‘When I was at Arsenal I never thought I could feel this way about Chelsea’
➤ Cesc Fabregas became a hero to both sets of fans but feels it was the ruthlessness of the men in blue that gave them the edge over their rivals
Cesc Fabregas admits that “in theory” a move to Chelsea was never supposed to happen for a player who had grown up at Arsenal, captained the club and had only thought of returning to England in north London before Jose Mourinho invited him for a meeting.
But Fabregas can now claim to love both clubs, to cherish the support of fans from the red and blue sides of London, and to count memories from the Emirates and Stamford Bridge as the best of his career.
The 33-year-old can also understand why some Arsenal fans will never forgive him for playing for Chelsea and achieving his dream of winning the Premier League title with the Gunners’ rivals – indeed, he even respects them for it.
Fabregas, though, will never apologise for any of the choices he made over a career in England that was book-ended by two FA Cup victories, the first with Arsenal and the last with Chelsea, before moving to Monaco, from where he will watch tomorrow’s final between his old clubs.
“I always believe that things happen for a reason and in this case, in theory, it was not supposed to happen, me joining Chelsea,” says Fabregas, who spent eight years at Arsenal before rejoining Barcelona, where he played for three years ahead of deciding he wanted to return to the Premier League.
“When I told my agent I wanted to go back to the Premier League, I thought it was Arsenal. In my eyes, in my heart and in my mind, I’m going back to Arsenal and that’s it. This is what I was thinking and expecting.
“But it didn’t happen. Arsenal had the option but they didn’t take it, so we had to find other solutions and that’s when we met Jose. I listened to Jose because of who he is and because of the respect I had for him, and I ended up loving his words, his ideas, his future at Chelsea, what he wanted from me. In one second you change your mind, you make a big decision in your career and it turns out to be a fantastic one. So never say never, that’s my lesson from all of it and I’m very happy I took the decision.”
Despite the fact he retains friendships with some of the Chelsea players and staff he left behind last January, while few of his old Arsenal allies remain, Fabregas cannot single out either club as his one true love. “My heart belongs to both clubs,” he says. “I know it sounds politically correct, but it really is what I feel. When I was with Arsenal I never believed I could feel what I felt towards Chelsea. It was impossible. But this is the beauty of football.”
That may not be enough for Arsenal fans who could not stomach seeing Fabregas in blue, but he accepts the fact that he broke some hearts that will never be repaired.
“Sometimes it’s difficult to change people’s opinion,” he says. “I did what I did and I gave my all. If someone saw it, it’s great and if someone didn’t, then it’s a shame and I feel bad because first of all they believe I could have done better.
“But maybe it’s not even about football, sometimes it’s more about breaking hearts because of joining the other top club of the city. And fans are fans, and I completely understand and I admire that from them because they are completely loyal to their club from day one to the last.
“Even if I want to say I’m the biggest Arsenal fan, which I will always be forever, I cannot say I am completely loyal from a fans’ perspective because I went to Chelsea. It was my opportunity as a player, as a professional. But when I took that chance, I never thought I would be so happy there, that I would be so successful and that I would have so much appreciation and feeling with their fans. So now I support both clubs equally.
“When I was at Arsenal, I felt so completely in love with that club. From the start, when I was training and made my debut with the ‘Invincibles’.
“There was something inside of me that was impossible to ever go away because I probably had the best years of my life there. But being at Chelsea is something that I will never regret in my life, in fact completely the opposite. I will always talk about Chelsea and about my time at Chelsea as probably the best decision of my career.”
Fabregas was aged 18 when he played in his first FA Cup final against Manchester United, in 2005, which Arsenal won on penalties. The teenager not only won his first piece of silverware, but also left a lasting impression on Roy Keane.
“Gerard Pique, who was at Manchester United then, told me about this afterwards and I never knew about it. He told me that me and Roy went into a challenge, which I remember. It was 50/50 and I must have caught him with my knee in his quad. And I got him a little bit. At half-time, he went to Pique and started shouting at him because he knew we were friends. A bit of swearing. I can’t say the exact words, but it was fun.”
Fabregas thought that would be the first of many trophies he would lift at Arsenal, yet the FA
Cup proved to be the first and last piece of silverware he won at a club who became synonymous with failing to get over the line.
“In the first three or four years I thought I was in the place to win everything,” the Spaniard says. “We played the FA Cup and went on to play in the Champions League final. So, in my mind, I was thinking we would compete against anyone, especially in England. By the looks of it as well in Europe.
“Probably after 2008 when everybody left, the club decided to go with younger prospects, giving chances to a very young team. It needed a little bit more time and there were a lot of injuries in key moments of the season and a lot of things happened, so we never hit the heights we wanted.”
Having spent eight years trying to win the Premier League with Arsenal, Fabregas lifted the trophy after just 12 months at Chelsea under Mourinho and went on to collect a second winners’ medal under Antonio Conte, whose apology to him he still rates as one of the most satisfying moments of his career.
“With Conte, I felt that he didn’t really know me,” Fabregas says. “At the start, he
said to me that he wanted two strong midfielders, that he didn’t think I would have space or the right qualities in his team and that’s it.
“I just had to be patient and prove him wrong. I think, forgetting trophies and performances, it’s probably the proudest moment of my career when he called me to his office one day and he told me, ‘Cesc, I’m sorry. You were right’. Because in our first discussion I told him something back, I was not arrogant, but I told something. He looked at me then like, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah, talk like you want, you won’t play’. So after that, proving him wrong, him coming to me and telling me I have a place in this team and that I’ve been doing very, very well, that was very satisfying and in the second season I basically played every single game.” It was at the end of his second season under Conte that Fabregas won the last of his trophies in England, another FA Cup final victory over Manchester United a year after losing in the final to Arsenal.
Asked to try to explain the difference in cultures at the two clubs and why he finished his Chelsea career with three more trophies than he managed at Arsenal, Fabregas says: “Some teams I played in at Arsenal and Chelsea were similar in terms of talent, but the difference I felt straightaway is that at Chelsea we were ruthless.
“At Arsenal there were fantastic, top, top players, but at Chelsea we didn’t really care if one day we had to win 1-0 by not touching the ball for the whole match.
“At Arsenal, and it was maybe partly my fault at some point as the leader and captain. sometimes we forgot that to win leagues and Champions Leagues, you need to win ugly. When I was young I always wanted to play the beautiful game, but there are always five or six games a season that you need to struggle but win. At Chelsea we did that. We were very competitive and very experienced. That’s the main difference.”
Fabregas makes Chelsea favourites for tomorrow’s final, but claims the game carries more significance for Arsenal and their head coach Mikel Arteta.
“Arsenal need it more,” he says. “Chelsea basically every year has won a trophy, so it’s a different animal in this case. In terms of trophies, Arsenal needs it more and for confidence for next year and getting into Europe. Chelsea are in the Champions League and Arsenal has nothing at the moment.”
Divided loyalties: Cesc Fabregas says he loved his time with both London clubs but won the majority of his English silverware during his time at Stamford Bridge