Rodolf Borrel, coach of FC Barcelona Alevin, the club’s under-11s side, recalled the time he first witnessed Cesc Fàbregas.
“He had everything: vision, athleticism, stamina, speed. He could pass, he could shoot, and above all his decision-making was spectacular.”
Borrel would frequently make the trip up through northern Catalonia along the C-31 and C-32 via Badalona and Vilassar de Mar to CE Mataró, in an attempt to recruit Spain’s most raw talent.
Borrel was under the impression that this was the first time he had come across the Spanish prodigy, but Mataró coach, Senor Blai, admitted that they hid Fàbregas in the dressing room throughout the summer when Barcelona scouts visited, to protect their rising star. When Borrel finally made an approach for Fàbregas, he had already appeared five times for Mataró, so under Catalan football federation rules, he was unable to be permanently transferred to another side. But the persistent Borrel recognised that the chance to secure this mercurial playmaker was an unmissable opportunity. An agreement was struck in the summer of 1997 which meant that Fàbregas would continue playing for Mataró and would train with Barcelona every Monday. He formally joined La Masia the next season to kickstart his football education.
It was the dream scenario for the 10-year-old Fàbregas, who grew up supporting the Blaugrana. Born in Arenys del Mar in Catalonia, he regularly attended Barcelona matches throughout his childhood. The archaic, captivating and glorious setting of Camp Nou was a dream for every young boy who visited, and Fàbregas now had a pathway to immortality.
The Spaniard’s elite skill set that we have all become accustomed to – the incessant and beautifully accurate passing and playmaking – meant he seamlessly slotted into one of the most productive, efficient and eye-catching youth set-ups in world football. He became an indispensable member of the infamous and spell-binding ‘la Generación del 87. ’ This was Barcelona’s answer to ‘The Class of ‘92.’ Fàbregas, the imposing Gerard Pique and a certain Lionel Messi were the famous core of this academy side.
The coach played a 3-4-3 anchored by the irrepressible Fàbregas. When they were U14s they beat Espanyol U15s to win the cadet league in their first season in this category. Toni Calvo, another member of the side, remarked how training was more beneficial for this group as they coasted through games so easily. Widely viewed as the greatest product of La Masia, ‘la Generación del 87’ entered the legend of the club when they were just children.
Whilst proving to be an essential component of this insanely dominant youth side, Fàbregas was also riding the crest of the footballing wave internationally. During the U17s World Championship in 2003, Fàbregas finished as the top scorer and was voted Player of the Tournament. Worldwide appreciation was beginning to form. The Spaniard then embarked on an unforgettable journey outside of his beloved homeland.
North London Love Affair
“Arsenal came for me, but at Barcelona I was just one of many.”
Barcelona repped an unbelievable host of talented midfielders during the summer of 2003 – Edgar Davids, Phillip Cocu, Luis Enrique, Luis García and Thiago Motta, as well as the emergence of the all-conquering partnership of Xavi and Andrés Iniesta. There was fierce competition from the past, present and future. Fàbregas questioned his pathway into the first team and Arsene Wenger appreciated the youngster’s awe-inspiring gift. The 16-year-old then made the life-changing decision to leave the comfortable, familiar and radiant Costa Brava for the hustle and bustle of England’s pulsating capital, joining Arsenal on the 11th of September, 2003. This was the beginning of an eight-year love affair with the red side of North London.
Much like Fàbregas’ style of play, this move was intelligent, audacious, and most importantly, brave. To join Arsenal in the season of their imperious ‘Invincible’ season and be able to observe the unparalleled dominance of the Highbury demigods Patrick Vieira, Gilberto Silva and Freddie Ljungberg was the perfect learning curve to mold Fabregas into one of the greatest midfielders of the modern era.
On 28 October 2003, Fàbregas made his Gunners debut in the League Cup against Rotherham United to become Arsenal’s youngest ever first team player, aged 16 years and 177 days. He was scarily young, but as Wenger almost always was in the glorious dawning of his Arsenal tenure, it was the right decision. In the next round of the cup, he became Arsenal’s youngest ever goalscorer when he netted against Wolves in a 5-1 victory.
