Only 17, Ansu Fati already has the eyes of the world on him. On Sunday he became the Spanish national team’s youngest goalscorer when he scored in the team’s 4-0 win over Ukraine in the Uefa Nations League. This feat followed his achievements of being the youngest Barcelona player to ever score in La Liga and the youngest-ever in the Champions League.
Fati, who represented the Barcelona senior team even before appearing for its reserves side, has been earmarked by many as the next big thing in Spain with other European bigwigs like Manchester United believed to be among the clubs looking to steal him from under the noses of Barcelona.
The Catalans see the sprightly young footballer with a bagful of tricks, devastating burst of pace and an ability to change direction at will, as Lionel Messi’s heir apparent. And, going by early signs, perhaps rightly so.
La Masia’s diminishing influence
However, Barcelona are hoping Fati’s rise through the ranks plugs more holes than one. La Masia, the club’s famed youth academy that has produced some world-class talent has struggled to live up to its reputation in the last few years. Barcelona haven’t seen enough talent come through the academy and become an integral part of the first team as in the past decade. In Fati, they would hope to have a player that could reignite its youth set-up.
In 2010, three La Masia graduates – Messi, Xavi and Andres Iniesta – were the top three players in the list of Fifa’s players of the year award. It’s an achievement no academy in the world can match.
However, in the age of superclubs where the top teams in the world pride themselves in luring the best talent, Barcelona have seemingly lost touch of just how important their academy has been to the club.
While Barcelona haven’t completely counted on local talent as the likes of Athletic Bilbao, and have recruited top players from across the globe, the players from the academy have always formed an integral part of the team.
Failed endeavours in transfer market
In the last few years, the focus on that has changed with the club splurging a lot of cash on buying players from elsewhere. Ousmane Dembele, Antoine Griezmann, Phillipe Coutinho each cost the club over 100 million euros. It has reduced opportunities for young graduates and none of those three signings can yet be called an absolute success.
The pressure to deliver the Champions League means managers have tended to rely on experienced players more, leaving the club with an ageing squad.
“No-one is essential,” said Gerard Pique at the end of the 8-2 humiliation in Lisbon recently against Bayern Munich. Pique is one of the last survivors along with Messi of Barcelona’s glorious era under Pep Guardiola from a decade ago.
“New blood has to come in and change this dynamic. If I am the first to go, so be it because now we have reached rock bottom,” he added.
Pique, Luis Suarez, Sergio Busquets, Jordi Alba and Arturo Vidal are all 31 or over.
The other problem has been the club’s growing wage bill. Astronomical wages have meant Barcelona managers are forced to play certain players that cost the club a bomb. Part of that problem is the obsession to keep Messi and paying him wages that are way above the normal range. This in turn forces the club to pay a premium to every other star they sign.
The desire to keep hold of their star asset at the club culminated in a bitter saga ending in Barcelona forcefully keeping Messi at the club. He has made it clear that it is happening against his will, with the under-fire management using technicalities in his contract against him.
The club are also planning a rebuild of their stadium that is going to add up to the costs and concerns of the Barcelona board.
Amidst all the behind-the-scene-chaos that has engulfed the club last season, Ansu Fati though has been the solitary shining light. Through his useful cameos, Barcelona fans see a light at the end of the tunnel.
Ansu Fati, a reminder to Barcelona of their strength
Fati was enrolled in Barca’s youth academy at the age of 10 and was one of the youngest players to have entered La Masia. His talent has been apparent to the academy coaches ever since.
“From the day that he arrived he was different, the type of player who invents football,” said Marc Serra, his first coach in Barcelona.
Fati’s story is similar to that of Messi. Like the Argentine, he too migrated from his homeland, Guinea Bissau, along with his father. Back home, he had limited means but it never stopped him from leaving a mark with the ball at his feet.
It would be unfair to expect similar results from the 17-year-old, but it’s becoming evident that sooner rather than later, Fati will be the man entrusted with taking over the mantle from Messi.
With Fati announcing himself on the international stage, it’s a reminder to Barcelona where their strength truly lies. Having failed to build another golden generation through the transfer market, Barcelona must look to pick up the pieces and begin another era, with or without Messi, but certainly with La Masia and Fati at the heart of it.
If Ansu Fati’s glowing talent doesn’t get them back on track, it is difficult to predict what will.