Such is the precocious talent of Cesc Fàbregas, it is easy to forget that the midfielder is still in his early 20s.
Born in the Catalan town of Arenys de Mar on 4 May 1987, Fabregas started his career with FC Barcelona but came to wider prominence on the international stage at the FIFA U-17 World Cup in 2003. Five goals helped Spain to reach the final and, although that ended in a narrow defeat by Brazil, Fabregas could take some consolation in the Player of the Tournament award and was therefore an experienced campaigner by the time the UEFA European Under-17 Championship came round in 2004.
By then he had left Barça to join Arsenal, and his goal against Wolverhampton Wanderers FC in December 2003 made him the youngest scorer in the club's history at the age of 16 years and 212 days. He also appeared in all three of Spain's Elite round fixtures in qualifying for the U17 competition in France, scoring in a 6-1 win against Hungary, and was quick to show his quality at the final tournament.
Described as "an extraordinary talent" by Spain's U17 coach Juan Santisteban, Fabregas celebrated his 17th birthday as they took on Turkey on the opening day of the tournament and helped his team to a 1-0 win, earning fulsome praise from Santisteban in the process. "Cesc is a fundamental player for us," the Spain coach said. "He has experience that many of the others do not have as he plays for Arsenal and was with us [in 2003] even though he was underage. He possesses extraordinary quality, I love watching him play. He passes well, attacks well; in short, he has everything."
Fabregas was unable to prevent the Spanish sliding to defeat against France in their second fixture, however, but was back on song in the third and final group game against Northern Ireland, producing a characteristically inventive display as his side won to ease into the last four. The teenager had been something of a background presence in his team's first three matches but came bursting to centre stage in the semi-final with England, helping to create an early goal for Marcos. England quickly equalised, however, and the match seemed to be drifting towards extra time until Spain won a penalty in the last minute. Enter Fabregas, who nervelessly converted to take Spain into the final.
Despite the disappointment of losing that final to the hosts, in the aftermath of defeat Santisteban was quick to point out the long-term advantages of the competition to his players, saying: "My players are naturally disappointed and crying, which is normal when you lose a final. But overall this was a very good tournament, and I think it has benefited my players." Fabregas above all others has proved the wisdom of those words, flourishing in the seasons that have followed and becoming one of the pillars of the Arsenal team, not to mention Spain's seniors, who were to go one better than their U17 counterparts at UEFA EURO 2008.
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