04 July 2014

Down comes Fàbregas's banner, down goes his legacy as well.

We have long since left behind an era in which players will remain with one club for the entirety of their careers. We know now that it is myopic and misguided to pin our hopes on any one player committing himself, pledging himself, to one club. Football stop operating on such sentimental principles a long time ago. One on hand it is no one's fault—not the player's, not the club's, not the agent's...On the other, it is everyone's fault. Who was too greedy? Who lacked ambition? These and other questions hover in the air, and there are as many answers as there are people willing to weigh in. Cesc Fàbregas certainly wasn't the first beloved player to leave his club, and he won't be the last one to end up playing for a rival, but there will always be something in this affair that tugs at the heart more than that of, say, Cole or van Persie. However, the club have taken one step towards closing the book on this story by taking down his banner from the Ken Friar bridge. Does this prevent Fàbregas from achieving 'legend' status, or is it merely a temporary demotion because he now plays for Chelsea?

After all, we can always tell ourselves that why Cesc left differs fundamentally from why others have left. He was going home—wasn't he? He was returning to Barcelona, to La Masia, to his childhood? This was not Cole tapping up with Chelsea or van Persie forcing his way out (although he too claimed to be listening to a little boy). We could and maybe should forgive Cesc for forsaking us because, after all, it wasn't about money or ambition or silverware; it was about nostalgia and homesickness. He pined for home, and who wouldn't? He was sixteen when he left Barcelona to join Arsenal. Who among us could leave home at such an age, nevermind adapting to the pressure of switching countries to play football in London for one of the world's most famous clubs at the peaks of its glory? Being named captain at 21 surely only added to the pressure, further exacerbated by the departures of older, more illustrious teammates and the annual extension of a trophy-drought that would weigh ever more heavily on his shoulders.

Meanwhile, Barcelona were claiming five La Liga titles and two Champions League titles (defeating Arsenal a few times along the way). Each time Fàbregas featured for Spain, it seemed, subjected him to a new form of pressure from Barcelona teammates to come back. Who could resist the temptation of (a) coming home and (b) winning so often, so easily? And so he did. And he did, winning La Liga in his second season.

However, it wasn't quite working out. He wasn't playing regularly. He was played out of position. His performance seemed to dip as seasons went on. Fans lost patience. He lost faith. Sensing that this homecoming wasn't playing out as he had hoped, Fàbregas forced his way out. In his own words, he said, "I asked Barcelona to find a way for me to leave the club. The president tried to stop the sale, but I already had my mind made up...I spoke with [sporting director] Andoni Zubizarreta and the president [Josep Maria Bartomeu] and I told them I wanted to leave." Now, that's not necessarily hard-ball, but it's a firm position and adds nuance to the version of events that had the club shopping him around against his will. We'll call it a mutual parting of ways.

In any case, he was available. The 'prodigal' parable made the rounds as the potential return of Fàbregas to Arsenal seemed possilbe. Those wonderful clauses that Arsène had worked into his contract all but guaranteed it. Let Man U or Chelsea put in a bid. We'll activate that 'first-refusal' clause and bring him home, pulling the rug out from under a hated rival in the process. Hollywood couldn't write a better script...except Arsène forgot his lines or missed his cue, allowing the villain to get away with the doe-eyed darling.

Now that he plays for Chelsea, the question arises: does Fàbregas still qualify for membership in the pantheon of Gunners that includes Henry, Bergkamp, Adams, Wright, and others? Had he come back, some say, the answer would indubitably be yes. To which I reply, had he stayed, the answer is yes. However, he left. Whatever the circumstances or method, he left. Not in the twilight of his career as Henry did. He was just entering his prime and might have spent those years with Arsenal, slogging through a trophy-drought—perhaps—while Arsène continued to build a team around him in hopes of achieving glory. Had Cesc stayed, no, he might not have won that one La Liga title (along with a number of other honors), it's true, and he might not have ever won anything. Who knows what would have happened between 2011 and now, between now and the end of Cesc's career? Staying at Arsenal might have meant ending his career trophyless, but sometimes legends are forged in such flames.

Cesc delivered some of the most memorable moments of the last decade, and some of these will ring down the ages long after he retires, but he left. It may not be his fault that he didn't come back to Arsenal; we'll never really know what happened in those conversations between him, Barcelona, Arsenal, and Arsène, but we do know that he worked quite hard to leave Arsenal in the first place. He'll always be a wonderful player, but I can't quite bring myself to anoint him a legend. I see the removal of his banner from Ken Friar Bridge, not as a petty rejoinder his joining Chelsea but as a sad but dignified preservation of the 'legend' label for the rarest of players, those whose names become synonymous with the club and those who share in the club's struggles as well as its glories.

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