And so one of the most exhausting transfer sagas in recent memory finally draws to a close, and the world of football can heave a sigh of relief and get back to pouring over other unsubstantiated rumours. But the key to this particular drama was precisely its length. It didn’t start in 2011, or even in 2008. It started in 2003.
doing the time warp
On the face of it, losing a player for peanuts at the age of 16 and buying him ‘back’ at the age of 24 for almost 40 million euros seems rather silly. And on that view it undoubtedly is. But consider the following. Firstly, people like to talk about Fabregas having been made in La Masia, but let’s be honest: the kid who left all those years ago bears very little resemblance to the young man of today, 300+ appearances for a top Premier League club later. All that experience – which he would not have gained had he stayed, with the likes of Deco, Xavi and Iniesta ahead of him – has made him into one of the top midfielders in the world, fitness permitting. That’s what we’re buying.
Secondly, let’s discuss the logic of holding the actions (or inaction) of a past Barca regime against the choices of the present. In 2003, just as a number of factors governed Fabregas’ decision (more on that below), the position of the club must also be considered in its context. Legally, they had their hands tied due to loopholes in the law governing the transfer of young players.
Policy-wise, and this is our own fault, the value attached to and the amount of faith shown in home-grown talent wasn’t enough. (Given the state of the club at the time, focusing on short-term solutions must have seemed an operational imperative.) The likes of Xavi and Pique have repeated confirmed this view in interviews, while asserting that this fault has been remedied under Guardiola’s reign. Witness the speed at which promising canteranos are offered contracts these days, and the extensive use of buy-back clauses for player sales. The current regime has already learned from the mistakes of the past. It makes no sense to let the existence of those mistakes keep us from making the most logical move in the present.
Which brings me onto my third point. I propose a thought experiment. How would you react if Barca were buying a midfielder exactly like Fabregas, but without the La Masia background, at the same price? (Not buying a midfielder at all, as some – including me – would have preferred, is not an option, due to the assessment of need by our technical staff.) So he’d be just as good, just as experienced, and just as young. Not that you could easily find such a player around, but let’s press on.
Given current market prices, I can’t see this hypothetical player costing any less than Fabregas. Except that this hypothetical player would be far more of a risky purchase, especially if the goal was to ensure the midfield succession. We would have no inkling whether he could fit in, both as a person and in terms of tactics. And now back to the actual player we have. Who, by virtue of his experiences, is far less of a risk, and pays for his worth in proven ability. So why hold his past against him?
Cesc Fabregas left Barca because he saw no open path into the first team, which was a correct assessment in the prevailing circumstances. As discussed above, the technical regime in place at the time had somewhat different priorities than nurturing talent from scratch, and even back then Fabregas had his path blocked by not only successful canteranos but also ready-made signings. Arsenal offered him a fast track into the first team – and even the starting XI – of a top club competing regularly for trophies.
In moving to Arsenal, Fabregas made a logical, career-advancing choice. It was very risky – when young players move countries there tend to be 10 failures for every success story – and it’s to his credit that he overcame the early obstacles and made a name for himself.
People make these choices every single day in normal professions. In fact, we’re expected to be upwardly mobile, especially while young and brimming with potential. But football isn’t a normal industry. The entire spectacle of the game wouldn’t be nearly as seductive if it were more logical. Sure, some footballers go about it like any other job, chasing the highest paycheck while they can and leaving their fan side behind closed doors. But if the profession were populated by football-playing robots programmed to seek the highest bidder, then the one-club men we admire so much wouldn’t exist, and no one would ever make illogical-seeming moves for emotional reasons. I for one think the game would be much poorer for it.
During these past 8 years, Fabregas formed a strong bond with Arsenal, its fans, his fellow players, and above all with his mentor Arsene Wenger. He has been a major part of their history, and even though glory has remained tantalisingly out of their reach these past 6 years, the mark he has left will not easily fade away. Much of his frustrating behaviour over the course of this transfer saga can be explained by the depth of this connection. That’s why he allowed himself to be convinced to remain last season. (That, and Barca’s refusal to pay up. But we’re not discussing the many mistakes our club have made during the course of this saga. That’s a subject for a different post.)
“Cesc loves this club deeply and he loves Barça deeply too. An honest player can love two clubs. But he cares deeply about this club and that is why I hope we can keep him.” – Arsene Wenger, a week ago
Fabregas has never made a secret of his Cule side. In this, nobody can accuse him of being deceptive. He has, in the past, become somewhat defensive when questioned about his decision to move to Arsenal – after all, why did he have to continuously justify himself when he’s been such a success in the Premier League? It’s not like Barca have ever valued him, right? However, the introduction of two new variables changed the landscape. The first is the return of Pep Guardiola to Barca. As we have now seen, for whatever reason, Pep has long been determined to make Cesc part of his Barca project. The second factor was perfectly put by Sid Lowe, so I’ll just quote him:
…it is no good being a team for the future; tomorrow never comes. And that is something that has come to obsess him. Cesc himself said: “Sometimes it feels like we [Arsenal] are always saying to the fans ‘next year we’ll be great, next year we’ll do it’ and they don’t like that and nor do I. You have to win.”
And that was four years ago.
Some have accused him of hypocrisy because of his reluctance to publicly agitate for a move. I agree that the appearance of indecision doesn’t reflect particularly well on him, and in the end probably hurt all 3 parties. We could fault him for that, but I find it difficult to fault his reasons. Even after making up his mind to go (which I think happened earlier than most people imagine this year), Fabregas could never bring himself to rebel against Arsenal. In this, as in the decision to initiate a move back to Catalunya, his reasons were not only logical, but emotional. If he were a football-playing robot, this saga might have been resolved years ago. But he’s not.
Then again, a football-playing robot wouldn’t have spent years becoming increasingly fixated on a move back to his hometown club in the first place. If he had been more open to the possibility of a move elsewhere, it would no doubt have materialized. Midfield schemers are in demand these days, as we have seen in the current transfer market. Instead, Barca put pressure on him to bring the parties closer to a deal by making financial concessions. No matter which numbers you believe, everyone seems to agree that he has indeed done so. We can argue about whether or not he’d really be out of pocket due to differences in tax law, but I think it’s fairly safe to say he has not made the career move which would maximize his earning potential.
None of the parties to this saga could be accused of behaving in the most rational manner. Now that it has finally been concluded, it would benefit all parties to move on as swiftly as possible. In our case, that means measuring Fabregas against the same ridiculously high standards we’d use for any expensive new signing. He’s going to have to do a lot to convince some people. But as an investment for the future, he’s got time to do it in.
All cold reasoning aside, it’s really nice to see the spine of La Masia’s class of 87 back together again. They were always going to be the future of Barca. And now they are.
[I know most of you won’t need this reminder, but as it is a very controversial issue even amongst Cules, please remember to keep it civil in the comments.]