HOpe showed up on a Sunday afternoon, the light finally let in. Only that smile would have been enough, the look of this boy returning to the court 323 days later, assimilating everything as if it were the first time; the look of each child from all over entering a football stadium for the first time, overwhelmed but inspired, both tiny and huge.
Ansu Fati although he does not enough and no wait, so there was more. The youngest player to score for Barcelona and Spain, the boy who found the net 111 seconds after his first outing at Camp Nou, finally returned on the day he said it was like a debut and when he came out again he had another goal .
They hadn’t taken 10 minutes and it was impossible not to get carried away by all that. “You dream, but I didn’t really imagine it that way,” Fati admitted. Had it been his debut, the 90-minute shot from the edge of the box that completed a 3-0 win over Levante would have made him the seventh-youngest scorer in Barcelona’s history. Instead, it was number 44, and with his meniscus torn in November, he had been under the scalpel four times, visited doctors in three different countries, and been out of action for 11 months. Much has changed since then, much has been charged. He is still only 18 years old and it looks like it, but he arrived at 10 and rose above it all, his peers lifted him to the sky for all to see and hug him. They had needed it too.
There is something in Ansu. Not just the talent, although there is a lot of that. Not only the moment or the need for Barcelona, although there is more. But something else: maybe something in his story; something in his age, in the freshness, the emotion, perhaps also the simplicity; something, certainly, in the suffering of the past year. All of which creates a connection, a rare affection that goes even beyond Barcelona, a warmth seen in the reaction that feels like everyone’s and that saw his return overshadow it all Sunday. As Levante coach Pablo López said: “We didn’t enjoy it very much, but we’re happy for football that he’s back.”
It was seen even before he scored. The Camp Nou clock read 79.56 when Luuk de Jong headed over the crossbar, but by then many people on the pitch were no longer watching the game, now in a state of suspended animation. For a time, attention was focused on the touchline where Fati was waiting to return. He hugged Ronald Araújo, rubbed his face – yes it’s really happening – and the 80.21 kept running with a smile that was one of wonder, a kind of childlike wonder, wide-eyed and he could hardly believe he was really here. The 35,334 fans stood up and gave him a standing ovation and he responded by raising his left hand and placing his right over his heart. Then, for the first time in almost a year, he played.
And, boy, did he play. Levante immediately had three good opportunities, one more, a save, one in the lateral net, as if the introduction of Fati had momentarily broken Barcelona’s concentration, but it was soon underway, as it always had. “Bold,” Ernesto Valverde had called him and, somehow, the injury has not changed that. “I was waiting, thinking, ‘I can enjoy it again,’” she said and showed herself. At 83.53, his first touch turned Jorge Miramón, cut inside into the area and fired a shot that was blocked. On 84.12 he rushed into the area and was shot down by Pablo Martínez. The referee said no when he could have said yes, which was also familiar to him. The same had happened at the start at the Camp Nou. “Take a look at it,” Fati said. The referee didn’t do it, but everyone else did. They couldn’t take their eyes off him.
Every time he received the ball, there were no signs of fear, rust, the weight of responsibility. Instead, there was this spark, an expectation, the fans stood up, something about to happen. “It was as if he was levitating,” Marcos López wrote in El Periódico. Morales knocked him down, another run was stopped at the starting line, and there was a quick trade with Memphis Depay before it happened. A twist in the middle, not quite a roulette but almost, the knee gripping, the ball running towards him, and Fati was gone. Six touches took him to the edge of the area, two defenders fell back and there he braked, turned to the right, went over Miramón and launched a low shot to the net, a touch of Messi at Wembley about it.
It was 9:15 a.m. on September 26, 2021, and his face lit up, the gloom dissipated. Relief and joy came together, optimism returned. Araujo spread his arms wide and Fati jumped inside, the rest joining in, disbelief and happiness on their faces. Together they raised Ansu and held him high, offered to all, like Rafiki on the rock. The iconography was immediate, a glimpse of something good shared with the community, as if it were the chosen child: here was hope, a future. The similarities between this shot and Messi after PSG did not go unnoticed, a man, a boy, supervising everything.
Fati planted a kiss on Araujo’s forehead and, now alone, he went to the west stand, where his family was crying. The image of Bori, his father, with his fingers trying to stop the flow of his eyes said it all. Ansu climbed the stairs and went to a man with a mask, blue polo shirt and hearing aid: Lluís Til, the doctor. Fati reached out a hand and hugged him. Then came Jordi Mesalles, the physio. Above them, Fati’s little brother was running down the stairs, his fist ready to be struck. “Above all, I am grateful,” said the forward. “I had promised my dad and my brother [I would celebrate with them] but the Covid protocol means you can’t scale [further]. They have suffered with me and I dedicate this goal to them. Going to the doctor was improvised. He and the physical therapists have done a lot for me all these months. “
“The reaction of the fans says it all: the ground exploded,” insisted Alfredo Schreuder, Ronald Koeman’s assistant. “Ansu is an excellent player who can score a goal out of nowhere. We knew he could play 15 minutes. This is just the beginning.”
It feels like a new beginning and therein lies the risk. Fati was one of eight Barcelona graduates who played on Sunday, and Gavi and Nico joined a new generation who is called to lead. Projecting him as an heir to Messi is not much help, although when he was told that taking the jersey with the number 10 was pressure and responsibility, he replied: “Eh, no. It makes me feel proud and grateful ”. The expectation will be great and Fati insisted that “we have just started and his is long”, but it is also inevitable. It represents renewal, it symbolizes the enthusiasm, fun and hope that is the goal of sport, even if it does not reach the end.
The good news is that there is also something in him: he has an angel, the Spanish like to say. It’s almost as if he doesn’t notice all that pressure, doesn’t touch him, a purity in him just playing that drags others with him, untainted by the rest, at least for now. “I have shared my life with him and he is special,” Nico said. “He’s a natural talent, he has goals and magic,” said Eric Garcia.
Just his presence felt like it changed everything, his smile all theirs, his return to the opportunity to revive or reboot, a child entering a stadium for the first time, humiliated by it but his imagination was allowed to fly. When asked if they could actually enter a stadium for the first time, with humility, their imaginations were run wild. When asked if they could really compete for the title despite Ronald Koeman imploring everyone to be ‘realistic’, Fati said: “Yes, of course. We are Barcelona: we are going to fight for the League and the Champions League ”. And for a brief moment, in that instant when the ball hit the net, excitement washed over everyone and everything felt possible, it didn’t seem so silly to believe that, who knows, maybe they really can.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism