Wenger opens Arsenal's eyes to a world of opportunities

The Highbury manager has looked to all corners of the globe in his relentless attempt to unearth new talent. Nick Harris reports
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The Independent Football

Arsenal were the last club to win the English League without using a single player born outside Britain or Ireland. That was in 1989. Their most exotically named stars that season were Caesar (Gus) and Lukic (John), born in Tottenham and Chesterfield respectively, while Niall Quinn and Kevin Richardson almost counted as non-natives because they came from as far away as Dublin and Newcastle.

In those days, Europe had become an infrequent destination for matches, let alone for recruiting staff. As for the wider world, it appeared to be less George Graham's oyster than his clam (mostly shut or unpalatable). When Graham did later venture into the overseas market, he chose the infamous Norwegian agent Rune Hauge as his guide. It was not his wisest move. His initial acceptance of £425,000 in illegal payments eventually cost him his job.

Arsenal in 2004 is a different kettle of poissons. Arsène Wenger's first-team squad comprises 39 players from 18 nations and even his cadre of 24 younger professionals, including the second-year and third-year academy scholars, hail from nine different countries including the Faroes, America and Brazil.

The methods that have been used to assemble such a cosmopolitan crowd have not been universally popular, with Arsenal variously accused of poaching youngsters, exploitation, double-standards and defaulting on payments. But Wenger has always been careful to operate within the letter of the law, and the depth and variety of talent he has amassed has unquestionably led Arsenal to their current position of strength.

Nine points clear in the Premiership, on course for a record fourth consecutive FA Cup final and through to the last eight of the Champions' League, the icing on the cake comes in knowing they should be housed in a new 60,000-seat stadium by 2006-07. And if Wenger is to be believed, that season could coincide not only with the career peaks of his best contemporary assets but the flowering of an extraordinary nextgeneration.

Among the latter should be Jose Antonio Reyes, whose imaginatively structured move to Highbury from Seville is dealt with elsewhere on these pages, and his compatriot Francesc "Cesc" Fabregas, who has already broken two Arsenal records since signing last autumn. The midfielder became the club's youngest ever first-team player in October, aged 16 years and 177 days, when he started against Rotherham in the Carling Cup. He became Arsenal's youngest ever scorer in December by netting against Wolves in the same competition.

Arsenal pinched Fabregas from under the noses of his boyhood club, Barcelona, in a deal that caused a rumpus in Spain and was labelled "underhand" by Johan Cruyff, Barça's former manager. In reality it was a legitimate if stealthy operation straight from the Wenger textbook on youthful acquisitions.

Fabregas was first noticed by Highbury contacts shining for Spain's Under-16s against England on a Tuesday evening in Doncaster in November 2002. By spring last year, Arsenal's chief scout, Steve Rowley, who oversees the club's international network of talent spotters, had met the then 15-year-old and his parents and sold them the Highbury dream.

Fabregas was too young to sign professionally for Barcelona, so he was still open to offers from England under Fifa rules as long as his family was domiciled in England. They soon were, to the dismay of Barcelona, who had no choice but to accept limited compensation calculated by a fixed formula. By the time Fabregas came to international attention last August as Spain reached the final of the Under-17 World Championship ­ with Cesc winning the Golden Boot and Player of the Tournament awards en route ­ he was all but a Gunner already.

Previous textbook captures of foreign youngsters have included that of Nicolas Anelka, who was snaffled from an outraged Paris St-Germain for £500,000 and later sold to Real Madrid for a £22.5m profit, albeit with much bleating from Arsenal about Anelka's petulance, and that of Jérémie Aliadière.

When the latter was tempted away from France's Clairefontaine academy aged 15, Noel Le Graet, the president of the French league, said it was "a disgrace" and accused Wenger of having spies stalking the corridors of his country's leading football institution. Wenger was confident the fuss would subside and it did. "We have done nothing wrong," he said. "It's better than bringing someone all the way from Nigeria."

The Arsenal manager has been proved right in his wariness of buying direct from Africa, with an acrimonious dispute over the 2002 purchase of Kolo Touré, who has been a revelation at centre-half this season, still ongoing.

Arsenal paid £325,000 up front for Touré to an Ivory Coast club, ASEC Mimosas, where the Frenchman Jean-Marc Guillou, a friend of Wenger and a former French Player of the Year, founded and ran a very successful academy throughout the 1990s. Some £500,000 in extra appearance-related fees have remained unpaid, however.

ASEC claim this is because of a private dispute between them and Guillou. He no longer works for them and is instead involved with a rival academy in Abidjan as well being the general manager at the Belgian club Beveren, who also happen to have a feeder club arrangement with Arsenal. Beveren have 11 Ivorians in their 20-man squad with more on the way.

ASEC claim they have not been paid because Arsenal are siding with Guillou. Arsenal acknowledge they owe around £500,000 but say that until ASEC and Guillou settle their legal battle ­ a complex affair about the export of Ivorian players ­ they are prevented by an injunction from settling their bill. Critics in Abidjan feel the Ivory Coast's football resources are simply being exploited.

What is beyond doubt is Wenger's encyclopaedic knowledge of players worldwide and his ability to get the best from them. Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira and Robert Pires provide the most conclusive evidence. Though Wenger has a £40m net transfer deficit at Arsenal (the likes of Sylvain Wiltord, Richard Wright, Francis Jeffers, Edu and Giovanni van Bronckhorst were not cheap), the combined value of Henry, Vieira and Pires alone would wipe it out several times over. Not that selling is immediately on the agenda. That is almost as unthinkable as an all-British squad ever winning another League title.