The night I became a Cesc addict

Cesc Fabregas

Last weekend, Cesc Fàbregas retired from football after a twenty year career laden with international and domestic honours. A World Cup winner and twice a European Champion with Spain, Fàbregas also won La Liga with Barcelona in 2012/13 as well as two Premier League titles with Chelsea, in 2014/15 and 2016/17.

However, it is surely the most trophy-barren period of his career for which he is best remembered.

At least, that is certainly the case for me.

There is a proclivity to idolise sportspeople as a child. Having been indoctrinated into football fandom from as early as I can remember, I was no different to any other kid in this regard. I was lucky enough to attend my first live match way back in October 2001; a 3-3 draw between Arsenal and Blackburn Rovers at Highbury Stadium. I have no clear memories of the game itself, but I recall that I cried after an 88th-minute equaliser from David Dunn.

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Nonetheless, I was still totally smitten by what I had witnessed. Graeme Souness’ Rovers were one hell of a team.

I’d actually fallen truly, madly, deeply in love with the Gunners, of course.

Maybe it was the vivid red shirts that had suckered me in. Perhaps I developed an affectionate eye for ‘va va voom’ Wenger-ball even in my early years. More realistically though, it probably would have been the threat of disownership from my Dad if I had even considered supporting anyone else.

In the first decade of my life, supporting Arsenal would have seemed to be a blessing. However, having only been born in 1996, straddling the borderline between being a ‘Millennial’ and being ‘Generation-Z’ (meaning that I’m not adept with new technology, but I also wasn’t traumatised by 9/11), I don’t distinctly remember any of the golden era of Arsène Wenger. I definitely watched The Invincibles, but I was too young to really appreciate them.

One of the earliest hazy videos stored in the cache of my mind is a football match which gave me a new childhood hero. I was again sat on the North Bank at Highbury. This time in March of 2006. Fabio Capello’s Juventus were the visitors in the first leg of a Champions League quarter-final tie. Arsenal were in their one-off vintage maroon kit with the centrally-aligned badge and the ‘o2’ sponsor. The ball was a ‘Total90’. Nostalgia: ultra.

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For all the established superstars on the field, it was the slick-haired teenager from Catalunya in the centre of midfield who would steal the show – and who would steal my heart in doing so.

In spite of his tender years, Cesc Fàbregas was already a mainstay in the Arsenal team in early 2006. He had become the club’s youngest-ever goalscorer in a league cup tie against Wolverhampton Wanderers more than two years earlier, having given up the heralded La Masia academy of Barcelona to sign professional terms in the English capital when he turned 16.

Faced with a funding encumbrance while the club paid off their new stadium debt, Arsène Wenger decided to promote from within to fill the Vieira-shaped void in the Arsenal midfield after the club captain departed for pastures new in the summer of 2005. Being the visionary that he was, it is possible that ‘Le Professeur’ would have neglected signing a replacement even if the money had been available, such was his admiration for Fàbregas.

The Spaniard produced flashes of unadulterated brilliance the previous season (2004/05), indicating why his manager trusted him to make the step up. The impudent backheel assist for Freddie Ljungberg away at Charlton, the genius reverse pass to again set up Ljungberg at White Hart Lane, the age-defying authority of his performance up against Claude Makélélé, Tiago and Frank Lampard in midfield for Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea at Highbury. This was clearly a special player.

The fact that the 17-year-old had hurled a pizza at the head of Sir Alex Ferguson in “The Battle of the Buffet” at Old Trafford may well have also contributed to the warmth felt towards him by Wenger.

But, for all that early promise, Fàbregas wouldn’t truly come of age until that memorable night against Juve.

Arsenal went into the tie enduring something of a fallow year for their standards. Directly competing with Bolton Wanderers and local rivals Tottenham Hotspur just to get into the top four of the Premier League and qualify for the Champions League was not what the fans had been used to during the Wenger tenure.

The Italian giants, meanwhile, arrived in north London as champions and current leaders of Serie A. They boasted a starting XI packed with global superstars. Gianluigi Buffon. Fabio Cannavaro. David Trezeguet. Zlatan Ibrahimovic – venerable names left, right and centre. For a nine-year-old going to his first-ever big European game, it was all so exotic and thrilling.

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Around that time, Arsenal fans were quite guilty of turning up to home games with an aura of expectation. I had acclimatised myself to the infamous ‘Highbury library’ atmosphere, having been to a handful of Saturday afternoon kick-offs which were usually won convincingly by the home side.

This, though, was totally different. The team from Turin were undoubtedly favourites and the nervous trepidation amongst the Arsenal faithful manifested itself into a state of fever pitch before the game. From the moment I exited Finsbury Park train station and began the walk to the ground, I could sense the heightened emotion and anticipation. The crowd was a different beast. This one meant more.

With the benefit of hindsight, the Juventus game was a hugely significant match in the history of Arsenal football club. Having just knocked out the Galácticos of Real Madrid, the Gunners were on their way to their first-ever European Cup final in their last-ever season at Highbury, a stadium which they had occupied since 1913. The back four of Emmanuel Eboué, Kolo Touré, Philippe Senderos and Mathieu Flamini were set to equal a Champions League record of seven consecutive matches without conceding a goal if they could keep a clean sheet. [The makeshift defence would extend this record to ten consecutive shut-outs, a record which still stands, before eventually succumbing to two late goals to Barcelona in the final in Paris.] A 21-year-old Giorgio Chiellini also made a substitute appearance for Juve in the second half. For a man who seems to have been 36 forever, that feels like another quite remarkable feature of the night.

