When Cesc Fàbregas moved to play at Stamford Bridge, he didn’t come home. He went to the dark side
When Cesc Fàbregas made his competitive debut for Arsenal in 2003, he had a mullet, a real Euro-teen spectacular, complete with dodgy highlights and the suggestion of a rattail. You could picture him on Las Ramblas, working on a roll-up and belting out an acoustic version of “Wish You Were Here.” He was so talented that Arsenal fans were willing to look past his tonsorial mistakes. Cesc Fàbregas was like no other teenage footballer.
Wayne Rooney was 16 when he got his start at Everton. He was a monster, bigger and stronger and with more raw talent than anyone else on his team. He was a center forward who could win a game on his own but was not yet able to make his entire team better. The Class of ’92 at Manchester United, the subjects of Alan Hansen’s “You can’t win anything with kids” comment, were all 20 and 21. Even Lionel Messi, now arguably the best player in the world, was eased into the Barcelona first team and didn’t become a regular until he was nearly 20. Yet it was just after Fàbregas’s 18th birthday when Arsène Wenger sold Patrick Vieira, his first signing and talismanic captain, to give Cesc the reins in central midfield.
He was that good. He played the way adults like to imagine they’d play—a perfect mix of the cerebral and the physical. His head was up when he ran, looking forward, looking for the killer pass. He had 71 assists for Arsenal in what was basically a five-season career, given his injury record, and once recorded four in a 6-2 destruction of Blackburn. There was the 15-minute demolition of Villa, the goal against AC Milan, the broken-leg penalty against Barcelona, the run from the halfway line and finish against Tottenham. All that and he threw a pizza at Ferguson, told Pulis to fuck off, and chinned Frank Lampard once a season. And he got a decent haircut. The stuff of legend.
He was the first Arsenal player younger than me. That isn’t literally true: Thierry Henry is four years to the day my junior, but Cesc was the beginning of the generation gap. My wife likes to remind me that I called him Little Cesc, and it was a good nickname. I was proud of him in a way I’d never been of a player before. When he did well, I was pleased for him; when he was petulant (as he often was), I was embarrassed for him. If he got hurt, I didn’t worry for Arsenal; I worried for him. He was Wenger’s favorite child, and for Gooners of a certain age, he was ours, too.
But success has many fathers. Pep Guardiola, Barcelona manager and football genius, had promised a young Cesc Fàbregas that one day he would run out on the pitch at the Camp Nou wearing the legendary number 4, Guardiola’s own, and so the 4 was kept unused at Barça casino online in anticipation of the day Cesc came home. He had left La Masia at 16, and the Catalans were counting the days until he came back. Cesc gave them plenty of encouragement; at the drop of a hat, he would give a quote about knowing one day he would return to Catalonia.
The question was always when. Barcelona had, and indeed still has, the same midfield three: Xavi, Iniesta, Busquets—so good that even Yaya Touré could get into the team only as a defensive replacement. Surely Cesc, with his preternatural ability to read the game, could see now was not the time to go, right? Why leave the captaincy at Arsenal for the sub’s bench at Barcelona? Stick around for three years at the Emirates and then waltz back to Barcelona as Xavi’s heir. Hell, go a year early if you want some time to acclimatize. We’ll understand, but don’t go now.
In 2008, Spain win the European Championship. 2009, Barcelona win the Champions League. 2010, Spain win the World Cup. 2011, Barcelona win the Champions League. You can see why Cesc was in a hurry. In the summer of 2011, he allegedly went on strike and forced a move home at a knockdown price. He was given a hero’s welcome at the Camp Nou, and the Number 4 shirt was finally his.
Oddly, it didn’t suit him. He looked cramped in it, unable to move as freely as he did at Arsenal. He did fine; he’s a great player and they were a great team. But it never quite worked. There were rumors Pep was disappointed in him, that his first touch wasn’t good enough for Barça. And he didn’t have a position. He played as a false nine, but who exactly was he fooling? It’s not as if he were going to be lurking on the edge of the six-yard box waiting for a cross. He was an attacking midfielder on a team that already had enough of them.
Barça have not been the same force since the 2011 Champions League final. Pep is gone, as are the director of football, Txiki Begiristain, and Carlos Puyol. The horrible tragedy of Tito Vilanova can only have affected them. Messi has been injured properly for the first time. The president Sandro Rosell resigned over financial irregularities in the Neymar deal. They haven’t won the Champions League since, and this year, their only silverware was the Spanish SuperCup. Who was the poster child for this fall? Who did the fans turn on and whistle at? That’s right: Cesc Fàbregas.
This would have been the year to come to Barça: a new coach, Luis Enrique, and a new system. The ghosts are being laid to rest: Xavi is possibly on his way out. Suárez, Neymar, and Messi make for a dazzling front three; Mascherano was a revelation at the World Cup. Ivan Rakitić, Barcelona’s new No. 4, must be really excited. Cesc is gone, though. A remarkably unpleasant, quickly taken-down message on the official club site marked his exit. Don’t let the door hit you on the way out.
So, you can never go home again? Actually, it turns out you can. Arsenal had inserted a buy-back clause into the contract of sale. Surely Cesc would be returning to his other home, in North London, to the father he left behind. At the end of Return of the Jedi, Darth Vader stands with Obi-Wan Kenobi and all is well with the Force again.
Except he didn’t—he’s gone to the Darkest Side, to fucking Chelsea. If Nelson Mandela signed for Chelsea, I’d find bad things to say about him. The line, peddled by the odious Mourinho, is that Chelsea was the only place Cesc ever wanted to go. It makes sense; they’ll probably win the league this year. Unhappy Arsenal fans, still stung by the initial departure, say he went for the money. He’s getting paid a fortune.
From ousting Patrick Vieira at the age of 17, to heir to Xavi at 24, to being the replacement for Fat Frank at 27. I can’t help but be unhappy that Little Cesc has ended up there. Of course, he’ll be fine. He’s not so little anymore.
According to legend, Cesc called up Wenger asking to come back to Arsenal, and Wenger broke it to him that Mesut Özil had taken his place. After the transfer went through, Cesc was like Jennifer Aniston post–Brad Pitt, running around telling anyone who would listen that he was doing great and was really, really happy for Arsenal.
Chelsea? He would have shagged anyone that week.