Cesc Fabregas became the youngest ever player to play for Arsenal, at the age of 16 yrs 177 days and the club’s youngest ever goal scorer at 16 yrs 212 days. Now just turned 19, the midfielder who was signed from Barcelona as a trainee at the age of 17 has already played for the Spanish national team and has helped inspire the London club in their Champions League run.
Where did you learn to play?
CF: I grew up in Arenys de Mar in Catalonia, Spain, a small fishing town near Barcelona. There I played in the garden and with kids in the street. I felt I could be good at football and my father encouraged me a lot, although nobody imagined I would come so far.
I practiced by kicking a ball against a wall, perfecting my ball control and shooting, and played in little kickabouts with friends on dust pitches. I was not so big or physically strong, so I concentrated on perfecting my technique. We also played on the beach a lot, which also makes you develop ball skills on a more difficult surface.
In what ways did your father encourage you?
CF: My father nearly became a professional footballer himself when he was young. He had a trial for Barcelona but was turned down and played for a local third division team, Calella. He never tried to push me into becoming a footballer but was happy that I started wanting to take that route.
My parents have been the biggest influence on my career. When I was young and playing for my school with my friends they always came to see my games. Every Saturday they had to finish work early to bring me to training when I was eight or nine years old. They saw that I had some talent and encouraged me to join a local team. My parents have always been great. I would not be here if it was not for them and they feel very proud of what I have achieved so far.
How did the opportunity to join Barcelona come about?
CF: I was playing for a local team called Mataro and was doing well for them, even though I was a year younger than the other players. I already played in midfield in those days. I nearly joined Barcelona’s local rivals Espanyol. Their youth coach Oscar Perarnao spotted me and wanted to sign me. But when Barcelona came in for me there was no competition.
Did it require a big adaptation from yourself?
CS: It had a big effect on my lifestyle, but I still was able to maintain my family life at home. A lot of kids go and live at the Barcelona academy at La Masia where they sleep, eat, train, everything. But that tends to be more the kids who come from far away. The local kids tend to still live at home.
I carried on going to school in my home town in the mornings, but in the afternoons I would be taken by taxi to La Masia and it was a 50 km journey. But I think it was better for me to do that than live away from home so young. In the evenings I would still have to come home and do my homework, so it was a bit tough. I would get home at 11.30pm, have dinner and study. I was up at 7am for school so I didn’t have much spare time. They were quite hard times, but it was all worth it.
Which coaches most influenced you at Barcelona and in which way?
CF: The coaches I had there were Rodolfo, Ursi, Albert Penaiges and Alex Garcia. They all encouraged me to express my skills and to be disciplined on and off the pitch. I am very grateful to all of them for what was a great experience.
What were your stages of progression through the Barcelona ranks?
CF: The teams are split into A teams and B teams, according to the quality. I played for the junior team A and then the Cadets team A when I was 16.
Did any of your team-mates also enjoy success and become professionals?
CF: I played with Lionel Messi and Gerard Pique in the Barcelona youth team. Pique joined Manchester United and has already played a couple of games for them. Messi was one of those players who stayed at La Masia because he was so far from his home in Argentina. He settled in well and look where he is now. He is already one of their best players and one of the best young players in the world.
Did you use to follow the team as a fan, too?
CF: My team was Barcelona. My grandfather took me to the stadium when I was nine months old! When they won four Spanish premier league titles from 1990-4, I was there. It was amazing for me to play there. I’m still a Barcelona fan except when Arsenal play them!
Was there a Barcelona player you particularly admired?
CF: Josep Guardiola was a hero for me and someone I really looked up to. We play in similar positions and I learned from watching him and the way he passed the ball and calmly controlled the game from midfield. But we are different players and I don’t think I can be compared with him although I would love to reach his level and achieve some of what he has achieved.
You were already catching the eye at that young age, though.
CF: At the 2003 FIFA World Under -17 Championship in Helsinki I was voted player of the tournament at the age of 16. After I playied in the 2004 European Under -17 Championship I joined Arsenal and 3 months later had already played more than 20 first-team matches.
Was it hard for you to decide to leave Barcelona at that time?
CF: I was always a Barcelona fan and it was hard to leave, but it was the best choice. I wanted to develop and Arsenal gave me the opportunity to do that. I was reluctant at first, but my agent told me to at least listen to what Arsenal had to say, to come over and see the club. So I did. I liked what I saw at the training centre and I spoke with the boss. I had a good feeling about it and decided to join.
I am so glad I did. Many of the young players I was with at Barcelona are nowhere near the first team and if I had stayed, I would probably have been with the third team. I just wanted to make the most of the opportunities when I got them.
