Ansu Fati was the best thing to happen to Spanish football for years. The youngest goalscorer in La Liga history, the youngest the national team had ever seen too, his story had begun in a self-proclaimed communist utopia, a tiny Andalusian village where Che Guevara looks out from the sports centre wall, and would end on top of the world. Blessed by Lionel Messi, handed his No 10 shirt, he was Barcelona’s great hope: the chosen one, beloved by everybody. There was something about him, a genuinely special player guided by a star. He was magic, one teammate said. He was daring, electric, unstoppable.
He was. But now? Now no one really knows for sure what Ansu Fati is. The most simple question of all, asked of every new signing, does not have a simple answer, or maybe even an answer at all: how good is he? Which is why there were few real offers for a player whose buyout clause had once been set at a billion euros to ensure there were none; why Barcelona let go of a player their coach called “our heritage” but also why they didn’t let go entirely, finally agreeing to a year’s loan at Brighton with no option to buy. Because if he is not that player any more, and if some on the inside fear he never will be again, he still might be.
Brighton offers a place for them to find out, and there is still time. The Amex might not have seemed the most likely destination but there was a kind of collective relief at finding him a club and them a solution to a growing problem, however temporarily. One that offers the hope of something a little more permanent, a revival. Brighton’s manager, Roberto De Zerbi, spoke to Fati, reassuring him that this could be good for him, that he had a role, support. This is a place for him to get the opportunities denied at Barcelona, away from the injuries and the pressure, the increasing tension; away from the ghosts. A place to be liberated, to find himself. A place, above all, to play.
For too long, he had not. Last season, 16 members of the squad got more minutes than Fati. This season, the kid once identified as a generational talent had played 47 minutes and that felt like it was actually a lot, like he could not expect more. Injury had interrupted everything, the damage not purely physical, and not playing had become normal, just the way it was. All that excitement, all that promise, had slipped away. There was a kind of nostalgia that clung to him, which is absurd for a footballer who is still only 20.
But he was no normal footballer. Or at least he hadn’t been. “It’s not normal for his first touch to be a goal, it’s not normal for his second to be an assist, and it’s not normal for his his third to almost go in the top corner,” the then head coach Ernesto Valverde said after Fati’s first start at the Camp Nou in September 2019. He was only 16, and he had scored inside two minutes. It wasn’t his first goal, either: the previous game, he had come on away at Osasuna and scored inside six. “It’s all a bit exaggerated. This will get bigger and bigger. Between us we have to stop it getting overblown to protect the player,” Valverde said.
“He’s very young. We know what he is capable of, what he’s doing, that the fans are excited, that people are comparing him to great players. He has the quality,” Sergio Busquets said. “We have to support him because we know hard times will come; he has to know where he is.”
It did get bigger and bigger, and bigger. Hard times did come. Fati scored and assisted in his first Champions League game, and got another goal and assist on his first start for Spain in June 2020, becoming more than just a Barcelona player but someone the country held close, warmth and affection in their embrace; he was just a child and looked it too. What he did was so natural, so smooth, that it appeared almost effortless, innocent, like he felt no pressure and nothing could stop him. He had a gift; it was as if he did not need to chase goals, they came to him. Even when he suffered a torn meniscus, out for 323 days, he came back, in September 2021, and immediately scored again.
But it had been hard. That day Ronald Araujo lifted him to the sky, as if to offer him to everyone. Even the opposition manager said he was “happy for football that Ansu’s back”. Fati climbed into the crowd to embrace medical staff and family. He had undergone four operations in three countries, in November 2020 and January, March, and May 2021. He was still only 18. In his absence – in Messi’s absence too – the pressure had increased, the reliance. He was given the No 10 shirt, a new contract announced under the slogan Dream Teen. “He can’t be asked to fix everything Messi left,” Ronald Koeman, by then the coach, said, tellingly. The reaction that day showed Barcelona had needed him as much as he needed them.
And then in November, he suffered a muscle injury in Vigo. He was out for two months then returned, too soon, for a cup game in Bilbao and immediately got injured again. This time the impact was lasting. Doctors wanted him to be operated on but Fati resisted, determined to avoid going under the knife yet again. He did not return until May 2022, making a handful of substitute appearances, still not truly ready. Across 2020-21 and 2021-22, he started only nine league games. He wasn’t the same; he wasn’t given the opportunity to be the same, either.
In the second week of the following season, 2022-23, Fati came on and changed the game at Real Sociedad. “I’m playing without fear now; I’m not far off being 100%,” he said that night and a couple of weeks later Xavi declared the injuries “forgotten”. But neither of those lines was entirely true and the coach admitted that his return was hard to manage, that he needed to go slow. Besides, they had Robert Lewandowski now, with whom he was an uneasy fit, and Fati did not start a league game until October. He was also left out of the year’s first Spain squad. The surprise came when Luis Enrique did then take him to the World Cup in Qatar.
It was Luis Enrique’s only regret. “Ansu’s level is unquestionable,” the Spain coach had said when he named the squad. He also admitted that he had doubted over what to do until the very last minute; the “what if?” which everyone still feels even now, finally won him over.
“I hope I can recover his best version. When I see him train I will know if his improvement is real. He’s not starting for his club yet but this [World Cup] can be the stimulus he needs,” Luis Enrique said, but in Qatar Fati cut a slightly melancholic figure and the coach concluded, sadly, that he was wrong. Fati played 22 minutes each against Japan and Morocco, and returned having made little impact.
As the months went by, there were moments – after an impressive performance as a sub in the Super Cup in January, Xavi conceded “maybe I should have put him on sooner” – but they were never more than moments. “I’m happy for him because he has suffered,” the Barcelona coach said that night, promising that he would be more important from then on, but it did not happen.
Fati wasn’t the same. Something was wrong. It was like all that daring, that joy, that sense of ease had gone, and it wasn’t clear how to get it back. This kid who used to score goals without trying was now missing chances, like the gods had deserted him. Something had: some thought he was fearful or, worse still, finished. That he was not as explosive, not as fast, might be natural but there are those inside who believe this is more about the mind. He seemed reluctant to take risks, to put his foot in.
Sitting out wasn’t the solution. Fati needed continuity and confidence but that wasn’t coming at the Camp Nou, not in the midst of competition, not unless he made a case so clear it could not be ignored. Xavi said he needed time, noting “the younger generation is in a hurry. I wore No 26 for three years,” and called him Barcelona’s “present and future” but that was only half true at best. There had been increasingly fraught meetings between the club, Fati’s father Bori and his agent Jorge Mendes, a growing sense that they had a problem on their hands, and in the spring Bori exploded, every bit the embarrassing dad.
Bori claimed that his son had fully recovered, fitness no longer an excuse for not playing him; had taken responsibility when the club was in “free-fall”; and had hurried his return – “and for what?!” It was time, he said, for a change. “Ansu deserves much more. It annoys me that he plays so few minutes,” Bori insisted. “If it was up to me, I would take him out of Barcelona.” And so he did, bound for Brighton where maybe he can be himself again.