For all the various characters and strands of narrative, once the game kicked off, the night was all about Fàbregas.

Directly up against his former teammate and captain in Patrick Vieira, the boy from Barcelona appeared entirely unfazed. With his infallible first touch, stunning passing range and relentless energy, he completely dominated the midfield battle.

With the game only a quarter of an hour old, Fàbregas ran off the back of Brazilian midfielder Emerson to collect a clever back-heel by Robert Pires in the Juventus penalty area. The Arsenal man stepped away from the onrushing Vieira before screwing a shot well wide of the far post. It was a missed opportunity, but it was a sign of things to come.

When Pires then robbed Vieira on the halfway line shortly before the end of the first period, space opened up for Arsenal to attack. The home crowd collectively rose to its feet.

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The French winger found his compatriot Thierry Henry, who swivelled on the ball as he controlled. Cannavaro advanced to engage with the Arsenal striker. As he did so, Fàbregas burst through into the vacated area in the Juventus backline. Henry paused to wait for the perfect moment to slip a pass into the feet of his teammate, who was now one-on-one with Lilian Thuram on the edge of the 18-yard box

The ball looked as though it was stuck at the feet of Fàbregas as he received it laterally to the goal. Thuram had repositioned well to seemingly cover any angle for a shot. If xG had been around back then, I’m sure the figure would have been low.

From then, everything seemed to happen in slow motion. Fàbregas shifted the ball right and slightly scuffed a reverse shot. Thuram, likely expecting a curling effort towards the far post, sprawled in front of him attempting to block. The desperate lunge of the defender created a passage between his legs for the ball to roll through. Unsighted by his centre-back, Buffon was left completely flat-footed. The ball trickled along the grass into the far corner. Bedlam.

I remember the celebrations being louder than anything I had ever heard. New words were being spat out into the cold night air around me with such viscosity and febrility that I could instantly tell their meaning. They were naughty words that you mustn’t say at school or you’ll get into trouble. Okay?

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Everything that night just felt sharper, more aggressive, more raucous. The regular match-day musk of beer, tobacco and urine was turned up a few dials. The old blokes who sat next to us weren’t their usual, smiling and pleasant selves. Now they were sweary, angry, pulsing brutes. If it hadn’t been for the overriding sense of unity, with the shared agenda of simply wanting Arsenal to “fucking come on”, it would have been utterly terrifying.

Into the second half and the Gunners maintained their relentless pressure. With 20 minutes remaining, Fàbregas again demonstrated his remarkable vision and composure when he was played through on goal by Aliaksandr Hleb. Closing in on Buffon, having already scored earlier in the game, it was a situation in which 99% of players would have taken the shot. Instead, the teenager drew the goalkeeper and defender to him and then calmly rolled the ball square to Henry, who had sufficient time to control and finish into an empty net. Arsenal, two. Juventus, nil.

The Italian champions lost the plot late on and picked up two red cards. Mauro Camoranesi and Jonathan Zebina. Two players I know nothing about, but I will never forget those names. Chants of “Cheerio! Cheerio! Cheerio!” echoed around the stands as we waved each of them off the pitch. It was a sense of triumph that I had never before experienced. I didn’t know what drugs were when I was nine, but looking back it’s as though I had an out-of-body experience during those couple of hours.

From then on, all I wanted to do was be like Cesc. I wanted his name on the back of my shirt. I wanted to grow my hair longer so I could have it like he had. I wanted to learn Spanish at school. I was completely obsessed.

Sadly, Cesc never won the trophies to cement the legendary status that he should have had at Arsenal. The nine-year drought that the club suffered between 2005 and 2014 almost perfectly coincided with the period that Fàbregas rose to become the captain and central figure of the side.

There were still unforgettable moments. The late winning goal at San Siro before he ran to Wenger with tears in his eyes. The half-pitch dribble and finish straight from kick-off in the North London Derby. The 27-minute cameo against Aston Villa where he scored twice as a substitute before having to limp off again before the end of the game.

That ‘Roy-of-the-Rovers’ performance against Villa was somewhat emblematic of the denouement of Fàbregas’ time at the Emirates. When he was fit, he was always capable of majestic moments, but the amount of football he played as a teenager seemed to catch up with him and he spent long spells out of the team due to injuries.

All the while, rumours persisted of a return to his boyhood club of Barcelona. After a lengthy period of courtship, which involved a certain Liverpool goalkeeper unscrupulously throwing a Barca jersey over his head during Spain’s World Cup celebrations, Fàbregas made the inevitable move in the summer of 2011. By that time, he had racked up 212 professional appearances for Arsenal, and he was still only 24 years of age.

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His transfer to Chelsea three years later felt like a dagger in the heart of his Arsenal legacy. Fàbregas is on record stating that his desire at the time was to come back to north London but there was simply no interest in a reunion from Wenger. The irascible nature of fandom has left many fans feeling that the bridge has been forever burned between them and Cesc. Whilst I understand their tribalism, it feels impossible for me to dislike a man that had such an impact on my younger self – no matter how hard it was seeing him in a blue kit.

Ultimately, with a name like Cesc Fàbregas, it seems apt that the man was capable of fabulous things.

The idol of my childhood. The end of an outstanding career.

Gracias y adiós, Capitán.

This article was published first on on 5 July 2023.