A youngster who's simply fabulous

Cesc Fabregas' Arsenal debut came in a League Cup tie against Rotherham in October 2003. That made him the Gunners' youngest-ever player, but it was not until the following season that he began to make regular Barclays English Premier League appearances, writes Andy Hampson.

Spaniard Cesc Fabregas, a precocious box-to-box midfielder, has made his name with Arsenal in England after deciding to leave Barcelona, the club that groomed him as a youngster, at the age of just 16.

Fabregas has come of age over the last year after establishing himself in the Arsenal side following Patrick Vieira's departure. Fabregas, born in Arenys de Mar in Catalonia, was earmarked for stardom from a young age and Barcelona were furious when Arsenal snatched him from under their noses in 2003.

Fabregas had made his way into the Barcelona B team and then excelled in the 2003 FIFA World Youth Championship in Finland, where he finished as top-scorer and was voted the best player.

His Arsenal debut came in a League Cup tie against Rotherham in October 2003. That made him the Gunners' youngest-ever player, but it was not until the following season that he began to make regular Barclays English Premier League appearances. He marked himself out as a player with a big future during that 2004-05 campaign but it was last season when he truly made his name, taking the place of departed Patrick Vieira. World Cup-winning midfielder Vieira proved himself one of the Arsenal greats during his time at the club and his boots were big ones to fill, but Fabregas handled the responsibility with great maturity.

Vieira was obviously missed but, as the season wore on, Fabregas overcame doubts about whether he was ready to assume the mantle and that he was too lightweight.

Like Vieira he showed the ability to dictate the pace and rhythm of matches but, in truth, he is a different player to the Frenchman. Fabregas has less combativeness about him and is a more intricate and cultured passer. He has shown a handy knack of scoring goals too and shone as Arsenal reached the final of the Champions League.

He still has a relatively low profile in his home country but made his international debut before the end of the season and did enough to earn a place in Spain's World Cup squad.

Fabregas' star continues upwards and he and Arsenal continue to bask in the glow of his meteoric rise.

Yet, not all are happy about the situation. Barcelona have expressed fury in recent months that a player they raised through their system and is now worth an estimated GBP18 million was `poached' from them a few years ago.

"We have invested seven million euros (GBP4.8 million) in our youth team this season," said Barca president Joan Laporta.

"But we have a big problem with English clubs targeting our youngsters. The problem is that English clubs do not have their own youth system and so they try to find players elsewhere. British clubs offer astronomical figures to kids who are 14, 15 and 16, a figure that for ethical reasons we cannot equal. We have had this situation with Cesc Fabregas, Gerard Pique (signed by Manchester United) and most recently Fran Merida (who has also joined Arsenal)."

Barcelona may grimace when they hear Fabregas' name but he apparently still loves them. He remains a season ticket-holder at the Nou Camp and his family still live near the city. His girlfriend Carla is a gymnast from Barcelona who trains close to home. They have been together for two years but he admits he does not see her often enough.

Fabregas drives, in comparison to many of his English Premier League contemporaries, a modest Audi A3. It is a stylish motor, however, and the top model retails at around GBP25,000.

* * * Factfile Name: Cesc Fabregas Position: Midfielder Club: Arsenal DOB: 04/05/87 Spain caps: 8 Spain goals: 0 Spain debut: v Ivory Coast, March 2006 Moment to remember

Fabregas was outstanding as Arsenal progressed through the latter stages of the Champions League. He was particularly brilliant in the quarter-final win over Juventus and scored the opening goal in the 2-0 first-leg success at Highbury. Fabregas outshone Vieira on the opposing side and gave even greater indication of his ability.

Moment to forget

Fabregas became Spain's youngest World Cup player, at 19 years and 41 days, this summer when he appeared as a substitute in their first match of the tournament, a superb 4-1 win against Ukraine. He played in all four of Spain's matches and had forced his way into the starting line-up by the third. Yet, after marking themselves out as potential winners early on, everything went wrong for Spain in the second round as they threw away a lead against France in Hanover and lost 3-1.

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