Will he or won't he? The question's plagued Arsenal fans for the last two years. Sometimes, he seems a lock to stay in London. Others, a lock to return to Barcelona. If you find this all a bit taxing, imagine how Cesc Fabregas feels.
After winning the World Cup alongside Barcelona stars Iniesta, Xavi, Puyol, Pique, Valdez, and Pedro, the Cesc Fabregas Dilemma has to be reaching a fever pitch. Clearly, Barcelona players want him to come home, and new Barca president Sandro Rosell said last week, "The whole world knows he wants to come and that we want to sign him."
"Will he or won't he?" is fun to discuss, but the more challenging (and less exasperating) question is "should he or shouldn't he?" Based on the information we have, what is the right personal choice for Cesc Fabregras?
Fabregas was born a Catalonian. He "attended" his first Barca game at 9 months old. He worshiped Pep Guardiola and moved into a dormitory with the Barca youth squad at age 14, where he played alongside Leo Messi and developed a powerful connection with him on the pitch. Sounds like a lifelong dream of his to be part of Barcelona, right?
Not so fast. Fabregas said of this time:
It was great to play for Barcelona, but when we played it was 30-0. What’s the point? I need to have competition. From when I was in the under-13s we started winning by 15 goals and I was thinking about leaving. If the coaches can see you’re better than the opposition, why don’t they let you play against a higher age group?
Some people tell the story of Fabregas as though he was reluctantly plucked from Barcelona, or somehow abandoned by them and salvaged by Arsenal. But the truth is that, despite captaining their U-16s, he was looking to leave. According to Cesc, he almost went to rival Espanyol, a curious choice for someone who supposedly bleeds their stripey colors, but he was talked into staying... until Arsenal called:
I stayed [after considering Espanyol] but then Arsenal came and I knew it was the chance of a lifetime.
The first time I came to London I saw the facilities. I talked to the boss, they treated me as if I was an adult, a big player. I had the feeling something special could happen for me here.
Arsenal delivered Cesc 1st team football as a 16 year old (albeit in Cup matches) in 03-04, a chance to play in the Champs final the following season, and the #4 shirt and a starting place in every league game in 05-06. Now, he's the squad captain and talisman for the team. He's Arsenal's version of Barcelona's Xavi Hernandez (the only player on earth who could/does displace Cesc as a starting playmaker).
This mini bio tells us a few things:
1) The loyalty factor is overrated. It was Cesc who chose to leave Barcelona, and he was so bored of dominating with their youth squad that he almost left for a hated rival. If he chooses to return there, it'll probably have much less to do with childhood loyalty than the media will make it seem. That's a good thing, by the way -- making major life decisions based on over-romanticizing your childhood can often lead to disappointment.
2) Fabregas values a challenge and a starring role as much as winning trophies. What offensive-minded player complains about winning 15-0? This one, apparently. He was bored with the lack of competition against Barca youth and also wanted first-team football badly.
Today, some of the details have changed, but the choice between Arsenal and Barcelona still features many of the same dimensions.
In 08-09, Barca pulled off the treble, and last year they won La Liga with a record-high points total. Winning will come (relatively) easily with one of the best club sides in a generation. But to go there means sitting behind Xavi and Iniesta in the biggest matches, unless he somehow displaces Pedro (a rising star in his own right) elsewhere on the pitch. At the very least, he will be placed in a more regular rotation with other starters and won't run with the starting XI for every game right away.
Arsenal offers him *his* team, a squad built around his talents which he captains. Obviously, Arsenal's no Espanyol, either -- they're a top 10 team in terms of income and world fan base, and they're probably the most financially stable elite club on the planet. Sure, they won't be favorites in the Champions League like Barcelona, but they'll be in the title mix in the EPL every year, especially with Manchester United and Chelsea aging. They've suffered 5 trophy-less seasons, including a Champs loss to Barca last year (and the Champs final loss to them in '05), so if Arsenal brings home silverware this year or next, it'll be a huge accomplishment. And the odds are extremely high that it'd have everything to do with Cesc Fabregas.
Based on what motivated him as a teenager, the choice is clear -- he should stay at Arsenal. He captains a top-10 club that presents a greater trophy challenge than Barcelona, where he'd be more likely to win but less likely to be the main reason.
However, it's possible his priorities have changed. Maybe winning is now the most important thing to Cesc Fabregas. He's tasted international glory with Spain in 2008 and 2010 as a part-time player and still managed to make his mark. He found Iniesta for the World Cup winning goal -- surely he could have the same sort of impact at Barcelona immediately with the promise of a greater role in coming seasons.
But f*** that. I say this as a Liverpool fan: choosing Barca over Arsenal is a LeBron-James-level copout. Cesc can pal around with his friends in Spain when he retires, which will arrive more quickly than he thinks. Very few people are handed the responsibility of shaping a good team into a championship team, and even fewer are capable of it. Fabregas has shown he might be one of those people, and the next 5 years of his life will define his entire legacy. He shouldn't spend them abdicating leadership so he can be just one of many names people remember as part of this great Barcelona team. And given that he's already missed out on 2 historic seasons, who's to say he'll ever rise into the top handful of players we associate with Barca's era of dominance?
Whatever Arsenal accomplishes will be due much more to Fabregas than anything Barcelona achieves. And when you have no idea how high your ceiling is, you ought to push yourself as hard as you can to see if you can find it. Maybe Cesc will learn that he's not one of the best players in the world or one of the best leaders in the world. Or maybe he'll win the Premier League as a 24 or 25 year old captain and feel a sense of personal accomplishment unlike anything Barca can offer.
Fabregas won't win nearly as much if he stays at Arsenal. In fact, he might not win anything. But my life experience tells me that people feel better when give everything they've got in the highest-pressure situations they can handle. Even if they come up short, they feel a satisfaction of pushing themselves to the limit that merely being good in a great situation never delivers. I think Fabregas understands this at some level, and that's why he chose to leave Barcelona's youth team in the first place. He wanted to see what he was really made of, and there's no reason to change course now.
Forget fans -- players owe them full effort on the pitch (and arguably not being a total embarrassment off it), but after 7 years of service from a player like Fabregas, he shouldn't have to subjugate his personal goals to fans who will stab you in the back the minute you struggle (see: Torres, Fernando).
Forget loyalty, childhood or otherwise -- neither Cesc nor Barcelona owe each other anything. Ditto Arsenal, by the way; he's done his job very well for a long time and has earned the right to make his own decisions.
Forget friends -- he'll have the rest of his life to run around with them (not to mention the national team matches).
This all comes down to legacy, the chance at true greatness. Fabregas can only learn who he truly is and how much he can actually accomplish in an Arsenal shirt, and that's worth more than a shelf of trophies that you know your team could've won without you.
There are two reasons I'd legitimately accept for Fabregas leaving: 1) the loyalty factor, which we've already shown is not his thing, and 2) the physicality of the Premier League. Fabregas has struggled to stay healthy lately, and if he feels like the EPL delivers unreasonable physical abuse, I can understand why he'd leave. The typical English/American fan might see that as a masculine failure, but going somewhere you won't be stomped on for 90 minutes every week and see that called a defensive "strategy" would be appealing to any of us in his place. So if he plays that card after a move, I can accept it. Other than that, though, Cesc Fabregas ought to remain with his club.
Unless he wants to be the new LeBron.