Origin Series: The story of Ansu Fati's emergence as Barcelona's new hero

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  • Football has a knack for producing narratives that rival the best scripts Hollywood can muster.

    And perhaps none are more intriguing than the extraordinary backstories of gifted players who go on to shine at the highest level, individuals who come from very little to enjoy all the riches the game has to offer or those whose journeys are filled with obstacles and enthralling incidents.

    The tales of today’s biggest superstars like Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo are well documented as are those of past legends who graced the game over the years.

    In Sport360’s new Origin Series though, we delve into the inspiring paths to glory unfolding right before our eyes. With our unique brand of narration, we immerse you into the backstories of today’s emerging stars only beginning to script their legacies.

    We can’t know the finer details of how things transpired or indeed what individuals said or thought. But using facts and actual events as the framework, our imagination is woven into the narrative to help bring these stories to life.

    In this edition, we delve into the remarkable tale of Ansu Fati, a mild-mannered boy from Guinea-Bissau who, at Barcelona, has emerged as the heir apparent to the greatest player of all time…

    December, 2019 | Atletico Madrid 0-1 Barcelona

    This game shouldn’t be goalless. Perhaps a little out of character, Atletico Madrid have gone toe-to-toe with Barcelona and, truth be told, should be leading.

    The atmosphere inside the Wanda Metropolitano is electric. The home fans are on edge, their anxiousness reflected in the especially animated figure of Diego Simeone on the touchline.

    Challenges are flying in and the December rain is pelting down but even with time running out, it bizarrely seems to stand still once Lionel Messi receives the ball on the right.

    He drops his shoulder and drives towards the centre, evading red and white shirts along the way before exchanging a perfect one-two with Luis Suarez on the edge of the box.

    For the first time in 85 minutes, Simeone is absolutely still as he braces himself for the inevitable. A sublime curling effort into the bottom corner sends Messi charging towards the away fans in celebration.

    He’s done it again. The Argentine’s goal seals three vital points for Barcelona. The full-time whistle blows and Messi is all business as the cameras focus on the match-winner, his steely eyes giving nothing away. Just another day at the office.

    Messi celebrates after scoring the late winner against Atletico

    Messi celebrates after scoring the late winner against Atletico

    But once he ducks out of the floodlights, away from intrusive lenses and the visibility of 65,000 spectators, he allows himself to be human again.

    A moment to cherish and one for the highlight reel no doubt. After another lacklustre team performance though, he can’t help but wonder just how many more rescue acts he has in him.

    The adrenaline is fading now and his climb up the tunnel’s steps slows as the rigours of an intense, pulsating encounter is mirrored by the fatigue in his 33-year-old legs.

    Messi walks off the pitch and heads into the tunnel

    Messi walks off the pitch and heads into the tunnel

    The realisation that dawns on him in that moment is one quietly shared by many, including some of his most devout fans.

    Barcelona need a new hero.

    As he heads towards the visitors’ changing room, Messi catches sight of a diminutive figure in an oversized jacket a few feet ahead of him, almost going unnoticed among the other players.

    He feels his morose ponderings drift away, the burden on his shoulders lets up just a little.

    Ansu Fati, he thinks, may just have what it takes…


    It’s seven years before Messi’s late winner in the Spanish capital and a dejected young boy rides the train from Barcelona to Seville.

    He’s reached the halfway point in his journey and peers out the window as the city of Madrid passes by.

    Not too long ago, Fati thought he’d be playing academy football in the Spanish capital, but Real Madrid were unable to offer him the living arrangements Barcelona could at La Masia. It meant moving further away from his home in the village of Herrera outside Seville, twice as far in fact.

    Returning home now for the holidays, Fati’s thoughts shifted to his family who would receive him at the station. His father, Bori, who worked so hard to bring them from Guinea-Bissau to Spain when Fati was just six years old.

    He remembers how his father would tell him about his first jobs when he settled in Seville; picking olives, collecting empty glasses in nightclubs and even working on a high-speed rail track. His efforts led to Fati being enrolled in Barcelona’s prestigious academy. He has memories of playing football in the streets of Bissau wearing only socks or plastic slippers. Now, he’s honing his skills in the best facility and environment a young player could hope for.

