What were you doing at 17 years of age?
You were probably trying to figure out what you wanted to do with your life while saving up enough of your paper round money to buy the latest video game, while simultaneously trying to impress the opposite sex.
For Ansu Fati, well, the trials and tribulations of being a teenager are slightly different.
Moving to Spain aged six from his native Guinea-Bissau, things got so tough for the Fati family that dad Bori had to beg on the streets for food. But from such humbling upbringings, often stars are born.
He thrived on the football pitch, eventually signing a deal to live and be educated in Barcelona’s famed ‘La Masia’ football and schooling academy, and just a couple of years later, he was forcing his way into the first-team picture at the Catalan giants.
Today, Fati holds the record as the youngest ever goalscorer for Barcelona, the youngest player to score in the Champions League and the youngest talent to score a brace in a La Liga game, which he achieved against Levante on February 2.
All of which has led to the African teenager signing a contract that contains a €100 million release clause.
Funnily enough, one day that might look a bargain price for a dynamic winger who can cut from inside the left flank, or take his man on the outside. The emergence of Fati has been key to Barcelona’s title hopes too as, with Luis Suarez injured, his form has enabled Antoine Griezmann to move inside to replace the Uruguayan. Furthermore, after struggling to keep pace with Real Madrid, the Catalan outfit are now a short price in the latest outright La Liga football betting odds to retain their crown.
This is just the beginning for Fati, who could not wish to be in a better place to continue his footballing education. After all, playing on the opposite flank to Lionel Messi has its obvious advantages.
If he can maintain his focus, and his physical maturity continues at a manageable pace, there are surely no heights that this precocious world star cannot reach.
A Moment of Caution
With optimism and romanticism put to one side for the moment, there is a misconception in football, and in sport in general, that ‘if Player X is this good at 17, imagine how good he is going to be in five years’ time’ etc.
Sadly, it doesn’t always work out that way, and often a sporting star can actually be at their best as a teenager.
Why? Perhaps it’s physical – there has been less wear-and-tear on the body at that age, fewer injuries, and that ‘spring in the step’ has been retained. And there’s certainly the psychological side to consider. Many pundits speak about the naivety of youth, which tends to manifest itself as an ambivalence to pressure. No battle scars mean no choking under the spotlight.
One such example is Michael Owen, who burst to prominence as a teenager. He was scoring wonder goals in the World Cup at 18, netting hat-tricks against Germany at 21 and being named European Footballer of the Year at 22.
But that was as good as it got for the England striker, who suffered a catalog of injuries and lost that natural burst of pace that made him such a natural young talent.
Jose Kleberson, who was completely unheard of prior to occupying the midfield in Brazil’s World Cup triumph in 2002, sparked a global bidding war for his signature immediately thereafter.
Eventually, Manchester United would win the race for the youngster, but he failed to live up to the heights he set on the international stage. Not aided by injuries and an inability to cope with the frenetic pace of English football, Kleberson faded away into obscurity shortly after.
Others have come and gone too. Denilson went from being the world’s most explosive player to perennial substitute in a matter of months, while Sebastian Deisler – heralded as one of the hottest young German talents in years – also fell out of love with football due to injury and a bout of depression.
These are cautionary tales for Ansu Fati who, if he can remain focused and injury-free, will surely go on to dominate European football for the next decade or more.