“Mum, I’m going to the first team,” Ansu Fati exclaimed over the phone when he heard the news.
It was August 2019 and then-Barcelona boss Ernesto Valverde wanted him. A new La Liga season had just started and the team was missing a host of players up front. None of Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez or Ousmane Dembele were at the coach’s disposal.
Fati was just 16 years old, but in a few days’ time, he would embark on the dream of a lifetime. He had jumped from the youth team straight into the senior squad in a move reminiscent of his agent Rodrigo Messi’s more famous brother.
On August 25, Barcelona hosted Real Betis at the Camp Nou. It was a night-time kick-off to withstand the heat and humidity of the city in the middle of the summer. Barca had bad memories of Betis’ last visit, when the Andalusian side had beaten them 4-3.
In the 77th minute, Arturo Vidal scored a stunning goal to make it 5-1 to Barca. Fati’s moment had come. Valverde told him to make his way to the pitch and the forward prepared to take to the field amid a standing ovation for Carles Perez, who had been rewarded for his performance with a goal.
Fati high-fived Perez, set foot on the pitch and in that moment became the second youngest debutant in Barcelona’s history. He tried to pull the usual poker face from most players when they run on, but his boyish grin gave him away — he was a child fulfilling his dream.
Over the next four and a half months, Fati would break many more records and win the hearts of an entire Barcelona fan base mired in a deep sporting crisis. Supporters pinned their hopes on the 16-year-old, who was a bright spark in an otherwise gloomy period. The list of Fati’s landmarks goes some way to explaining why his first steps were so exciting.
Six days after his debut, he became the club’s youngest-ever goalscorer in a match against Osasuna. A fortnight later against Valencia, he made the starting line-up for the first time. He became the youngest player to start at the Camp Nou, the youngest to score and assist in a single game in La Liga and the youngest to score at Barca’s famous home ground.
— UEFA Champions League (@ChampionsLeague) December 16, 2019
“Ansu Fati has something special — it’s not normal for anybody to score so many goals so soon,” Valverde said after the game against Valencia.
Three days later, Fati became the youngest Barca player in the Champions League in a group-stage clash with Borussia Dortmund. Then he came on with five minutes left of Barca’s clash with Inter Milan and scored the winner, becoming the youngest Champions League scorer in history at 17 years and 40 days old.
That was all less than five months after his debut. His streak continued in 2020 as he made his debut for Spain against Germany on September 3, becoming their youngest player since 1936. Three days later, he became the national team’s youngest goalscorer in a 4-0 win against Ukraine.
On October 20 he became the youngest player to score multiple goals in the Champions League with a strike against Ferencvaros. Four days after that, he scored against Real Madrid to become the second-youngest scorer in El Clasico history.
Fati’s career could not have got off to a better start, and it seemed as if he would go from strength to strength for Barca.
Then came November. Barca were hosting Betis again, but this time the match would mark Fati in an altogether different way. Half an hour into the game, he was tackled by defender Aissa Mandi. Fati’s knee turned sharply and he had to be treated on the pitch.
Fati was replaced at half-time and would not return to the field of play until many months later. His ordeal began the following day. The diagnosis was a ruptured inner meniscus in his left knee — a complicated injury which requires a long recovery time.
The procedure used to treat Fati’s injury made sense for his age. The forward went to Dr Ramon Cugat, an internationally renowned expert in orthopaedic surgery and trauma medicine, who specialises in the world of sport, for his treatment. He has worked on players including Sergio Aguero, Pep Guardiola, Xavi, Carles Puyol, Alexis Sanchez, Vincent Kompany and Fernando Torres, to name a few.
Cugat sutured the player’s torn meniscus — making a stitch to join together the open parts of a wound — in a first operation that consisted of trying to keep the meniscus intact. Fati spent 10 days recovering, doing one session a day at Dr Cugat’s centre.
It is then that things took a turn for the worse and where it is unclear whether there is blame to be attached or if Fati just suffered bad luck.
According to a source close to Dr Cugat who had to remain anonymous to protect their position, Fati returned to Barca after 10 days and they took charge of his rehabilitation. The source added that Fati called the doctor a few weeks later to tell him his knee had become inflamed. The forward told him that with Barca he was undergoing two recovery sessions per day — one more than he was supposed to. Former employees at Barca who were responsible for Fati’s recovery did not respond when approached for comment, neither did Fati’s family.
“Unlike the classic meniscus operation with suturing you have to go much slower with recovery,” Dr Llobet, an orthopaedic surgeon specialising in knee injuries, tells The Athletic. “They rushed with Ansu’s. The suture serves to hold the two parts of an injury together. Certain biological facts are what make the meniscus stick together again.”
After two months, Fati returned to the operating theatre for a second operation, which was another suture. “If the suture fails, there is no choice but to remove part of the meniscus,” Llobet adds. “This is what the scientific criteria (are) and that’s OK.”
