The toast of British sport this week has been a lad barely old enough to join his team-mates in the night club to share the champagne: 18-year-old Francesc Fabregas, Arsenal’s Catalan midfielder who starred in his team’s 2-0 win over Juventus in the Champions League.
Fabregas displayed not merely his precocious talent, which was no secret, but an extraordinary gift for theatrical timing. He has done this sometimes in the Premiership since becoming Arsenal’s youngest ever first-team player (16) and scorer (17).
But on Tuesday he was up against the man controversially let go by manager Arsène Wenger to make room for him: Patrick Vieira, 12 years older, six inches taller and many squillions richer. Fabregas played Vieira off the park and then talked about it afterwards with charm and maturity.
It was a triumphant moment for Wenger, who found vindication yet again for his skills at both plucking gifted youngsters from improbable places (in this case, right under Barcelona’s nose) and seizing the moment when older players have become slow and sour enough to have reached their sell-by date, without outsiders necessarily noticing.
The emergence of a teenage hero is a wonderful moment at any football club. No doubt there will be bad days, when the headlines do not read “The joy of Cesc” and “Absolutely Fabregas”, but more like “Cesc runs out of gas”. It could happen in the second leg next Wednesday. One would be Fabre-gasted if it were any other way. (Can we have a moratorium on these now, please?)
But, for supporters, part of the wonder is usually the thought of what the boy might do at international level. That has been the crowning glory of Wayne Rooney’s emergence. But, as far as most Arsenal watchers are concerned, this is a matter of some indifference since Fabregas – like everyone else who played for the Gunners on Tuesday – is ineligible for England.
It’s a matter of indifference to Wenger too. Early last month he was involved in a spat with another manager, Alan Pardew of West Ham, that was far more significant than the normal House of Commons-style insult throwing between Premier League rivals. Arsenal beat Real Madrid in the previous round, and the only British player on the field was David Beckham, playing for Real. “We are losing the soul of British football,” remarked Pardew.
“Racism starts there,” replied Wenger, adding a sideswipe at Uefa, European football’s governing body, which is trying to force clubs to have at least six (to start with) home-grown players in their squads. “If it makes the national team progress, I don’t care because international football is low, not the best quality.”
Inherently, all international football is, if not racist, then certainly nationalistic. That’s the whole point. But the World Cup and the European Championship have long been the main windows into the goodies that lie in the continent’s vast footballing bazaar.
Leading managers always niggle against the international game’s impingements on to their domain. (“A friendly against Moldova? Oh, dear, my boy’s got an ingrown toenail that night.”) But the principle has never been challenged before.
That’s changing. In Belgium, Royal Sporting Charleroi are suing Fifa, football’s ruling body. Last season Fifa instructed Charleroi to release a player, Abdelmajid Oulmers, to play for Morocco against Burkina Faso. He got injured during the match, was out for seven months and the club missed out on the Champions League.
Charleroi have the support of G14, the group of, confusingly, 18 leading European clubs, which is similar to the G8 but more exclusive (even Chelsea are excluded) and probably richer. G14 even has a mission statement: “...to promote and improve professional football in all its aspects and safeguard the general interests of the member clubs”. Some might find the two halves of that sentence contradictory.
G14’s ostensible motive in the Oulmers case is innocent enough: it wants national federations to indemnify clubs if expensive players get injured while playing for their country. The fear is that this is a prelude to a breakaway whereby the clubs will cut themselves adrift from their own national bodies. Uefa has threatened the clubs with expulsion from their domestic leagues if that happens – in the process apparently forgetting the golden rule: he who has the gold makes the rules. But the authorities are not necessarily powerless in this battle.
Superficially, the idea of turning the Champions League into a pan-European premiership might sound attractive. The pleasure might wear off if clubs such as Arsenal, Lyon and Porto found themselves in the bottom half of the table even if there were no promotion and relegation. The wealth of these top clubs is founded on regular day-in, day-out success at home and occasional, less reliable, excursions abroad.
I suspect they might find it more lucrative to be the head of donkeys than the tail of lions.