Arsene Wenger, the Arsenal manager, yesterday defended his captain Cesc Fabregas against recent criticism of his behaviour and said that he was "fantastically proud of the person he [Fabregas] has become". Wenger added that he thought the Spanish midfielder was currently the subject of a "witch hunt".
In the aftermath of his side's 2-1 defeat to Arsenal on Tuesday, the Everton manager David Moyes accused Fabregas of making comments to the match officials in the tunnel at half-time that "warranted a sending-off". This followed claims by several Huddersfield players over his unwillingness to exchange shirts with them after the two sides' FA Cup tie on Sunday.
However, Wenger claimed yesterday that there had been a "witch hunt" against Fabregas, and he endorsed the player's conduct against Huddersfield. "I hope he will not exchange shirts with players who try to kick him for 90 minutes and then come to say 'Please can I get your shirt?'" Wenger said. "I think that is a normal and natural reaction."
The Arsenal manager believes that Fabregas routinely receives not only unfair criticism but also unfair treatment from opponents. His response to such bad tackles has impressed Wenger. "I'm always surprised," he said, "that we do not pick up on people who run behind him and just kick him. They get away with it and he [Fabregas] is accused of something; it cannot be right if you love football. He gets a rough ride in every single game. I'm fantastically proud of the person he has become. And of his maturity."
When asked what recent incidents reveal about Fabregas's attitude, Wenger said that his captain was a "winner". "He wants to win and he always plays on the limit of motivation, of desire and a little bit of what could be looked at as anger, but I think he is a winner. This guy is a winner so when he goes on a football pitch, he wants to win."
Regarding what was alleged to have been said to referee Lee Mason in the Emirates Stadium tunnel on Tuesday, Wenger rejected Moyes' version of events. "I was with the referee and if I was not with the referee I would not tell you that he said nothing to the referee," he said. "And that's why I'm adamant that he did not talk to the referee at all, unless it was on the football pitch. And then I do not see how Moyes can see it."
The French manager did argue, though, that there should more tolerance for comments that players make to officials during games, particularly given the tougher scrutiny brought to bear by technology. "It is difficult in the modern game", he argued, "you want somebody to give absolutely everything in every single game, to be highly motivated, to be ready to die, and as well to be politically correct.
"You have today the example of Gary Neville; fantastic player, fantastic career. You think he has never been heard talking in the tunnel? You have to be normal, and to have a little bit of tolerance as well with what is happening in the tunnel.
"Everything is filmed, everything is recorded, when you go out from the dressing room until you go out on the pitch, but that's not football any more. When I go on Sunday for a walk, I see football playing in the park, if you record what is said there, I tell you you can make an article every day in every newspaper for everybody who is on the football pitch. It's part of football to be a little bit free to talk."