The one thing missing from Cesc Fabregas’ catalogue of honors is a victory at a major club tournament. Fabregas has never won a league title or a Champions League. In terms of trophies – and, in the modern game, football success is almost always measured in trophies – Fabregas still lags behind his international colleagues.
His move to Barcelona was supposed to change all that, and, eventually, it may. Last season, however, Fabregas failed to justify the years of wrangling that preceded his transfer. Although he impressed for the first few months, injury halted his progress, and he never regained that early momentum. In the months between Barcelona’s trip to Espanyol in January and Spain’s opening game two weeks ago, he didn’t score a single goal. Fabregas’ barren run seems even worse compared with the recent successes of his Spain teammates.
Fabregas is part of a generation of Spanish footballers that will probably never be bettered. The Xavi-Iniesta-Busquets-Alonso midfield is peerless. The presence of those four footballers, as well as striker David Villa and defenders Gerard Pique and Carlos Puyol, in the same country at roughly the same time is a never-to-be-repeated phenomenon.
The success of Spain’s best footballers has left a group of only slightly inferior players, Fabregas among them, underused and underappreciated. Mikel Arteta, Arsenal’s most important player behind Robin Van Persie, has never won an international cap, despite years of consistency in the Premier League. Juan Mata, a Champions League winner, is a member of the Spain squad, but he has yet to appear in this tournament. The supremely talented Santi Cazorla is nowhere near the starting XI. Del Bosque’s strikerless experiment – essentially, an effort to squeeze as many creators as possible into one starting lineup – is testament to the sheer quantity of midfield talent available to him.
Fabregas is in an awkward position: sometimes he starts, sometimes he doesn’t. Against Portugal, Sevilla striker Alvaro Negredo, a traditional number nine, was, surprisingly, preferred up top. Negredo is a proficient marksman, but he lacks Fabregas’ international experience, and it didn’t take Del Bosque long to realize his mistake. Fabregas replaced Negredo after 55 minutes.
Fabregas will rightly be remembered as one of the stars of what is, arguably, the greatest international team ever. He scored the winning penalty in Spain’s shootout victory over Italy in 2008, a feat he replicated against Portugal this week, and, in 2010, his deft pass teed-up Iniesta for the most important goal in Spanish football history. Yet Fabregas’ talent remains weirdly unfulfilled. He started none of Spain’s seven games at the World Cup in South Africa, and only one out of six at Euro 2008.
“I always thought that if you play well, in theory, you’ll play for Spain,” Fabregas said last year. “But I would play fantastically, get to the squad and not play.” In the face of these disappointments, he has always conducted himself with class, refusing to use his professional frustration as an excuse for the sort of troublemaking that, once again, undermined France’s tournament. Fabregas — who claims that, if he were the coach, he would deploy Iniesta, Xavi and Busquets ahead of himself — understands that Del Bosque can’t start everyone.
Fabregas knows that his failure to nail down a place in the first XI isn’t down to any fault of his own. But he’s still troubled by it. He questioned himself when his role in the Spanish team became unclear. Like all good footballers, Fabregas is deeply ambitious, unwilling to accept a place on the bench even though he realizes that the players in front of him are some of the best of all time.
Fabregas’ analysis of Spain’s penalty shootout victory over Portugal is illuminating. “They told me initially to take the second one,” he said after scoring the deciding kick. “But I said, ‘No, give me the fifth.’ When I stepped up to take the penalty I said to the ball that we had to make history and it shouldn’t let me down.” Fabregas claims he volunteered to take the fifth penalty because earlier in the day he had a “premonition”. From then until the start of the penalty shootout, he was focused on achieving a moment of personal glory.
Some would call that selfishness, but, in fact, it’s the exact opposite. Fabregas feels obliged to justify his place in the squad. He steps up for, and scores, crucial penalties to make up for what he feels is his own lack of participation.
No one knows whether Fabregas will start Sunday’s final. Del Bosque hasn’t yet decided on a system; in two of Spain’s games, he started with a strikerless formation, and in the other three he used a clear number nine. He has switched setups at least once a game. So even if Fabregas doesn’t start, he’ll certainly become involved at some point.
Especially if the match goes to penalties.