Sports Writer of the Year
James Lawton: A letter to Cesc... Farewell amigo, you can walk away with your head held high
You enlivened our stage with a whole range of possibilities: the quickness of your wit, the speed on the ball and effortless control
This is just to say adios y gracias, hombre. Goodbye and thank you. And yes, good luck, because if anyone has earned a little of that valuable commodity it is surely you.
This may not be the universal view at the Emirates Stadium but these are difficult times for the Arsenal, as you know well enough young amigo, and your Barcelona homecoming need not be tinged by a hint of regret.
Indeed, if it requires any more uplift than that provided by the 30,000 Barça fans at the Nou Camp you should know that for every world-weary, bitterdetractor you have left behind there are many more admirers.
If you didn't know it, they are happy to acknowledge that in these last few months you have broken a mould set like concrete around the image of the professional footballer.
You probably know the picture well enough, Cesc.
How footballers are ruled by greed and the instant gratification of cheap celebrity and how some could be taught lessons in loyalty by scurrying ship rats.
They see footballers holding their clubs up to ransom, they see Joey Barton tweeting one thing and doing another, they hear Carlos Tevez sneering at a city that has been so generous to him down the years, and they wonder where it will all end.
Then they look the way you have carried yourself here in England after arriving as a 16-year-old and they see another kind of pattern.
They see a wonderful pride in performance and a great commitment that was not quick to slacken even under the most discouraging evidence that the ambitions you had fought for with such skill and imagination were being picked off, one by one.
Then they acknowledge that at the age of 24 you had a right to react to the fact that the football career is a short one and that players of a certain pedigree have a right to believe that sooner or later they deserve the possibilities of that success cried out for by their talent and their nature.
What is acknowledged now is that you have stepped surely beyond the worst reaches of football scandal. The perception, which these days is one to be weighed in gold, is that you enjoy your life, and the good things your talent has earned, but that it will always lack a hard centre as long as you can still say you are young and strong and believe you are unfulfilled on the field.
In the world you inhabit, this is no small achievement, hombre, and it honours both you and your people who nourished you to that point where you believed you had to leave the securities of your home as a boy and fight for the kind of recognition which might not have been so readily available in the shadow of men like Andres Iniesta and Xavi Hernandez.
Those who saw you dining in El Pirata in Mayfair, arguably the finest tapas restaurant north of Barcelona or Bilbao, noted someone eminently comfortable in his own skin – and the situation of being the great hope of Arsène Wenger's latest Arsenal.
They are also quick to see that there is more than mere opportunism in your return to Catalonia. They see that it is an aspiration which has been served by a brilliant body of work since you first became the youngest ever Arsenal player at 16 – and also a sacrifice that, until it was officially announ-ced, was scarcely imaginable.
By a huge distance, the most remarkable aspect of Barcelona's successful bid for you is that it only happened because you were prepared to put into the pot £4m worth of future earnings.
No one imagines this will thrust you into the mean streets any time soon but, in these days of rapacious exploitation of a footballer's market, it is no less extraordinary for this. The implication is immense. It says that you have put beyond any other consideration the desire to play for the great football club who commanded your respect and devotion from your earliest days.
Of course this leaves emptiness at Arsenal – one running deeper than even the defections of the great Thierry Henry and Patrick Vieira. Both, plainly, had delivered the best of their talent – and carried the club to great triumphs. You never laid a hand on a trophy after being appointed captain and it was not hard to guess at the point when you grasped, as surely as you understood anything in your life, that it wasn't ever likely to happen.
It was when you sat on the bench at Wembley last early spring and watched your team-mates fail to win the Carling Cup. A modest enough bauble when set against the prizes you always had in mind, no doubt, but the camera caught you in a moment of palpable despair. If this trophy couldn't be collected, what could?
What could be gleaned from all the years of promise? For many, the truth was out, and no one absorbed it more painfully than Wenger. He says that he still loves you, the quality of your football, its wonderful spark and imagination, and all you represent to him as a footballer of exemplary character. And then when you respond in similar terms, there is no disposition – not here anyway – to sniff out the smallest smack of insincerity.
What we have here, surely, is not an act of duplicity but the flow of life. Of course, we can imagine it might have been different if a new Arsenal had strengthened around you, had you enough reason to believe that when you erupted so superbly with the winning goal against the reigning champions of Europe, Milan, in San Siro in 2008, you were making a foundation of success rather than another flash of illusion.
But that harsh insight that grew within you is football's open secret now. If the club you served so well, and the coach who nourished your talent so lovingly, cannot arrive at a coherent pursuit of success, if they are waylaid by old myths and new failures, what are you supposed to do?
It is not to let the years fly by – and your career dwindle into the sourest of angst.
No, you go with all that honour, Cesc, because you have not only behaved decently but with great style and manliness. Along the way you have consistently enhanced the Premier League which, for all its boasting, has few stories to match that of your consistency.
It's true, hombre, you didn't always run with the angels. You could be arrogant, even disrespectful, to some of those managers who didn't always fulfil your ideal of how the game should be played. That, you may understand a little better now, was perhaps because they didn't have the means – and because, like you, they wanted to make the best of themselves.
But what never could be said was that you didn't care enough about the thing you did so well and by which you have always been so desperate to define yourself.
You will be missed mostly because you always offered some rare guarantees. You enlivened our stage with a whole range of possibilities, and none of them were mundane. There was the quickness of your wit, the speed on the ball and the effortless control.
It is not a good time to lose such assets, not for Arsenal or anyone who cares about the strength and the beauty of English football. However, sometimes it is necessary for a man to think of himself, what he needs and how best he might express himself.
That your decision is to seek out the toughest challenge under the football sun is not the least of the reasons we have to mourn your leaving. Your talent was never in doubt. Now, nor is your nerve. You came to us as a boy and now you go home conspicuously resembling a man.
As we were saying, adios, hombre, and thanks for the memories.
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