Ansu Fati had just finished warming up when he took his place behind the touchline, hands clasped together at the mouth in a prayerful gesture with a nervous smile etched upon his face. Days earlier, he had taken to Instagram to post a picture o himself training with the first team with the caption: “DREAMS COME TRUE”. What may have seemed a premature declaration was now a reality: a debut at 16 years 11 months and 25 days making him the youngest debutant for the Blaugrana in almost 80 years.
In the days since that milestone, much has been said of the extraordinary circumstances surrounding his meteoric rise from a little-known academy talent to a prodigious wonderkid. For starters, a dream debut in Europe’s most iconic stadium would’ve seemed to an impossibility over a decade ago for a boy who used rolled up socks as a makeshift ball in native Guinea-Bissau. Upon arriving in Spain, he caught the eye of Spanish scouts, was snapped up by Barcelona aged 11 to the dismay of rivals Real Madrid. And after a summer in which he almost left the club in search of reserve-team football, Fati stepped onto the pitch for his first-team debut having never made an appearance for the B team.
If it is true the young starlet was suffering from a lack of food and of sleep off the pitch, there was seemingly no evidence of it on the pitch. If anything, he was calm, proactive and daring, as Ernesto Valverde put it. He looked comfortable, linked up well with Nelson Semedo down the right flank, was adventurous, assertive even, and could easily have had a goal to his name.
By the time the 90 minutes were up, he was reluctant to leave. “I couldn’t believe it, I wanted to enjoy the moment,” he said.
Barcelona’s 5-2 victory over Real Betis was significant in other respects too. For a club that prides itself on the youth system, the Catalans have copped criticism for investing big money on external players at the expense of promoting internally. Yet the game served as a reminder of importance their youth system with seven La Masia graduates featuring in the game, including Carles Perez who scored on debut. Meanwhile, Gerard Pique, often touted as a future Blaugrana president, joined an exclusive club by playing his 500th match.
Above all though, it was the way in which Barcelona had dispatched of Betis with both Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi watching on from the stands that was particularly impressive. In many ways it resembled the Barcelona of old: quick link-up play to cut open the opposition defence, ambition and intent in every move forward and high press up the pitch. There was an element of youthful fearlessness about the way they played too. If there was an evolution in play, it was organic, a return to the manner the club and its players are accustomed to play.
There’s a danger in reading too much into this result, of course, but conversely there’s a temptation to be overly dismissive of such a result. If so-called “Messidependencia” is a malignant tumour which requires hasty removal, then certainly last weekend’s result isn’t an emphatic rebuttal of Barcelona’s teething problems. It wasn’t a ‘passing on the baton moment’ either, as some have suggested.
The other trap is placing too much expectation on youngsters like Fati and Perez to perform. Barca’s list of 10 youngest debutants features a number of players – Bojan Krkic, Gerard Deulofeu, Marc Muniesa, Adama Traore et al – whose careers have stalled despite promise.
However, the result is an indication that, with proper integration of academy products, all of whom were born for the big stage, Barcelona might just be able to forge a way forward even in the absence of their star talisman.