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Football: The Interview Francesc Fabregas - Spanish marvel blossoms

Independent on Sunday, The,  Oct 2, 2005  by Nick Townsend

He arrives after training in pristine white, his pulled-down hoodie and his bottoms definitely a fashion statement, not the intimidating uniform of youth. The dark-brown eyes bore into you, attentive, respectful, laughing even, after you have explained, when he tells you that his mother, Nurea, runs a pastry-making business, the origin of the expression: 'Who ate all the pies?'

His lithe, deceptively powerful frame is still growing, mostly upwards " they say four or five inches since the midfielder has been at Highbury " and strengthening, though you suspect he is never likely to bulk into a Micky Quinn.

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Yet, as you converse, you have constantly to remind yourself that Cesc Fabregas, still way off coming of age (at least as we used to recognise that transition into adulthood) is in his third season as a senior player. Perhaps it is a precocity he shares with Wayne Rooney? 'No, not really,' says the young Spaniard, dismissing such a comparison. 'Wayne started younger than me. He was in the international team when he was 17. I am still playing for the [Spain] Under-21s at the moment.

'To play with the England first team when you are only 17 is just unbelievable, and to be a goalscorer in the Euro Championship when you are 18 is tremendous. And there's Cristiano Ronaldo as well, playing for Portugal.' He pauses before reflecting: 'But it's good that in this country they [the clubs] give the chance to young people.'

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Certainly Arsne Wenger had no compunction in deferring to a belief that talented enough is old enough. The antithesis of a Club 18-25 reveller, Fabregas arrived in London having left behind the possibilities of a rather more hedonistic existence on the Costa Brava. He could scarcely have dared to imagine how swiftly he would be fast-tracked to perform with the lite. 'Sometimes it's difficult to believe what has happened to me,' he concedes in his fast- improving English. 'Now I'm 18 and I've played more than 60 games in the Arsenal first team. I'm very happy; everything's going very quickly at the moment. But I try to keep my feet on the ground and just be the same boy that I've always been.'

When he says 'boy' it reminds you again that he is just that. Not, say, the mid-twenties his genial self-assurance suggests. 'When everything goes so quickly, and you are enjoying it, you don't think about how old you are,' he says. 'But sometimes I sit down, and realise that what I've achieved in the last two or three years is something different for a boy of my age. All my friends back home are going to discotheques, things like that, but instead I came here on my own to a big club, where there is great pressure to succeed. I still try to do the things that an 18- year-old does, but I work hard because I want to play for the first team.'

'Youth,' it was once written, 'will come here and beat on my door, and force its way in.' Ibsen's eponymous The Master Builder feared such an intrusion; in an altogether different context, Wenger, architect of the Highbury project, positively welcomes it. Patrick Vieira may have departed and Dennis Bergkamp entered his valedictory season, but the Arsenal manager has declined, because of sheer faith in the potential of such imports as Juan Antonio Reyes, Mathieu Flamini and Fabregas, to replace directly such iconic figures. Fabregas offers a handsome testament to the part both have played in his ascendancy.

'Dennis is 36 years old " do you know, my dad is only three years older than him! " and he's played in countless World Cups, European Championships; yet, when you see him training he's just like a kid. He wants to win. He hates losing. He's so professional. For me, he's a legend.'

He adds: 'Patrick, too, was always a massive influence; he would talk to me a lot during games, and outside games. Even when I had a bad game, he came to me and said, 'Look, you are young', and explained a lot of things to me, things that had happened to him. Bad moments. Good moments. I'm very lucky to have had these kind of players next to me.'

On Tuesday night at the Ajax Stadium, Fabregas demonstrated what fine mentors that duo have been. Injuries to Gilberto Silva and Bergkamp dictated that Reyes should provide the attacking focus, ahead of Flamini and Fabregas in central midfield. 'That night we showed our character, and our discipline; we showed that we are winners,' says Fabregas. 'I think it was a quite good game from Mathieu and me, because we were always together, communicating all the time. Of course, it's great to have centre-backs like Sol Campbell who are always talking to you and making sure you are in the right position. You can learn so much from a player like him.'

It was Fabregas's perception which would provide a splendidly weighted pass to Reyes, whose acceleration induced the goalkeeper, Hans Vonk, to fell him in the area, yielding the penalty converted by Robert Pires. 'Tuesday was quite a difficult game because they were putting a lot of pressure on centre-midfield, so you have to think about when you can go up and when to stay back,' is how Fabregas explains the dilemmas of that role. 'It's a kind of situation when you have to be intelligent and see when you can make the final ball, and when to take a touch and wait a little bit.'