Pep Guardiola was not lying all those years ago when he told Cesc Fabregas that he would one day wear Barcelona's No.4 shirt.
When Francesc Fabregas was growing up there was one possession he treasured above all others: a Barcelona shirt signed by Pep Guardiola. The former Barcelona ballboy who became the club captain, a Catalan and the metronome that kept the Dream Team ticking over from the middle of midfield, Guardiola was everything Fabregas wanted to be. No wonder he was so enamoured with that shirt. On it, Guardiola had written: “One day you will be Barcelona’s No. 4.”
Now he is. This week there was a squeal as he emerged from the tunnel at the Camp Nou, then a huge roar from the fans who had turned out to see him—perhaps as many as 20 000. Although Barcelona had taken advantage of a bank holiday and it was a glorious day, it was not the best-attended presentation in history and could not compete with the 80 000 who packed the Santiago Bernabeu to see Cristiano Ronaldo make his way down a catwalk. Nor did it matter: this was different.
Eight long years later the prodigal son returned. He recovered his original colours: blaugrana, blue and purple. A Barcelona kit with “Fabregas, 4” on the back. And although Fabregas sheepishly maintained that “it doesn’t really matter”, to him it does.
At Barcelona it is more than a number it is an identity and Fabregas was grateful to Thiago Alcantara—“a star”—for ceding him the shirt. Here he was, a ball at his feet on the Camp Nou pitch wearing his shirt. “I was a bit nervous,” he admitted. And when the fans chanted for him to kiss the Barcelona badge, he did. Empty gesture? Hardly. Barcelona are conscious of the need to add depth to the squad and secure succession after Xavi. They are also deeply aware of the difficulties outsiders often have in adapting to Barcelona’s style.
“Barça DNA” has become the cliché. But the emotional, almost political need to bring one of their own home—a Catalan and a Barcelona product, clearly locatable on that midfield continuum from Guardiola to De la Pena to Xavi to Iniesta and Thiago—does help to explain the zealousness of the pursuit.
Officially, Fabregas will pay Arsenal €1-million a year, his salary dropping from €4-million to €3-million to facilitate the move. He refused to countenance offers from Manchester City and Real Madrid. Had it not been for Barcelona, he says, he would have stayed where he was. The reason was simple: many players claim to play for their childhood club; Fabregas really will.
There was a hint of sadness about leaving Arsenal but this was what he wanted. Arsène Wenger said: “This was not about money, it was about him going home.”
In the Paris room at Camp Nou, across the gangway from the stadium, tourists milling around below, two screens showed footage of Fabregas playing for Barcelona as a kid. There he was ploughing across gravel pitches to a soundtrack of Police’s Every Breath You Take. A couple more familiar faces flickered across the screen: Gerard Pique, Fabregas’s best friend. Leo Messi, the kid they nicknamed “el mudo”, the mute one, when they were kids in the days when Fabregas travelled by taxi from Arenys for training every day. “I have known and played with two of [the current squad] since I was 13,” Fabregas said.
He had left as a 16-year-old, Arsenal taking advantage of a power vacuum to bring him to London with the promise of first-team football within two years. They were as good as their word and both Fabregas and Guardiola have been quick to credit Wenger with his development.
Deep down Fabregas wondered if one day he would return home. He described it here as a train that he always aspired to catch; what he did not know is whether he would be able to. When he renewed his Arsenal contract four years ago he thought not. When the possibility emerged, Arsenal would not let him climb aboard.
This week he did. “I have come home,” Fabregas said. “These have been weeks and months that have been very hard for me. There were talks and talks and talks and I saw that it wasn’t ending and I was unsure what would happen. I am so glad it has been resolved now.”
Almost as pleased as the president, Sandro Rosell: he had succeeded where his predecessor and rival, Joan Laporta, had not.
But much of the normal cynicism did not appear to fit here. Up in the stands his mother, tall and striking, applauded. Francesc senior stared silently at his son, the picture of a proud papa. Sister Carlota was there too.
Kick-ups done, the family headed to the Paris room. They took their seats, shifting each other along, exchanging inquisitive looks, giggling and joking as they nudged each other along—you here, no here—like a family occupying pews at a wedding. Before them stood Fabregas. He has been in London a third of his life. To his left sat the vice-president, Josep Maria Bartomeu, and alongside him the sporting director, Andoni Zubizarreta.
In his hand, a Barcelona shirt. No. 4 on the back.—