Guardiola to Fabregas: You will play for Barcelona
Here's a mouthwatering prospect, one that newspapers in England and Spain have speculated about for years: FC Barcelona superstar Lionel Messi and Arsenal captain Cesc Fabregas playing together for the same team.
Rodolfo Borrell remembers those days well. He was their coach when the two players, facing off next week in what promises to be a Champions League classic, competed together on an all-conquering Barcelona youth side.
Of the many great stories Borrell has to tell, the most intriguing is that of the shirt he got Pep Guardiola to sign in 2001 for his young admirer Fabregas, to lift the teenager's spirits while his parents were divorcing. Guardiola, now the club manager, was then a foundation of Barcelona's midfield.
On the front of the No.4 shirt, the same number Fabregas wore for Barcelona's juniors and now proudly carries for Arsenal, Guardiola wrote ``'One day you will be the No. 4 of the first team of Football Club Barcelona,''' Borrell recalls.
The Arsenal midfielder's Barcelona ties add a tasty topping of personal history to the footballing spectacle expected from the Champions League matchup between Europe's most free-flowing and creative sides.
Should Arsenal lose the quarterfinal, and fall short yet again behind Manchester United or Chelsea in the Premier League, could that trigger a frustrated Fabregas to quit London for the club that discovered him and has long been said to want him back?
Fabregas wouldn't be the first to take that route. Arsenal record scorer Thierry Henry landed in Barcelona the year after losing to the Catalans in the 2006 Champions League final.
If Guardiola fields him at the Emirates Stadium next Wednesday, don't expect boisterous celebrations from Henry if he scores. Playing against the team he gave his best years to is the France international's nightmare.
Equally interesting will be the reaction of Fabregas, Arsenal's top scorer this season, should he strike the winner that sinks the European champions, the manager he idolized, and his former teammate Messi in the return leg at the Camp Nou. Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger can rely on Fabregas to give his all in both matches, but one also suspects that the whole experience will be poignant, perhaps even a little painful, for his captain.
It was Wenger who lured Fabregas to England in 2003 with the prospect of top team football, rather than a potentially long wait in line at Barcelona. Fabregas became Arsenal's youngest player, at 16 years and 177 days, when Wenger gave him his debut against Rotherham in a Carling Cup game. Under the French manager, Fabregas has matured into arguably the Premier League's most decisive attacking midfielder.
But Fabregas was just nine months old when his grandfather first took him to the Camp Nou. As much as Fabregas' head and loyalties lie with Arsenal, a chunk of his heart is Barcelona's.
Borrell, who spent 14 years at Barcelona and now coaches Liverpool's under-18s, rightly notes that losing Fabregas would be dangerous for Arsenal, because ``he's the heart of the team,'' he told The Associated Press in a phone interview.
``The reality and the truth is that I don't know,'' he says when asked whether Fabregas, as Guardiola predicted, might one day wear Barcelona's No.4.
``Everybody, absolutely everybody, I think sooner or later has the idea to return back home,'' he said. But at Arsenal, Fabregas has ``a great city, a great country, a fantastic league like Premier League, a fantastic stadium like the Emirates, fans that absolutely love him.''
Borrell speaks of his Barcelona youth squads that included Fabregas as a diamond miner might about his largest find. Other players were Gerard Pique, now back at Barcelona after three seasons with Manchester United; Sito Riera, the brother of Liverpool's Albert Riera who plays for Panionios in Greece; and, of course, Messi, although the Argentine joined the team a little later, when he was 13.
As under-12s, without Messi, they were already crushing everyone.
``I remember the numbers perfectly,'' Borrell said. ``30 games, 29 wins, one draw ... 200 goals scored and 10 goals against.''
As under-14s, again without Messi, whose papers took a while to sort out, they won their league with seven weeks to spare.
On a trip to England, they also beat Derby County 6-0 with Messi and Fabregas playing and downed Coventry 3-0, Borrell said.
``Lionel Messi, Cesc Fabregas, Gerard Pique ... unbelievable,'' he said. ``The highest quality you can imagine.
``It was fantastic.''
Curiously, Messi and Fabregas have not played each other for their clubs since their careers parted ways. A thigh injury kept Messi from the 2006 European final that Barcelona won 2-1. It was the last time the teams met.
That will change next week.
John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org.