Fabregas' growing pains risk stunting rare talent

The young Arsenal captain, a shining light in Wenger's team, is developing a tendency to show his darker side, says Sam Wallace
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The Independent Football

At the beginning of his brilliant teenage career it was just great expectations that followed Cesc Fabregas around. Now it is great expectorations. In the space of less than 24 hours, Arsenal's captain has issued two denials that he is the spitting type, but even if you take his version of events at face value it is fair to ask: what exactly was Fabregas's problem on Tuesday night?

After the game, Fabregas issued a hasty response to Phil Brown's allegation that he had spat at the Hull City assistant manager Brian Horton. Come yesterday afternoon he also denied that he could be seen spitting in Michael Ballack's face in footage from a Champions League game against Bayern Munich from March 2005 that is still on YouTube. The question Fabregas was not prepared to answer was why on earth he felt it appropriate to get involved in the row with Hull players and staff in the first place.

Therein lies the problem for "Saint Cesc", the kid from Barcelona who has become a revelation at Arsenal and epitomises Arsène Wenger's evangelical faith in young players. He might be a brilliant, visionary midfielder but his latest scrape demonstrates that he has a dark side, too. Perhaps he believes that his growing stature in the game justifies him running onto the pitch at full-time to settle his own grievances, but it is hardly becoming of a player with ambitions to be among the best in the world.

There seems little doubt that Fabregas was subject to a fairly unpleasant tirade from Horton in the tunnel after the match. He might even have had to endure insults that were beyond the pale. But why was he there in the first place? Having seen off a tough Hull team and come back from one goal behind to win 2-1 in dubious circumstances, Fabregas's Arsenal team-mates seemed largely relieved to find themselves in the FA Cup semi-final against Chelsea. Their non-playing captain, however, was on the pitch in his jeans and hoodie letting rip at Hull staff.

Fabregas' spitting incident with Michael Ballack

On matchdays the non-playing Arsenal squad members – injured, suspended or dropped – are required to sit in an area known as the "paddock" behind the dugout. Some of them have executive boxes at the Emirates Stadium, but they are liable to be fined if they do not turn up without good reason to support the team. There is nothing in the club rules that says they have to antagonise the opposition.

There were a lot of heated exchanges between the two benches during the match, much of it from Horton on the Hull side because for most of the first half Brown was in the stands. Nevertheless it was not regarded as sufficiently bad for Pat Rice, Wenger's assistant, not to shake hands with Brown at the end of the match. Fabregas, it would appear, decided to take matters further.

He may only be 21 years old, but what is wrong with the Arsenal captain's judgment? He has already had to issue a grovelling apology to Mark Hughes who, when he was Blackburn Rovers manager, was subject to another tiresome dig from Fabregas after a draw in the FA Cup fifth round in February 2007. Fabregas mocked Hughes, a former Barcelona player, by telling him that he had not set up his team to play in the style of that club.

Hughes might have pointed out that while Fabregas, great talent that he is, is a lifelong fan of his hometown club he has never actually played for Barcelona. Instead, Hughes embarrassed Fabregas by making the exchange public. And he has not been the only one. In the manner of a sulky teenager, Fabregas has snapped at Teddy Sheringham, landing a lame punch on him after a game at West Ham United. He has given Harry Redknapp a mouthful at Portsmouth. All of this prompting those in the game to wonder if Fabregas's opinion of himself is rather too high.

It was also Fabregas, then just 17, who allegedly threw the pizza at Sir Alex Ferguson in the famous "Battle of the Buffet" at Old Trafford in 2004. For most Arsenal supporters that ensured him cult status regardless of what he did as a player, but it also demonstrated his propensity to lose his temper in difficult situations.

Fabregas's defenders say that he is simply imbued with the winning mentality and is battling the old guard of English football. Why should someone so talented respect those whose teams cannot aspire to the kind of football he plays? But when he comes onto the pitch after a game in which he has not featured and starts dishing it out to the opposition it is fair to ask whether the ego is running out of control.

Fabregas will no doubt point in indignation at the way in which Horton goaded him, but if the Arsenal captain really believes he is as good as he thinks he is, why does he care what the assistant manager of Hull thinks? Away from the pitch Fabregas can be charming, a great interviewee and a mature thinker about the game for one so young. Now he prefers to restrict his interviews to The Sun – with whom he has a commercial deal – despite Arsenal having one of the best-run press offices in the Premier League.

In his young career Fabregas has, of course, already witnessed one of the most extraordinary egos in football – and we are not talking about William Gallas and his £350,000 chrome-plated Mercedes McLaren car. The ego in question belonged to Thierry Henry, who by the time he departed for Barcelona in 2007 could not bear to be in the wrong about anything. He left behind a group of young footballers who looked like they could not be happier to be liberated from his incessant moaning.

It would be a pity if Fabregas was to become like Henry, who towards the end of his time at Arsenal perceived slights in even the most innocuous questions and carried around a very tedious sense of injustice. What Fabregas brought to the game as a teenager was the joy of playing and thriving despite effectively being a boy in such a competitive, aggressive world. Now he seems to have developed a strange obsession with settling arguments that have nothing to do with him.

Previous? Ballack in line of fire

Tuesday was not the first time Cesc Fabregas has been embroiled in – and denied – a spitting controversy. During a Champions League tie with Bayern Munich in March 2005, the then 17-year-old appeared to spit on Michael Ballack (see video clip, above), earning a booking from the referee.

Spitting mad: A short history

Frank Rijkaard The Dutch midfielder instigated a running spat with German striker Rudi Völler during the a 1990 World Cup match. Rijkaard spat at the striker at a free-kick, Völler's protestations earning a booking. An ear-twist and stamp on the foot followed before Rijkaard again let fly as both men were dismissed.

Patrick Vieira The Frenchman earned a second booking for a foul on Paolo di Canio during a 2-1 loss at West Ham in 1999. Before leaving the field a shoving match with Neil Ruddock ensued, resulting in Vieira having to be pulled away, but not before jumping up and spitting in Ruddock's direction, earning a six-match ban.

El Hadji Diouf The fiery Senegal forward has been involved in a number of incidents, the most infamous – involving a Celtic supporter in 2003 – resulted in a court appearance and a £5,000 fine.

James Mariner