Barcelona rediscover Ansu Fati – and hope – when they most need to

Hope appeared on a Sunday afternoon, light let in at last. Just that smile would have been enough, the look of this kid stepping back on to the pitch 323 days later, taking it all in like it was the first time; the look of every kid everywhere stepping into a football stadium for the first time, overwhelmed yet inspired, at once tiny and huge.

Ansu Fati though doesn’t do enough and doesn’t do waiting, so there was more. The youngest player ever to score for Barcelona and for Spain, the boy who found the net 111 seconds into his first Camp Nou start, finally headed back out there on the day he said was like a debut and by the time he came off again he had another goal.

It hadn’t taken 10 minutes and it was impossible not to be carried along by it all. “You dream but I didn’t really imagine it like this,” Fati admitted. If it had been his debut, the shot from the edge of the area in the 90th minute that completed a 3-0 victory over Levante would have made him the seventh youngest goalscorer in Barcelona’s history. Instead, it was his 44th and, his meniscus torn in November, he had been under the knife four times, visited doctors in three different countries, and been out of action for 11 months. A lot has changed since then, a lot loaded on to him. He is still only 18 and looks it but he came on wearing 10 and rose above it all, teammates lifting him to the sky to be seen by all and embraced by everyone. They had needed this too.

There is something about Ansu. Not just the talent, although there’s plenty of that. Not just the moment or Barcelona’s need, although there’s even more of that. But something else: something in his story perhaps; something in his age, in the freshness, the excitement, maybe the simplicity too; something, certainly, in the suffering of the last year. All of which creates a connection, a rare affection that goes even beyond Barcelona, a warmth seen in the reaction that feels like it makes him everyone’s and which saw his return eclipse everything on Sunday. As Levante manager Pablo López said: “We didn’t enjoy it much but we’re happy for football that he’s back.”

It was seen even before he scored. The clock at the Camp Nou showed 79.56 when Luuk de Jong headed just over the bar, but by then a lot of the people inside the ground weren’t really watching the game any more, now in a state of suspended animation. For a while attention had been drawn instead to the touchline where Fati was waiting to return. He embraced Ronald Araújo, rubbed his face – yes, it’s really happening – and on 80.21 ran on wearing a smile that was awe, a kind of childlike wonder, eyes wide and hardly able to believe he was actually here. The 35,334 fans stood and handed him an ovation and he clapped back, raised his left hand and placed 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 chances – one over, one saved, one into the side netting – as if Fati’s introduction had momentarily broken Barcelona’s concentration but soon he was up and running, the way he always had. “Daring,” Ernesto Valverde had called him and, somehow, injury hasn’t changed that. “I was waiting, thinking: ‘I can enjoy it again,’” he said and it showed. On 83.53, his first touch, he turned Jorge Miramón, cut inside towards the area and fired off a shot that was blocked. On 84.12, he dashed into the box and was brought down by Pablo Martínez. The referee said no when he might have said yes, which was familiar too. The same had happened on his Camp Nou start. “Have a look,” Fati said. The referee didn’t, but everyone else did. They couldn’t take their eyes off of him.

Every time he got the ball, there was no sign of fear, rustiness, the weight of responsibility. Instead, there was this spark, an expectation, fans getting to their feet, something about to happen. “It was like he was levitating,” Marcos López wrote in El Periódico. Morales brought him down, another run stopped at the start line, and there was a quick exchange with Memphis Depay before it happened. A turn in the middle, not quite a roulette but almost, the knee holding, the ball running his way, and Fati was off. Six touches carried him to the edge of the area, two defenders backing off and there he applied the brakes, turned to his right, stepped beyond Miramón and struck a low shot into the net, a hint of Messi at Wembley about it.

It was 90.15 on 26 September 2021, and his face lit up, the gloom lifted. Relief and joy arrived together, optimism returning. Araujo opened his arms wide and Fati leapt in, the rest joining in, disbelief and happiness on their faces. Together they raised Ansu and held him high, offered to everyone, like Rafiki on the rock. The iconography was immediate, a glimpse of something good shared with the community, like he was the chosen child: here was hope, a future. The similarities between this shot and Messi after PSG didn’t go unnoticed, a man – a kid – overseeing everything.

Fati planted a kiss on Araujo’s forehead and, alone now, headed across to west stand, where his family were in tears. The image of Bori, his dad, fingers trying to stem the flow from his eyes said it all. Ansu climbed the stairs and made his way towards a man in a face mask, a blue polo shirt and an earpiece in: Lluís Til, the doctor. Fati reached out a hand and held him. Then came Jordi Mesalles, the physio. Above them, Fati’s little brother was running down the stairs, fist ready to be bumped. “Above all, I’m grateful,” the striker said. “I had promised my dad and my brother [I would celebrate with them] but the Covid protocol means you can’t climb up [further]. They have suffered with me and I dedicate this goal to them. Going to the doctor was improvised. He and the physios have done so much for me all these months.”

“The reaction of the fans says it all: the ground exploded,” insisted Alfredo Schreuder, Ronald Koeman’s assistant. “Ansu’s an excellent player who can score a goal out of nothing. We knew that he could play 15 minutes. This is only the beginning.”

It feels like a new beginning, and therein lies the risk. Fati was one of eight Barcelona graduates to play on Sunday, Gavi and Nico joining a new generation he is called upon to lead. Projecting him as an heir to Messi is not particularly helpful, even if when it was put to him that taking the number 10 shirt brought pressure and responsibility, he replied: “Er, no. It makes me proud and grateful.” The expectation will be heavy and Fati insisted that “we’ve only just started and his is long”, yet it is inevitable too. He represents renewal, symbolises the enthusiasm, the fun and the hope that is the whole point of sport – even if you don’t get there in the end.

The good news is that there is something about him too: he has an angel, the Spanish like to say. It is almost as if he doesn’t notice all that pressure, is untouched by it, a purity in him just playing that carries others with him, unpolluted by the rest of it, at least for now. “I’ve shared my life with him, and he’s special,” Nico said. “He’s a natural talent, he has goals and magic,” Eric García said.

Just his presence felt like it changed everything, his smile all of theirs, his return their shot at revival or a restart, a kid stepping into a stadium for the first time, humbled by it but their imagination allowed to run wild. Asked if they could really stepping into a stadium for the first time, humbled by it, imagination allowed to run wild. Asked if they could really compete for the title despite Ronald Koeman imploring everyone to be “realistic”, Fati said: “Yes, of course. We’re Barcelona: we’re going to fight for the league and the Champions League.” And for one brief moment, in that instant when the ball hit the net, emotion took everyone and anything felt possible, it didn’t seem quite so silly to believe that, who knows, maybe they actually can.