During the next season, he started to make appearances outside of the League Cup. Following an early season injury to Vieira, Fàbregas stepped in and made four consecutive league starts. In this burst of trust from Wenger, he broke yet another record – he scored versus Blackburn to become Arsenal’s youngest ever goalscorer in the league. Wenger marvelled over Fàbregas’ smooth and majestic introduction to the first team.
“He has been consistent, his work-rate and commitment are outstanding, and his football is a joy to watch.”
Arsenal’s new number four
2006 heralded a new era for Arsenal – Vieira had departed the previous year and Arsenal moved to the Emirates Stadium. Fàbregas was then given the Frenchman’s coveted number four jersey. The awarding of this number transcended beyond Viera’s obvious influence. Josep Guardiola, before his days as an unstoppable serial-winning manager, occupied the same number in Johan Cruyff’s Barcelona side that won four consecutive leagues and a European cup in the early nineties. Fàbregas always expressed his admiration for Guardiola and aimed to emulate his fellow Spaniard, but in the famous red and white of Arsenal.
Fàbregas was selected for the 2006 World Cup, thanks to his impressive start to his Arsenal career. He became the youngest player in Spanish football history to participate in the World Cup when he came on as a substitute during the group stage demolition of Ukraine, aged 19 years and 41 days. He returned from Germany brimming with confidence and that upcoming season was when he truly began to stamp his unbridled authority at Arsenal.
He played in every single league game and registered 13 assists, the second-highest total in the league, to become one of Europe’s most dominant and productive players. He finished 2006 as the Golden Boy, then was named in the UEFA team of the year and Arsenal’s player of the season for 2007.
Years that followed became littered with an abundance of individual accolades. In 2008 he secured a hat-trick of awards: he was announced as the PFA Young Player and Arsenal’s Player of the season (an award he won 2 consecutive years) and was named in the PFA Team of the Year. He became Arsenal’s new mantle piece – the centre of Wenger’s attractive, possession-based team that was on the cusp of a Premier League title. He inherited the captaincy at the age of 22 in 2008, a glowing testament to his impeccable quality. Another PFA award followed when he was listed in the team of the year for a second time.
One of his most memorable moments in an Arsenal shirt came in the North London derby in 2009. Robin Van Persie had just given his side the lead at the Emirates thanks to a deft poked finish. The camera panned the Dutchman wheeling away in ecstasy as his teammates jubilantly embraced him. Sky Sports were busy replaying the opening goal and when the camera is directed back to action. The captain is bearing down on the Spurs’ goal and sweeps in a delightfully controlled strike to double the tally. Within six touches, Fàbregas had expertly glided through the desperate attempts of three Spurs players to halt his momentum. Every touch was flawlessly measured and executed. A calm finish followed to crown off one of the greatest solo goals in Premier League history.
One of Europe’s most accomplished and masterful footballers
Fàbregas would eventually leave Arsenal in unceremonious circumstances, but ultimately it was understandable. The irresistible pull of his homeland, the chance to reunite with his La Masia companion Messi and be coached by his childhood idol Guardiola was an irrefutable opportunity. He signed for Barcelona in the summer of 2011.
According to data supplied by OPTA, between 2006 and 2011 in Europe’s top five leagues, Fàbregas recorded the most assists (60) and created the most chances (466). At the peak of his powers, he was a relentless orchestrator of attacks and arguably the best midfielder in the world, who won two European Championships and registered the World Cup winning assist during an indomitable period for Spanish football.
Trophy-laden stints with the Blaugrana and later Chelsea would make Fàbregas one of the most decorated footballers since the turn of the century. The latter would deliver two Premier League titles. I was at Stamford Bridge for Fàbregas’ farewell to English football, at Chelsea’s 2-0 victory over Nottingham Forest in the FA Cup. ‘Fàbregas is magic’ was serenaded across the terraces as he left the pitch in tears, a unanimous appreciation of one of the most accomplished and masterful playmakers, who had completed football.
Cesc now resides in Como. The Stadio Giuseppe Sinigaglia is encompassed by the Lugano Prealps area, a stunning and panoramic mountain range that is one of Europe’s most breathtaking landscapes. This scenery is befitting of a footballer, who symbolised the beautiful game.