Fabregas happy to seize his moment for Spain
Cesc Fabregas was not born when Spain last made it to the semi-finals of a major tournament in 1984, yet for one so young a history lesson was not required when he stepped up to take the decisive penalty against Italy on Sunday night.
The Arsenal midfielder gave a remarkable account yesterday of the pressure of his own international rites of passage – and that of the Spain team – in the Euro 2008 quarter-final shoot-out.
Fabregas, 21, confessed that he had last taken a penalty aged 15 and that when he stepped up to face Gianluigi Buffon for Spain's last penalty of five he was in no doubt that this was one of those defining moments. "I walked up with the ball and I was talking to myself, telling myself that it has been difficult for some people to trust me when I play for Spain but that sometimes life gives you these moments. Moments in which you show you can be trusted.
"I haven't taken a penalty in a game since I was 15 – I'm telling the truth. When I walked up to the ball I just told myself 'You have to prove that you deserve to be here. They have shown confidence in you and now you have to give it back.'"
One swish of the right boot later and Fabregas had gone a long way to converting those who doubted him, even if the consensus from the Spanish camp is that even now he will not be starting ahead of Xavi for the semi-final against Russia on Thursday.
In Spain, Fabregas is not afforded quite the same reverence which he commands in the Premier League. Luis Aragones prefers him and the Villarreal midfielder Santo Cazorla as alternatives from the bench rather than play them ahead of Xavi and Andres Iniesta. That pair, Aragones believes, he can rely upon most. It is Fabregas to whom he turns when Plan A fails.
Which is why the playmaker, who sits GCSE exams in his spare time, was not talking with the same bombast as might be expected of a man of his status yesterday. "I knew I was coping with that situation and taking the team forward," he said. "This penalty means a lot to me, it means a great deal. Next Sunday we are going to do the same or even better." He is talking, of course, about the final of Euro 2008 which has taken on even greater significance for a Spain team who have cleared the quarter-final stage for the first time since the team of Luis Arconada and Antonio Maceda made it to the final of Euro 84.
Those with a better feel for Spanish politics and identity said it was telling that Fabregas stressed yesterday, "I don't want glory for myself but for all of Spain." As a Catalan with Barcelona season tickets in three generations of his family, that remark was intended to make a point about refusing to allow anything to get in the way of the success of the team.
"We are not here just to get past the quarter-finals, we are here to make history and be on that list of great players who have won this cup," Fabregas said. "If people think that this Russia team is the same as the one that we faced in the first game [Spain won 4-1 in their group match] then they are wrong. If we believe that as players then we might as well start the game a goal behind."
Those close to the Spain team say that Fabregas has hidden his disappointment at being left out the first XI well, certainly better than other individuals might have managed. He said all the right things yesterday about not minding whether he was a substitute or a starter but it has only been a late change of heart from Aragones that has meant Fabregas is not in the team.
In two of Spain's last three friendlies leading up to the tournament, Fernando Torres played alone in attack in a 4-1-4-1 formation which accommodated Fabregas. Against Peru in May, Aragones used David Villa as a second striker at the expense of Fabregas. Aragones started with Villa and Torres against Russia in their first game at Euro 2008 and has not looked back. All season, Fabregas had expected to be starting for Spain at this tournament but will at least always be regarded by the Spanish as the man who took them that little bit further.