Cesc Fabregas has paid his dues
Who wouldn't want to play for Barça? And wouldn't this be especially so if, like Cesc Fabregas, you were born virtually in the shadow of the great Nou Camp arena?
Still, you needed a hard heart to read without a degree of anguish the weekend story that he had offered to take a pay cut if it helped him swap the shirt of Arsenal and the supervision of Arsène Wenger for the embrace of Pep Guardiola and the masters of European football.
There is certainly no doubt that of all the blows that have landed on Wenger in recent months it is impossible to imagine that anything could rival in severity the emotional devastation implicit in the departure of his ultimate protégé.
Depending on your perspective, there is one of two possible reactions. The first is that Fabregas is betraying the man who invested so much in his possibilities as one of football's truly creative forces. The second – and it is the most persuasive available choice here – is that at 24, Fabregas has paid his dues to both his mentor and his club. He stepped into the competitive vacuum left by the decline of Patrick Vieira and the departure of Thierry Henry with a quiet, stunning maturity. He scored a goal against Milan in a Champions League tie at San Siro which refreshed a thousand dreams.
Fabregas made it clear that he saw himself, at least for a few years, as the mainspring of a seriously ambitious team.
The trouble was Arsenal needed a lot more than the inventions of their precocious captain. They needed a defence that wasn't a parody of the one Wenger inherited from the days of George Graham. They needed a goalkeeper who could create a modicum of confidence among his team-mates. They needed a striker of proven consistency, someone to augment the spasmodic brilliance of the injury-prone Robin van Persie. They didn't get any of that, only the old Wenger mantra, "We don't buy superstars – we make them."
Now that the production line has so demonstrably run down in certain vital areas – no, we are not forgetting the thoroughbred credentials of such as Jack Wilshere and Aaron Ramsey – we hear urgent talk of new faces, from the skilled and lively Argentine midfielder Ricardo Alvarez to the hard and functional Phil Jagielka. This is inevitable after the most recent collapse of an Arsenal season.
Yet can we really expect the doubts of Fabregas to be assuaged by such possibilities? When he inherited the captaincy of Arsenal he had some reasonable expectation that the team's progress would be rather more seamless.
When he heard his mentor put down the impertinent Jose Mourinho with the accusation that he was too often "disconnected" from reality he could not have imagined the charge would be levelled at Wenger so relentlessly in just a few years. There was an anger in certain quarters when it was suggested that Arsenal's defeat in the League Cup final against a Birmingham team heading for relegation, but buoyed by infinitely more conviction than their opponents that day, said that a vital part of their DNA had gone missing.
It was just one of those days, Wenger's most obdurate defenders insisted. However, there would be so many of them in the vertiginous descent to the end of the season – and if there is one abiding memory of that day when the belief of Arsenal fans that the drought of trophies was over was shattered, it is surely the expression on the face of Fabregas.
The cameras lingered cruelly at the end of the game. Fabregas's face seemed to be saying, more profoundly than ever before, that it was over with him and Arsenal.
Yes, of course it is a matter of regret. If we started this with the question about who wouldn't want to play for Barça, there is another one that asks: which player of creative instinct wouldn't want to play for Arsène Wenger. Which manager would put more faith in his skill and imagination?
When Wenger turned down the escape option of Real Madrid two years ago he said the decision wasn't about the Spanish club but his feelings for Arsenal and his passion for the project he had launched on his appointment over a decade earlier. "I want to deliver with this team, my team," Wenger declared, "and if I left now I would think of it as a betrayal."
But a betrayal of whom, precisely, Arsenal or his own most singular view of football and his role in it? If Fabregas does decide, as seems increasingly likely, that it is indeed time for him to head home he is unlikely to ask himself such a question. There is, you have to believe, no just cause for such rumination.
For so long Fabregas promised to be another glory of the club he served so well. Now, it has to be said with much sadness, that he resembles nothing so much as a reproach.