Fati was due to return to the field in the spring of 2021, just as he underwent a third operation on his knee. He went to Madrid to continue his recovery and, two months later, he underwent a meniscectomy — where the affected part of his meniscus was removed. It was his fourth operation in six months.
“Four operations on the knee are too many,” Llobet says. “Not only the meniscus has suffered, but also the cartilage. Recovering from this is very difficult. Besides, he has had other muscle injuries probably related to this.”
Fati would make his return to the pitch on September 26, 2021, against Levante and he did so in style. Then-Barca boss Ronald Koeman brought him on in the 80th minute, and 10 minutes later he scored the final goal in a 3-0 win.
Everybody thought it was a happy ending to Fati’s nightmare. But it wasn’t.
He would play six more games, retiring with discomfort in his right knee away to Rayo Vallecano. Just over a month later, the forward suffered another injury against Celta Vigo at their Balaidos ground. It was an injury in the biceps femoris of his left thigh — meaning two more months on the sidelines.
He returned for the semi-finals of the Supercopa de Espana against Real Madrid. It took him 17 minutes to score an equaliser, forcing the match into extra time and giving his team a shot at the final. Despite being out of action for two months, it was proof that he needed very little to make a difference.
That was in early January last year and it seemed as if the ordeal was over — but the feeling of liberation did not last long. Against Athletic Bilbao later that month, he relapsed. Although the club asked the player to undergo surgery, he wanted to follow a more conventional treatment rather than go under the knife again.
Physiotherapist Lluis Puig has an explanation for why his game has dropped off since then: “One possible hypothesis as to why he re-injured the biceps femoris of the contralateral leg on which he had the knee operation could be because he unconsciously compensated more with this leg and the rest of his body. That is to say, asking much more effort from the non-operated leg of the knee.”
For the physiotherapist, the key is Fati gaining confidence. He says it is a question of time, not reinvention.
“Rather than reinventing himself, he needs to be aware of his characteristics now,” Puig says. “He has to work on balance and strength. Not only when running straight, but also when there are opponents in front of you.”
Puig also explained how a player who has undergone so many operations can feel physically.
“When you (doctors) start to play with a joint, it can be that there is chronic pain (for the player) and it conditions you from time to time,” Puig said. “It could be that you play with pain on a certain day and you want to play anyway, but that’s why you don’t play well at all. You’ll never know because they’ll never tell you.”
Ivan Lopez is a former Levante player who suffered an injury setback in his prime in 2017: a ruptured external meniscus in his left knee which led to a three-year ordeal.
He spoke to The Athletic about what that process was like and what Puig refers to as “chronic pain”. Each case is different, however, and Lopez’s experience does not represent that of any other player mentioned in this article.
Lopez was a 23-year-old right-back experiencing the best form of his career when he suffered the setback. He was starting for Levante and was a big part of his coach’s plans.
“It was the best moment of my career, but I never imagined that the next thing to come was to go downhill,” he says.
Lopez tore the external meniscus, the internal meniscus and the cruciate ligament in his left knee during a training session. He was also operated on by Dr Cugat who, having seen how young he was, decided to suture the internal and external meniscus — despite the fact Lopez says it looked like it needed to be removed.
After many months of attempted recovery, a lot of pain and three operations, he gave up football at the age of 26 in 2020.
“There came a time when they asked me to train and I told them I couldn’t do it anymore,” Lopez explains. “Despite taking Voltaren (an anti-inflammatory drug used to treat pain and inflammatory diseases) every night, when I trained I felt I wanted to cry because of the pain.
“I was only standing in an exercise and not being able to plant my left leg. I told the doctor that I couldn’t go on like that, that I felt it had an expiry date. The whole process took about six months in which I had to bear this suffering quietly.
“After two knee operations and six months of training, if it occurred to me to say that I was in pain, there would be an outcry. When I went to the doctor again, the percentage they gave me of playing football was very low, 25 per cent with a meniscal transplant.
“I had a terrible time during those six months. I would get home and I was unable to go for a walk. I would put ice on it, rest, to be fit to train. I realised that wasn’t a life and I decided to talk to the doctor and get well, even if it was for everyday life. Even that — I can’t run, play a game of padel (a racket sport popular in Spain which is similar to tennis) or anything that involves braking. Because I feel pain.”
For Fati, it has been a tough period for one of the most talented young players to have worn the Barca shirt in a long time. Many compared him to Messi, who embraced him as his heir apparent.
There were always parallels between the two players. Maybe it is because Messi’s brother Rodrigo was Fati’s agent, or perhaps because the Argentina forward saw in Fati a different player from the rest, but it made sense to describe him as Messi’s successor.
