The career of Barcelona and Spain’s Cesc Fabregas took off a decade ago thanks to the Fifa Under 17 World Cup.
U17 World Cup at Finland in 2003 allowed Fabregas to flourish
The midfielder’s move from Barcelona to Arsenal caused consternation in Catalonia as Gerard Pique also left for England, to join Manchester United.
Barcelona lost two of their best prospects to the promise of more money and genuine first-team opportunities, something that likely would have required a four-year wait at the Camp Nou.
Fabregas did not contemplate breaking into Arsenal’s first XI immediately, yet his performances in the U17 tournament in Finland gave Arsene Wenger the confidence to award him his debut at 16 in October 2003. Fabregas was Arsenal’s youngest-ever player, at 16 years and 177 days. A month later, he became their youngest scorer.
Wenger was not in Finland, but two Arsenal scouts looked for future prospects and watched their own new Catalan. They were delighted as Fabregas was the star.
Despite playing in midfield, he was the tournament’s joint top scorer with five goals as Spain progressed to the final. He shared that honour with the Colombian striker Carlos Hidalgo, most recently with a Colombian second-division side.
Fabregas started the tournament as a substitute who did not get off the bench in their first game, a disappointing 3-3 draw with Sierra Leone. Only a Spanish equaliser six minutes into injury time prevented defeat.
Fabregas started the next game from the bench, but was introduced at half time with Spain trailing South Korea. The substitute excelled and helped Spain win.
He would progress to being a starter as Spain beat the United States with Fabregas scoring, then Portugal 5-2 in the quarter-finals with Fabregas scoring two.
They defeated Argentina 3-2 in the semi-finals, with the player with “Cesc” on his shirt again netting twice, including a 117th-minute golden-goal winner. Brazil were the opponents in the final, the South Americans triumphing by a single goal.
Fifa’s technical report, a summary of the games and players which is read by big-club managers as well as scouts, noted that Fabregas had: “excellent shooting and dribbling”.
It highlighted three other Spaniards: Sisi, Xisco and Jurado. Sisi now plays for Osasuna in the Spanish Primera Liga, Jurado for Spartak in the Russian Premier League and Xisco for Cordoba in Spain’s second tier.
Other players are at a lower level, if they are playing at all. Only David Silva from that team has enjoyed a stellar career.
Expectations can suffocate the progress of a young talent, as the American striker Freddy Adu, described by Fifa as “very mobile … extremely dangerous in front of goal”, found.
Fabregas was young enough to be eligible for Spain’s U17 side a year later in the 2004 European Championship, where he again finished runner-up and was again named the tournament’s best player. Showing such standout qualities stamped him as a future star.
He had already played for the first team with his club and would soon do so for his country.
In 2006, the Spain coach Luis Aragones named Fabregas, 19, for a friendly against Ivory Coast, making him the youngest player to be capped by Spain for 70 years.
Before that, the truest marker of his quality came in the U17 World Cup.