So you saw it as a step forward?
CF: It was a difficult decision to leave but I’m really happy I made it as I’ve played much more than I expected. I’m happy I made the decision to leave for Arsenal when I was so young. People at Arsenal have believed in me. I’ve also played with players like Thierry Henry and Patrick Vieira – two of the best players in the world and I’ve even got used to the weather.
Has it been hard to adjust to the change of culture?
CF: I’m well adapted. I feel at home. I love London. My team-mates, family, agent and friends have all supported me and made it much easier for me. I’ve been here some time now and feel well adapted and lead a normal life, as if I were living in Barcelona.
We don’t have the sea and the sun here, but there are other things and life is good. When I first came over my mother was a little worried and her first question every time she phoned was about whether I was eating properly. Like every mother she worries, but she is fine now. To begin with, I stayed with a landlady in north London, now I have my own place. I’ve had to get used to English food which is very different and I sometimes miss Spanish food, but I go home to Spain whenever I get the chance and I like to go back and see my friends there. My mother and my and sister Carlotta come to see me as regularly as possible.
Everything has happened so quickly for you on the pitch, too.
CF: You can’t imagine a 17 or 18-year-old playing so many games in the league, the Champions League and the cups. I don’t think many players have achieved that.
Do you not get nervous before big matches?
CF: You always feel a bit nervous when you go out for a big occasion, but you go out on the pitch and try to give your best. Coming up against great players and big teams can make you nervous, but I can be hard and stand up for myself and don’t let myself be overawed once I’m out there.
Have you had a lot of help from your Arsenal team-mates?
CF: I love working with world-class players like Thierry Henry, Dennis Bergkamp, Robert Pires, Gilberto Silva every day. It is a fantastic experience for me. The manager Arsene Wenger helps me a lot. I know I am learning all the time.
You have had to fill the shoes of Patrick Vieira since he left for Juventus. Most people thought you would not be able to do that.
CF: Patrick and I are very different players. He’s more physical than me and always will be remembered as an Arsenal legend. I’m just 19 and have been playing here for only two seasons. You just have to believe in yourself – that’s the most important thing.
I’m trying to keep my feet on the ground. The manager told me I would have played only 15 games last season if there hadn’t been injuries, but I in the end I played 46. This season I’ve also played in most of the games and I’m very pleased with how things have gone.
Do you expect to play at the World Cup?
CF: I hope to be included. I train hard and play the best I can. You have to respect the coach’s decision. Fortunately, he has shown a lot of faith in me so far.
How do you think Spain will do?
CF: I think we will do very well and we want to go all the way. We have a lot of great players like Xavi Alonso, Raul, Fernando Torres, Carles Puyol, and our squad is as strong as anybody’s I think. We should progress from our group and if we do we will take it from there. It is in big tournaments like that that everyone is very motivated.
Will Spain be able to avoid repeating their past disappointments?
CF: We want to make our country happy. At the knock-out stage anything can happen. You need luck at the right moments. When you are in the group phase playing for points, sometimes you can lose a game but still maybe make up for it. But at the knock-out stage, if you lose a match you are out. Nobody expected Greece to win Euro 2004, while some of the so-called favourites lost out. But that can always happen depending on which way things go on the day. Hopefully, we will perform well and the luck will be with us.
Do you have a close relationship with the Spanish players who play in England?
CF: Except when I’m with the Spanish national team, I don’t have regular contact with them, but sometimes I’ve spoken with Xabi Alonso. He plays in the same position as me and who is a great person and great player and with Luis Garcia who was at Barcelona when I was there. I was very happy when they won the Champions League with Liverpool last season. They are great professionals.
Apart from the Spanish players, which world players do you most admire?
CF: My Arsenal team-mate France’s Thierry Henry is the best striker in the world, an incredible player. Argentina midfielder Juan Roman Riquelme is a special player. I don’t understand why he didn’t succeed at Barcelona, but he has improved and become a great player since joining Villarreal. All the team’s attacking play goes through him and he is someone to try to emulate. I’ve played against Juventus’ Frenchman Patrick Vieira and Brazilian Emerson. They are two of the best midfielders in the world.
Is it true that you still spend time studying?
CF: I’m interested in a lot of things. I’m studying French, as well as a bit more English, because it’s something which has always interested me and I want to be more cultivated. You never know what can happen in life. Football is my world, but I don’t want to live for football alone.
What else do you like to do?
CF: I like going to the cinema with friends, and I make trips back to Barcelona whenever I can.