Barcelona's Ansu set to shine for Spain after journey that started in Guinea-Bissau


Anssumane Fati, higher referred to as Ansu, solely turned 20 on Halloween (Oct. 31) however has already skilled extra highs and lows than many gamers will throughout their complete careers. In Qatar, as a part of Luis Enrique’s Spain squad and taking part in at his first worldwide match, he’s seeking to tick off the final word excessive in soccer by profitable the World Cup.

Not even Lionel Messi, the participant whose No. 10 shirt he inherited at Barcelona, has gained the sport’s largest prize. Many really feel Messi’s profession deserves a World Cup trophy, however Ansu may very well be forgiven for pondering he’s additionally due a break after successfully shedding the final two years of his personal profession by accidents.

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The prodigious ahead left Guinea-Bissau for Seville aged six; left his mother and father in Seville to maneuver to Barcelona at 10; broke his leg in two locations aged 13; made his first group debut at 16; and have become the youngest scorer within the Champions League and a Spain worldwide at 17. However simply as he was getting began, he was lower down on the cruelest time, for each himself and Barca, who had been about to have a Messi-sized gap to fill.

Ansu lastly returned to full health this season, however Barca coach Xavi Hernandez is managing his minutes fastidiously. He has began simply 5 video games in all competitions, showing off the bench in 15, and there are professional questions on how accidents will affect his current and future.

Luis Enrique had sufficient doubts about Ansu to go away him out of the squad in October. However his goal-scoring exploits all through his brief profession satisfied the Spain coach he may very well be wanted in Qatar. ‘Tiene gol,’ they are saying in Spain. Actually: He has objective. That is his journey to the World Cup.

Ansu was born in 2002 in Guinea-Bissau, which was a Portuguese colony till 1974. On the west coast of Africa, the nation is likely one of the smallest on the continent by way of each inhabitants and space. Practically 70% of the 1.9 million inhabitants stay under the poverty line and 25% of inhabitants endure from power malnutrition. They’re additionally soccer loopy, similar to the nations that encompass them.

Sources near Ansu say he by no means stopped taking part in. Most children in Guinea-Bissau do not get the possibility to harness their expertise elsewhere, however that chance knocked for Ansu when he moved to Seville on the age of six.

Whereas Ansu had been taking part in wherever, every time and nevertheless he may in Guinea-Bissau, his father, Bori, had been working in Europe. Sources say he performed lower-league soccer in Portugal, however he was by no means going to make a residing from the sport. He finally discovered work within the small Spanish city of Herrera and, in 2008, after acquiring the mandatory paperwork, he introduced the remainder of his household over.

Ansu is one in every of six youngsters, three boys and three ladies. The youngest, Miguelito, was born in Spain. He’s now additionally a part of Barca’s academy. The older brother, Braima, was additionally at Barcelona. Nevertheless, after reaching the B group, he step by step dropped down the pyramid.

On account of working away, Bori was not conscious of Ansu’s expertise. The residents of Herrera quickly had been, although. Jose Luis Perez Mena, the director of the Escuela de Futbol Peloteros, was instructed by some pals a few younger child tearing it up within the native sports activities corridor. He was already acquainted with Bori, so when he came upon it was Ansu, he shortly introduced him into his soccer college.

“He didn’t have his own ball or anything in Guinea-Bissau,” Perez Mena instructed ESPN forward 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 an enormous shock. He needed to play with children three years older as a result of those who had been his age couldn’t compete with him. I keep in mind in a single match, he performed the primary sport and instructed me he wouldn’t play anymore as a result of it was not a problem for him. There was a lot distinction between him and the others that he received 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 superb however extra of a group participant,” he adds. “He did nicely at Barca however with Barca B, he hit a ceiling and did not go any additional. He was participant, disciplined, however Ansu was one thing fully totally different. I’ve been in soccer for 50 years and I’ve by no means seen something prefer it. I’ve by no means seen something like Ansu in my life.”

Perez Mena describes a “cheeky however good child” 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 instructed him no,” Perez Mena laughs. “In the long run, once we performed them, he did not rating and we drew the sport. Then we needed to play Atletico [Madrid], Getafe, Rayo [Vallecano] and he instructed me ‘I will repair this…’ and he mounted it. He scored at the least 4 objectives in every sport, we had been champions, he was named the perfect participant on the match and the highest 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 loopy,” he remembers. “[Real] Madrid, Barcelona, Villarreal, Espanyol, Almeria, Zaragoza and hundreds extra groups all requested about him. We needed him to go to Barca as a result of we knew La Masia can be the perfect [for his development]. That is what we suggested Bori and we spoke with Albert Puig, the coordinator at Barcelona’s academy on the time, and so they took each brothers, first Braima after which 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 different gamers on the World Cup in Qatar.

“He missed his household, however he settled nicely at La Masia,” his first Barca coach, Dani Horcas, tells ESPN. “In his first 12 months with us, we gained all the pieces, besides one sport, which we drew at Espanyol. We gained all of it: the league and each single match we performed in. All the pieces. It was seven-a-side and Ansu was one of many two midfielders. Take Kubo was forward of him and so they had an unbelievable understanding.”

Ansu became addicted to that winning feeling.

“He skilled rather well as a result of he’s such a aggressive participant, however we needed to reel him in at occasions,” Horcas smiles. “He didn’t like shedding. He needed to win each mini-game in coaching, each passing drill, positional video games… all the pieces.”

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 may have chosen Portugal, they provided us nationality,” Bori told ESPN. “However he stated to me: ‘Dad, how am I going to go for Portugal if I do not even converse Portuguese? You introduced me to Spain and that is the place my pals 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 had been in no hurry, however we did not wish to drag on the difficulty,” Barca president Joan Laporta said of the decision to hand him Messi’s shirt. “We did not put any strain on Ansu. He stated he would take the No. 10 if the captains authorised it. We wish to take strain away from him however the No. 10 fits him very nicely due to his type of play. The followers 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 nicely, along with the extra skilled 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 is at all times been child and a giant joker,” Horcas says. “He’s a novel participant and a giant a part of that’s as a result of he has his head screwed on. Some gamers, once they get the place he has, particularly so shortly, they go loopy, they give thought to different issues. Ansu is humble. That’s what has helped him attain this stage so shortly. That’s right 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 does not overlook his folks or his origins and he at all times has lots of affection for everybody,” Perez Mena says. “In some methods, I believe he’s extra ready for [everything] than Bori. It is unbelievable how well-prepared he’s for all times. I believe lots of that’s right down to La Masia, but in addition his experiences, coming from Guinea-Bissau to a distinct nation, then leaving his household for Barcelona. I believe all of that, plus the accidents, has made him very robust.”

The unstated concern is that the accidents have slowed him down. After getting back from the torn meniscus, his physique has suffered in different areas, notably his hamstrings, as a result of lack of exercise. He turned down surgical procedure final winter after pulling a hamstring in a Copa del Rey sport towards Athletic Membership. He had been postpone by previous experiences and most popular extra conservative therapy.

Thus far, past lacking the second half of the marketing campaign, that call has bode him nicely, though sources near him insist what he now wants is a run of standard video games to tune his sharpness and present that he has not misplaced any of the tempo, agility and ending that he burst on to the scene with over three years in the past. There isn’t a greater stage for that than the World Cup.

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