When Messi left the club, it was Fati who inherited the No 10 shirt. In the recent Amazon Prime documentary The New Era on Barca, Fati said the club asked him to do so and that he asked the captains for advice. They all agreed and he took on the number as a result.
Both players made the leap from the youth ranks to the first team without having played for Barcelona B. Both stood out above the rest and had the kind of spark that great players show. Both suffered injuries at the beginning of their careers.
Then there was the fact Fati moved to Barca thanks to agent Junior Minguella, the son of the famous agent Josep Maria Minguella, who brought Messi — and Diego Maradona, among others — to the Camp Nou.
“I noticed him because he stood out from the others,” Minguella says. “Albert Puig knew Ansu and his brother Braima and agreed with Sevilla to bring the older brother. It seemed logical to me to bring the younger one, who was Ansu.
“Once they were both in Barcelona, we established guidelines so that the whole family could move to Barcelona and have a decent life. For a while, my father took in the whole Fati family in his own home. Then we found a big flat near the Ciudad Deportiva for them and gave them a monthly allowance so they could live. We helped them until he was 16.”
Then Fati’s family changed the Minguellas for the Messis.
“It’s not that the Messis stole Ansu from us, they arrived at a time when (Fati’s father) Bori had made a decision, without telling us, and the only one who could help him was Rodrigo, I imagine with the help of his brother,” Minguella adds.
“Rodrigo made him jump from the youth team to the first team without going through Barca B, something for which I think they should be very grateful. I know Ansu is, and also to us. Even if Rodrigo was later swapped for Jorge Mendes.”
So what now for Fati?
After the ordeal he has been through, it is hard to see the attacking spark he possessed before his injury troubles. Whether that is because of psychological issues that would have affected anyone after those problems or because his physique is no longer the same as when he made his debut, Fati does not appear to be the same player.
For a start, his role has diminished in the seasons since his injury. Before rupturing his meniscus, his performances earned him a consistent place in the starting line-up. Now, he rarely starts for Xavi’s side. This season he has played in every game in La Liga, but he has only started in five of those. He has scored three goals.
In the Champions League, he has also played every game, but only started the two group-stage games against Viktoria Plzen. He only played the full 90 minutes in one match — Barca’s last Champions League game against Plzen when they had already been eliminated from the competition. He scored in Barca’s only Copa del Rey match so far this season against Intercity last week, but that was also off the bench.
Fati’s pre and post-injury attacking stats in La Liga tell an interesting story, as shown in the graphic below. His goals, expected goals and assists per 90 minutes have all risen since his injury, but his expected assists, attempted dribbles and successful dribbles per 90 have fallen. That could show how Fati is focusing on becoming more of a finisher rather than the dribbler he appeared to be when he first burst through at Barca.
Former Spain boss Luis Enrique explained how he saw Fati’s situation when he did not call him up to his squad in September before the World Cup.
“He’s only played one game for his club and that says something to me,” Luis Enrique said. “Hopefully we will see the best Ansu again, but at the moment I don’t see him for the list. He is in the process of gaining confidence and improving after not playing for a long time.”
Luis Enrique eventually took Fati to the World Cup in Qatar, but the forward barely featured. He didn’t play in Spain’s 7-0 drubbing of Costa Rica or in their 1-1 draw against Germany, while his first minutes came off the bench in their 2-1 defeat to Japan. He came on in Spain’s last game against Morocco in the round of 16 as they exited the tournament on penalties following a 0-0 draw after 120 minutes.
While Luis Enrique showed confidence in Fati by taking him to the World Cup, he only seemed to call on him when he had no other option. The forward did not have much time to shine and, unlike on previous occasions, he was not the driving force who was able to change the dynamic of two games in which Spain seemed destined for defeat.
Fati’s future, then, is uncertain. The only thing that is clear is that he has a contract with Barcelona until June 2027, although some Spanish media outlets reported that the club wanted to sell him in the summer of 2021 for a price of €100million. Fati is fighting to return to his full potential and is doing everything he can to revive the attacking spark he once had.
Barca looking to sell him next summer is not out of the question, given his lack of prominence under Xavi, the price at which he was once valued and the club’s economic situation. That is a prospect which is officially denied by the club.
Robert Lewandowski’s three-game suspension for a red card before the World Cup break may offer Fati a chance. He missed a chance when Xavi started him in Barca’s 1-1 draw with Espanyol, however, and there was a morale-sapping moment when right-back Oscar Gil beat him one-on-one on the touchline. The result was Fati was replaced in the second half and was benched for the Copa del Rey game against Intercity.
Fati should have started that match, but it proved to be a silver lining for the forward. He came on in the 75th minute and scored the winner in extra time to send Barca through to the next round — showing once again that he is a player with a special goalscoring touch.
If he regains his confidence and injuries give him a break, perhaps Fati could return and become a Barca legend. Only time will tell.
(Top image: Sam Richardson using Getty Images)
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