DOHA, Qatar — There’s plenty of time left for Ansu Fati to explode with a barrage of goals, becoming either La Roja‘s or this tournament’s top scorer en route to helping Spain win the World Cup. Although, admittedly, it would help if Luis Enrique Martinez started to pick him. Prior to a Group E match against Japan that can propel Spain through as the winners or second-place team or send them home, Ansu has so far played precisely zero minutes.
If Spain’s youngest-ever scorer — and also the youngest to hit the net in the history of the Champions League — has been tuning into the fierce debate about Gareth Southgate cold-shouldering Phil Foden during England‘s first two matches, the 20-year-old Barcelona striker would be well within his rights to complain. “Hold on! What about ME?”
– World Cup 2022: Schedule, features and more | Fixtures
As they demonstrated in their first two group matches, La Roja have just about everything. A clever, motivational, successful and daring coach. A keeper (Unai Simon) who makes big saves. Tall, commanding and technically gifted centre-backs (Aymeric Laporte, Rodri) and full-backs (Dani Carvajal, Jordi Alba, Cesar Azpilicueta) who’ve got umpteen Champions League medals between them as well as a flow of assists in their boots.
They have a midfield populated by a genius in Sergio Busquets and two stunning proteges who any club, and any national team, would immediately wrench away from Spain and Barcelona if Pedri and Gavi were available.
In attack there’s an array of players, Alvaro Morata, Dani Olmo, Marco Asensio and Ferran Torres — all of whom have scored — and Luis Enrique’s bench has provided, when called upon against Costa Rica and Germany, a flood of goals and assists. Nevertheless, it’s blindingly obvious that if, against the odds, they’re to win their second-ever World Cup, this squad need a hero to step forward. Someone who not only conjures up a fistful of goals but scores in the key moments when that winning mentality, that special something, is desperately called for.
Perhaps it’ll be Atletico’s Morata or Barcelona’s Torres who grasp history and wrestle it in Spain’s direction. Maybe it’ll be just a couple of long range net-busters from Rodri or set-play headers from Laporte. Maybe it’s the case that Spain will trip and fall on their faces, remembered for being promising but going unrewarded (again). The fact is that it should be this diminutive, gifted and deeply unfortunate, but innately goal-obsessed, 20-year-old who shakes off his two seasons of absolute purgatory and powers La Roja deep into this World Cup.
Ansu possesses several things that Luis Enrique keenly needs in order to sharpen Spain’s challenge. Firstly, the kid has superb pace — particularly over short and mid-distances. Quick mind, explosive sprints, good dribbling.
Secondly, he has that instinct for where to send the ball, the place that the keeper least wants to see it go, and when to catch the man between the sticks off balance. The weird thing is that he showed both of these startling talents in Spain’s final warmup match before the World Cup, a 3-1 win over Jordan — even scoring a good opening goal — but hasn’t featured since.
Now, let’s front up about something. The fact that Luis Enrique has called upon Carlos Soler, Alex Balde, Nico Williams, Morata plus Koke off the bench in each game so far, and that every single one of them has either scored, assisted or played very well, means this is a coach who’s on hot form.
There’s no point in complaining about him underusing Ansu — Luis Enrique remains “in the zone” — but it’s worrying to try and figure out what’s going wrong — what’s causing a potential talisman player for Spain to sit kicking his heels on the sidelines? Back to that in a moment, but please pay attention here, history proves that there truly is still time for Ansu to make this tournament his own.
Just look at several recent World Cups, the winning teams and their top scorers. France won in 2018, with Antoine Griezmann top scoring for them en route to victory but only netting once in the group. Four years earlier, Germany’s top scorer was Thomas Muller, but after his hat trick in the first match, he only scored twice more in 540 minutes!
David Villa was the top scorer in 2010, and a World Cup winner, but failed to find the net in either Spain’s opening match, the semifinal or the final. When Italy claimed the ultimate prize in 2006, their (joint) top scorers managed just two goals (Marco Materazzi and Luca Toni) while France in 1998 had young substitute Thierry Henry as their top marksman with three goals. Those came in the first two group matches, against South Africa and Saudi Arabia; meanwhile, the man who’s perhaps France’s greatest-ever forward didn’t score again before Didier Deschamps raised the trophy in Stade de France after beating Brazil 3-0.
Perhaps Ansu’s greatest inspiration should be the late Paolo Rossi.
The Italian, just back from a long ban, failed to score in his first four appearances in Spain at the 1982 World Cup as the Azzurri stank, but he erupted with a quarterfinal hat trick, followed by a brace in the semifinal and even the opening goal against West Germany in the Santiago Bernabeu final.
History is clear-cut that there’s time for Ansu, so what does he need to do?
On Monday afternoon in practice, Ansu showed that the precision and brilliance, which saw him rip up the record books before a series of horrible meniscus injury problems and recurrences, is still very much there. He smashed shot after shot from outside the box past all three of Spain’s goalkeepers, right-footed into both corners. As a witness to the traditional Spain “rondo” on Tuesday morning in 84 degree temperatures, I can confirm that Ansu was fast, dogged and enjoying himself; in short, looking like a good candidate to be picked against Japan.
But there have been other sides to his time here in Qatar. Often (by choice) a slightly solitary or melancholy figure, Ansu’s looked like a guy who needs someone, or something, to pick him up and remind him: “you’re special, kid!” You’ll see him on the bus, around the hotel, in the stadium tunnels looking very self-contained. He’s not being isolated by others or moodily shunning company, but he gives you the impression he’s still figuring out why the world gifted him such extravagant talents and such a precocious start to his professional career before testing him and his psyche so intensely with so many setbacks.
I think this is the key, and Luis Enrique alluded to it the other day. The Spain coach oozes self-belief, energy and competitive aggression. He’s naturally drawn to such characters, too. As far as Enrique is concerned — and this was the case as a footballer, as a recently retired sportsman who challenged himself to run marathons across the Sahara desert and now as a coach — the greater the challenge, the greater the adversity, the more there’s a guttural growl in his belly roaring “‘Bring it on!”
Ansu, I think, is composed differently. He certainly projects a different vibe and, let’s not forget, he only recently celebrated his 20th birthday. I think Spain’s coach is drawn towards the bold, the brash and the aggressive. He and Ansu are still feeling each other out.
Niclas Füllkrug’s equalizing goal for Germany vs. Spain at the World Cup gets the full Lego treatment.
When Luis Enrique announced that the little dynamo would start against Jordan, he pleaded with the Spanish media: “Although I’m sure you’re going to ignore me, I’d like you to stop referring to Ansu all the time as a player who’s injury prone. He’s in good form and he’ll play tomorrow…”
– Stream on ESPN+: LaLiga, Bundesliga, more (U.S.)
Fati, I’m convinced, lacks very little now, except a few twists and turns when fate goes his way. Like Alvaro Morata was for Spain at the rescheduled Euros in 2021, when his country’s own fans were booing and jeering him and abusing the striker on social media, Ansu needs this coach and his excellent sports psychologist, Joaquin Valdes, to pick him up.
First of all, he needs Luis Enrique to pick him. Whether from the start or off the bench. It doesn’t matter. Then he needs lady luck to whisper, “here’s your chance, Ansu.” Following that, he must do what he does best: head down, strike through the ball, surprise the keeper, wheel away in joy and celebrate.
Right now, La Roja are all control, patience, concentration and passion for passing. If they can recuperate Ansu, and soon, he can add the spark and explosiveness that can cut rivals open. Come on Spain: let Ansu play.
Why Spain should give Ansu Fati a shot at 2022 World Cup