Fabregas set for Messi reunion as Arsenal face Barca
Fabregas played in the same Barcelona youth team as Lionel Messi
By Sam Sheringham
Rodolfo Borrell remembers the exact date when Cesc Fabregas made his debut at the Barcelona academy. It was 11 November, 1997 and the future Arsenal captain was 10 years old.
Borrell is no statistical anorak; the occasion is etched in his memory because discovering Fabregas was the reward for hours and hours spent scouring local youth clubs for youngsters worthy of the famous blue and red shirt.
Fabregas had been playing for Mataro, a team based 35km north of Barcelona, but it was not until Borrell's third visit to the club that he unearthed his diamond.
"I went to see them play again and suddenly I saw this one player who was simply wonderful," recalls Borrell.
"They told me he was called Cesc Fabregas and he was one year younger than the rest. He was good at running with the ball, had a fantastic pass over short, medium and long distances.
"He was very mature for his age and had all the attributes we were looking for at Barcelona at that time.
"At half-time, I asked the coach why I had not seen this kid before. He admitted that, when he saw me coming, he had decided not to play him because he knew that if I saw him I would take him."
Barcelona established La Masia as the headquarters of its academy in 1979
A deal was reached whereby Fabregas would play out the season with his club before joining the Barcelona academy at La Masia - a converted farm where the boys are housed and schooled in the philosophy of the Catalan giants, whose motto proclaims the importance of the team to its region: "Mes que un club" - More than a club.
The young Fabregas continued to live at home and go to school, but spent the rest of his time at La Masia, training, eating and studying at the famous institution which produced seven of the Barcelona side who won the treble of La Liga, Spanish Cup and Champions League last season.
Among his peers were current Barcelona centre-back Gerard Pique and a certain Lionel Messi, who was signed from Newell's Old Boys in Argentina as a 13-year-old and played with Fabregas for Borrell's under-14s.
The duo should come face to face again when Arsenal take on Barcelona in the quarter-finals of the Champions League on Wednesday night - as long as Fabregas is passed fit.
Borrell, who spent 13 years at Barcelona and now coaches Liverpool under-18s, remembers Messi as a youngster of immense skill, but he is staggered by the progress of a player who has 25 league goals in as many games this season and is widely regarded as the natural successor to Argentina legend Diego Maradona.
FABREGAS & MESSI THIS SEASON
22 ---------- Age ----------- 22
27 - League appearances - 25
15 --------- Goals ---------- 25
13 --------- Assists ---------- 9
"Nobody can predict that a lad of 13 years old will become a superstar," says Borrell.
"Yes, he had a lot of things but he had a long way to go. A lot of people talk about his talent, but I can add that he's a big talent with a big mentality. He was hungry for football. He would finish one training session and be dying to train the next day."
With the likes of Messi on a fast track to the first team, and fellow midfielders Xavi and Andres Iniesta starting to establish themselves, Fabregas sensed his opportunities would be limited at Barca and decided to take up the offer of a professional contract at Arsenal.
Having become the London side's youngest ever first-team player at 16 years, 177 days, Fabregas has since developed into one of the world's most complete midfielders.
For Barca and their fans, he is the one who got away, and the club have made no secret of their desire to get him back.
Before the start of this season, Fabregas was asked about re-joining Barcelona and expressed his commitment to the Gunners. But there was one significant proviso. If Barcelona manager Pep Guardiola were to call him personally "it would be different".
As a player, Guardiola was very much the prototype of the modern Spanish midfielder: technically-gifted, balanced and an immaculate passer of the ball.
He was at the heart of Johan Cruyff's all-conquering Barca side in the 1990s and was idolised by the young Fabregas as he made his way through the academy ranks.
Borrell, who has remained a friend and confidante to Fabregas, tells a story that encapsulates the connection between the Arsenal star and his one-time hero.
Borrell joined Liverpool in 2009 as the academy under-19 coach
In 2001, when Fabregas was going through the pain of his parents' divorce, Borrell persuaded Guardiola to sign his famous number four shirt for the young protege. On it, he wrote "One day, you will be the number four of Barcelona".
"I called him into my room and explained that I was aware of what was happening in his family," recalls Borrell. "He started to cry, so I showed him the famous shirt. You can imagine the reaction. His idol has written a message for him on his shirt. It was a fantastic moment."
Speculation over Fabregas's return to Barcelona is likely to intensify this summer when he is expected to be used as a pawn in the club's presidential elections.
Candidate Sandro Rosell promises to use his close links to the Fabregas family to entice the Arsenal star back to the club.
But the decision, it seems, lies entirely with the player.
On the one hand, there is the chance to play in what is emerging as one of the greatest club sides in history, to be reunited with the stupendous Messi, and to be managed by his idol.
On the other hand, he has the chance to finish what he has started at Arsenal, as the leader of Wenger's potentially irresistible young side, now chasing a first trophy since 2005.
"He is in a great club, with a great coach and fantastic team-mates who play fantastic football in a nice city where the people adore him," says Borrell.
"But I think everybody wants to go home one day, and at the kind of level Barca are playing at the moment he must be tempted. Everybody in Barcelona is expecting him to arrive soon but this doesn't mean he will go."
Borrell predicts an open game at the Emirates, with both sides scoring at least twice, but expects Barca's superior quality to shine through at the Nou Camp.
And if Barca do win comfortably, could the pull towards his boyhood club become overwhelming for Fabregas?
"He's a professional and he will only be thinking to do the best for his team, to make his team win," says Borrell.
"I don't think the result will affect his decision. He loves the club who pushed him so quickly to the top level and he's always giving his maximum for the team."
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