalans, at home to Valencia who had surprisingly sacked their manager, Marcelino, in midweek – three games into the season and months after beating Barca to win the Copa del Rey.
Within the first seven minutes, the winger from Guinea-Bissau had set up Frenkie de Jong for the second goal having opened the scoring himself.
Even within Barca circles, Fati was barely known until last month. He joined the club from Sevilla in 2012, age 10. His father moved to Lisbon (Guinea-Bissau is a former Portuguese colony) in search of work, then crossed the border to Andalusia in Spain. Fati followed when he was six; that’s when he met his dad for the first time. He was a street footballer used to playing with bundles of rags. Word spread quickly and Sevilla signed him almost immediately.
Barcelona and Real Madrid soon offered their own inducements, with Madrid offering more money. But it was Barca’s Masia residential system which appealed more to Fati's family, and he began to progress through the youth teams. Fati’s two younger brothers are also on Barca's books, a famed youth system criticised in after the conveyor belt of talent has slowed in recent years.
Fati didn’t play any B team games for Barca last season, but so impressed under Valdes that he was offered a professional contract. Injuries to forwards Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Ousame Dembele meant he was fast-tracked into the first-team squad and he came on in Barca’s opening home game of the season, a 5-2 win against Real Betis. His parents cried when they heard he had been called up to the first team. “I can die happy now, my son has played for Barca,” his father said. Messi, who is twice his age, hugged him after beneath the stands.
But Saturday night is his highlight so far. On an emotional evening at Camp Nou, fans sang “Luis Enrique! Luis Enrique!” throughout. Enrique, once the lungs of the Barca team and later a treble-winning coach, tragically lost his nine-year-old daughter recently to bone cancer. Enrique’s family have long lived in Catalonia and Barcelona fans held up a large flag in support of the family before the match.
The mood became a happier one after two minutes when Fati confidently swept De Jong’s low cross past former Barca goalkeeper Jasper Cillessen.
Five minutes later, Fati’s anticipation saw him run into space, cut in on the left and pull the ball back for De Jong to shoot into the roof of the net. With that, he became the youngest player in La Liga history to score and assist a goal in the same game.
In the stands among the 81,617 crowd, Messi, still out with a calf injury, sat smiling in appreciation.
Fati appeared confident, unfazed by the huge crowd and finding space with ease on the left. He delighted spectators as he flicked the ball over a defender’s head. His daring was breath-taking to watch, yet the inexperience of a child showed as he lost possession attempting to take on three Valencia players.
His teammates called for a first-half penalty after contact was made when he tried to dodge a challenge running at goal. A live wire, he shot on goal with a curling effort, he nearly scored a second, he cut in on the right side and the left.
Kevin Gameiro scored for Valencia after 27 minutes; Gerard Pique poached a goal to make it 3-1 six minutes after half time, before Fati was substituted for Suarez on the hour. He received an ovation. “Ansu Fati, ole, ole, ole,” they hollered behind the goal. The youngster look delighted as he took his place on the bench.
Suarez, the master striker, scored two magnificent goals in the 61st and 82nd minutes to make it 5-1. He dedicated both to the memory of Enrique’s daughter, Xana. In doing so he became Barca’s third all-time scorer in La Liga. At the other end, the Catalans’ six goals conceded in their first four games is their worst defensive start to a season since 2000/01, a year they almost failed to qualify for European competition for the first time. But Barca have also scored 12 times in those four matches.
Fati has not represented any national team so far. He is eligible for Guinea-Bissau and Portugal and would be able to play for Spain if he acquires citizenship. Spain manager Roberto Moreno said that the Spanish Football Federation were working hard to bring him on board.
His immediate future, though, is with Barca, with a word of caution from coach Ernesto Valverde. “They’ll hype Asnu Fati a lot, but we have to calm it down and it’s our job to protect the player,” he said after the Valencia match. Meanwhile the front pages of the following days’ newspapers were already being printed, with Fati on the front.
Updated: September 17, 2019 08:32 AM