    His dejection swiftly morphs into overwhelming guilt. He had not played well today and he makes a vow, as only a 10-year-old would, never to play badly again.

    He compiles a message to his Barca U-11 coach, Marc Serra, which reads: “Hi Sir, I’m already on the AVE. I am very sorry for the bad game I have done today. I promise it will never happen again. Bones Festes!”

    August, 2019

    Ansu Fati turned Ernesto Valverde into a believer

    Ansu Fati turned Ernesto Valverde into a believer

    Ernesto Valverde is so lost in his thoughts that he’s surprised at how quickly he’s arrived at his destination. As he pulls his Audi into Barcelona’s training centre, he glances at the spattering of fans outside the entrance and wonders how many of them want him gone.

    He can’t remember a time he wasn’t under pressure as Barcelona manager, not even when he secured a second successive league title last season.

    A 1-0 defeat at Athletic Bilbao on the opening day of the new campaign has already turned up the heat ahead of Real Betis’ visit. Both Suarez and Messi will likely miss that encounter, which has prompted Valverde to act somewhat out of character.

    One of the biggest sticks his critics use to beat him with is the lack of faith he’s shown in youth. He’s constantly urged to give Riqui Puig more playing time but the Spaniard errs on the side of caution, knowing full well that this is a results business.

    Today, however, he’s invited a 16-year-old youth player to first-team training. Due to key injuries in attack, they need to make up the numbers during practice this week and Valverde likes everything he’s seen and heard about Ansu Fati.

    He knows all about the teenager’s audacious talent and the €100m release clause in his contract but it’s stories of his character and attitude that has intrigued the experienced manager.

    Valverde has heard of the text message he sent youth team coach Serra six years ago. U19 coach Marcel Sans told him how Fati missed a series of three or four penalties but refused to stop taking them until he scored.

    And several staff members have raved about his attitude after he broke his leg at 13, sidelining him for a year, but making him obsessed with health and fitness.

    There’s definitely something about that kid…

    Valverde recognised Fati's ability

    Valverde couldn’t ignore Fati’s ability

    That evening, Ernesto Valverde is so lost in his thoughts that he’s surprised at how quickly he’s arrived at his destination.

    He brings his car to a stop and turns off the ignition but before entering his home, he sits there for a minute and continues to reflect on what he saw at training today.

    The kid, Fati, didn’t play like any kid he’s ever seen before. Among a group of seasoned superstars, he looked like he belonged, even scoring four goals during one session.

    Valverde’s been around long enough to know when he’s seen something truly special, but ever the pragmatist, he’s determined not to get carried away.

    “It was only training,” he mutters under his breath as he gathers himself and leaves his vehicle.

    However, as he walks up to his front door, an internal battle rages. His desperate attempts to keep the truth at bay is failing him.

    He’s already flirting with the idea of making Ansu Fati the youngest player he’s ever handed a debut to.

    August, 2019 | Barcelona 5-2 Real Betis

    Fati is overcome with emotion after the final whistle

    Fati is overcome with emotion after the final whistle

    The final whistle is met with a roar of approval and Fati bends forward, puts his hands on his knees, looks at the hallowed turf he’s dreamt of playing on for so long and exhales.

    Physically, he’s barely broken a sweat during his 15-minute cameo but the emotions are overwhelming. He can scarcely believe what’s just happened.

    Last week, he was looking forward to playing his first official game for Barcelona B, but here he is now, the youngest Blaugrana debutant for 80 years having bypassed the reserve team entirely.

    As the Cant del Barca anthem echoes around the stadium, Fati is certain he’s dreaming but the last thing he wants to do now is wake up.

    He looks around, grinning from ear to ear, and then picks out his family in the stands. He waves out, feeling blessed that he gets to share the happiest moment of his life with them.

    Fati spends as much time out on the pitch as he can and when he finally makes his reluctant walk down the tunnel, he’s already replaying his debut in his head.

