Cesc Fabregas' birth certificate says he is 23 but everyone in football knows it is a gross understatement.
Few better than Fabregas, it is now clear. No one's time is infinite, of course, but the sense of this must be especially acute when you are so young and accomplished and you see so clearly the dispiriting fact that the years are slipping through your fingers like so many grains of sand.
Fabregas's competitive maturity is so great, and his understanding that football can take away gifts as quickly as it gives them so profound, his Arsenal manager, Arsène Wenger, must know that he is now facing more than the restlessness of a recalcitrant young superstar. Fabregas is a superstar all right, someone in the bracket of Messi, Ronaldo and Rooney, but he is also besieged by the conviction that unlike those brilliant and equally precocious rivals he has waited too long for the fulfilment of brilliant talent.
Messi, Ronaldo and Rooney all know what it is to stockpile the satisfaction that comes with winning the big trophies. They have all embraced some of the greatest prizes football offers, European, domestic league and cup titles. By comparison – and this is the problem Wenger will not be able to talk away – he has just a couple of scraps. He won an FA Cup winners' medal in a most forgettable match against Manchester United five years ago and his only other visit to a peak of the game was not with Arsenal but Spain in the 2008 European Championships, a tournament in which he featured sporadically as a substitute and from which he was withdrawn before the climax of the final game.
These have been poor pickings for maybe the most purely creative player in European football who now appears to see the future in going back to his beloved home town of Barcelona and the playing situation for which he has increasingly pined: the chance to play with a team capable of winning all the prizes. It is hard to imagine that the breaking point in his yearning did not come when he watched as Arsenal, albeit an injury-weakened one, were finally engulfed at Nou Camp last month.
Wenger may feel the grief of a mentor contemplating the defection of his most prized protégé as he fights to keep Fabregas. He may imagine a waft of treachery but given his intelligence, the brilliant understanding of life and football he so often displays when not plunging down the vortex of a harsh defeat, he will also understand that not all contracts are composed of paper and ink.
Some are born of an implicit understanding that one man's dream – in Wenger's case the building of a great team entirely on his own terms – can turn out to be another's crushing disappointment. This surely will be the unshakable reality when the master meets the virtuoso pupil and fights to keep the talent which in recent years has become utterly central to the club's hopes of returning to the front rank of English and European football.
In this other kind of contract, which is not about terms of employment but the drawing of ambition and the understanding that the most gifted of players need the stimulation that comes with a real chance of fulfilling their hopes of success, Wenger has to accept that in crucial areas he has been found wanting.
Some of us have had the detached luxury of being able to applaud Wenger's purist instincts and go along with his belief that one day it will all come right, that Arsenal will finally have the strength and balance to augment the beautiful football. But, unlike the man from Barcelona, we do not have to watch the clock winding down; we do not have to wonder if the best of ourselves is being spent in a hopeless cause, and when you know that resources are available to make the signings that could change everything.
Fabregas has had the additional weight of resisting the well known desire of Barça to welcome home the exiled son. Yes, he has said so many times, Arsenal had claimed a large part of his spirit, yes he could see a great future, but all the time there has been the realisation that he was wanted not for some work in progress but the further development of a team which had already won Champions League titles and, despite the recent ambush by Internazionale, had set the benchmark for brilliant, winning football.
If Fabregas does tell Wenger that it is indeed the end of their story, and yesterday there was an overwhelming sense that finally he will, there will be many regrets over the lost possibilities he proclaimed so often, so exquisitely and so much more deeply than any of his team-mates.
More resonant than any will be the occasion two years ago when he guided Arsenal to the first English club victory over Milan in San Siro. Fabregas, still 20, was phenomenal, a player around whom you could build a team to suit most anyone's dreams. Unfortunately the building didn't happen, not to the required degree. So Arsenal spent another season in the margins of the elite, charming the birds off the boughs one moment, screeching to a halt the next.
No, they didn't do the right degree of building and now they face the worst possible consequence. It is Fabregas almost certainly on his way. Or, put another way, the house falling down.Reuse content