    He got his opportunity in the closing stages of a 5-2 victory and loved every second of it. There were some neat touches as he linked up well with Nelson Semedo on the right.

    The youngster is slightly disappointed that he didn’t score though after his brilliantly worked shot fizzed just wide of the far post before a pass nearly led to an Antoine Griezmann goal moments later. All in all, a very satisfying first appearance.

    The dressing room is buzzing. Fati goes from one embrace to another. There are pats on his back, team-mates cupping his face and rubbing his head. He wonders if it’s always this good after a win.

    Before long, Messi makes his way in. He’s come down from the stands to congratulate the team and makes a beeline for Fati – the special talent he’s taken under his wing – as soon as he spots him.

    The two share a big hug, unaware then that the image of it would go viral.

    Everything feels surreal to Fati and all he can think is, ‘please don’t wake up…’

    August, 2019 | Barcelona 5-2 Valencia

    Climbing up the stadium stairs to the second tier behind the goal, a 62-year-old Javi feels every bit his age. He’s been coming to Camp Nou for over 40 years and remembers a time when braving the matchday crowds wasn’t nearly as daunting.

    He pauses in the aisle once he reaches his row and catches the eye of his old friend Luis waiting in their seats. He means to smile as he shuffles towards him but what he musters is more of a grimace as he tries to catch his breath.

    The two friends move quickly past the niceties and delve into the issues of their beloved club. They shake their heads disapprovingly when discussing Valverde’s tactics which they’re convinced were to blame for the draw at Osasuna last week.

    That’s five points dropped already and it’s only three games into the season. Their spirits are lifted though when they learn today’s team news. Messi is still out and Suarez is on the bench but Ansu Fati, who scored his first goal at El Sadar Stadium last week, has been handed his full debut.

    Over the years, the two men have watched legends grace this pitch from Johan Cruyff and Diego Maradona to Ronaldinho and Messi. They have a good feeling about Fati and can’t wait to see the kid in action again.

    Kick-off was only moments ago but Messi takes a sharp breath when Frenkie de Jong gets the ball on the right side of Valencia’s penalty area. Carles Perez’s run down the outside has caught the defender’s attention and even from the stands, the Argentine senses a chance manifesting in the middle.

    He’s not the only one. Fati has sniffed out the pocket of space and when De Jong’s pass finds him, he side-foots an emphatic finish into the near corner. Barca lead inside the opening two minutes and Messi can’t help but smile to himself.

    It’s been an electric start for the home team but Ezequiel Garay is determined not to let this match get away from his side. Fati is already proving to be a handful, dragging the 32-year-old out of position.

    He’s now run in behind the right-back, driving into the penalty area. His quick feet are mesmeric but Garay backs his experience. He doesn’t lunge in, waiting patiently for the forward half his age to make the first move.

    And that does it! Fati’s run out of ideas, he thinks, failing to pick a direction. He has run straight at the defender instead and naively shows him too much of the ball.

    But just when Garay thinks he’s won and begins to lean forward to collect his prize, Fati is gone in a flash, skipping to the outside and cutting the ball back for De Jong to score the second.

    Time for Plan B, Garay thinks. They need to put two men on his lad, as they would on Messi.

    Fati is having the time of his life. A goal and assist already and he’s barely 10 minutes into his first start for Barcelona.

    He’s been double-teamed since the second goal but he’s used to that sort of treatment.

    His confidence is through the roof and he’s genuinely having fun. He’s running at defenders at every opportunity and even came close to a second goal with his dipping effort going just wide.

    Minutes later, he has another go, cutting inside again but shooting wide of the far post. Then he revelled in the gasps around the stadium when a moment of magic saw him flick the ball over a defender audaciously before nearly setting up Griezmann.

    When his number goes up on the hour-mark and he makes his way to the touchline, the diminutive Fati feels seven feet tall as the Camp Nou cheers him off the pitch.

    In the stands, Javi and Luis are among many of those who have risen to their feet to acknowledge the teenager’s performance.

    Javi knows he’s witnessing the genesis of yet another Barcelona star.

    Ansu Fati, he thinks, may just have what it takes.