Mid-August and Cesc Fabregas still hasn't left the building. He didn't leave it for Malaysia, he didn't leave it for China and he didn't leave it for Germany. Most importantly of all, he hasn't yet left it for Barcelona. Just two days until the start of the Premier League season, four days until yet another clásico is upon us, and we wait for a final resolution. The good news is that there has been progress -- this looks set to be finally over soon. Very soon.
Mostly, we have waited irritably; the vast majority of fans just want this finished. Even many Arsenal fans want a resolution -- and not necessarily one that means Cesc Fabregas stays at Arsenal, because that would most likely mean just one thing: going through it all again next year. The weary attitude that has accompanied this summer's slowest moving of soap operas hints at the fact that this time is not the same as it was last year. This time it has long been hard to envisage Cesc not leaving Arsenal for Barcelona -- where Arsene Wenger and his board were steadfast before, this summer the discourse has been different almost from the start.
That has meant a shift in the parameters of debate. The criticism emanating from the UK has largely not been of the existence of an approach from Barcelona but the "unrealistic" nature of that approach. That has not stopped the accusations taking on a pseudo-ethical hue, though. This has, like so much in football now, become infused with a sense of moral outrage and moral superiority. There has been much vacuous, often absurd anger -- and all of it so predictably directed.
In Barcelona, Arsene Wenger has been attacked viciously for destroying the dreams of a player. How dare he try to keep his captain at the club? How dare he refuse to allow his player to leave easily? How dare he make Barcelona pay for one of the best midfielders around? In London, Barcelona has been attacked for "tapping" up Arsenal's captain, with Barca players constantly expressing a desire to have him join them at the Camp Nou. Again, the argument is an odd one: How dare they want to play alongside a great player -- and, in a handful of cases, a great friend too?
The truth is that selling Cesc is not necessarily a bad idea for Arsenal -- and not just because it is likely to be counterproductive to keep a player who wants to be elsewhere. Arsenal have Jack Wilshere and Aaron Ramsay has come back from injury in better shape than many feared. There are nagging doubts too about Cesc's long-term fitness. Back in the spring, the midfielder sent an intriguing message to Wilshere noting how proud he was of having played so many games at such a young age but that it is "not good to do so." Could he have been talking about himself? Some at Arsenal believe so. And then there's the financial aspect: selling Cesc removes a €5 million ($7.1M) a year wage and raises €40 million ($57M) in cash via his transfer fee.
That at least is the theory. And that has become the crux. Barcelona has been attacked for offering a "derisory" offer -- in other words, one that fails to match, or come close to matching, Arsenal's valuation. All it have to do is give a decent amount of cash and it will be over has become the stock response. Which is true. But this is a market with no set prices: of course Barcelona has tried to bring the price down. On a player, incidentally, that Arsenal signed from them by taking advantage of a power vacuum at the club to get him on a free.
The Catalans are entitled to do so. There are no official prices. And, here's the thing: they don't actually have the money, certainly not up front, to pay what Arsenal have been asking for Cesc. The late realization that it's frugality not sleight of hand that is behind Barcelona's negotiating tactic has helped -- at last -- to push the two parties closer together.
It is Cesc that has had to indirectly pay that, taking a lower salary than he had initially agreed to facilitate Barcelona's money gathering. Previously reluctant to waive his payoff, it now appears that he will do so. Financially, Barcelona has squeezed him hard too. In fact, if as it has been alleged, the club has shown a lack of class during this summer, it is directed as much at Cesc as at Arsenal. Barcelona has pushed for him to declare his desire to go, to kick up a fuss.
Conscious of his debt to Wenger, and the financial consequences of requesting a transfer, he has not -- and it has not helped him. Last summer, his refusal to put in a transfer request to make the exit an ugly one saw him stay. Wenger had told him that he would facilitate a departure but he didn't. Not least because Barcelona did not come up with an offer that was acceptable. Wenger's message was simple: they can't want you that much, Cesc.
Cesc could be forgiven for wondering the same thing this year. This summer, too, Barcelona has taken its time. Inside Arsenal, they have even started feeling a little sorry for their isolated captain. He was entitled to wonder where on earth Barcelona had got to as he sat there waiting for his future to be resolved; as he awaited for the blaugrana paratroopers to arrive and hoist him out of there Barcelona was accused of pulling him toward the exit door, even as it refused to actually go through it and get him.
Yet Arsenal has pushed him toward the door too. The truth is that Cesc -- accused of letting Arsenal down -- feels let down. By the broken promise on his departure but also by the same things that have frustrated fans: the broken promises on signings, the failure of the team to take a step up; by the long wait to win something. Criticisms of Barcelona's approach and Cesc's lack of loyalty have painted Arsenal and Arsene Wenger as entirely innocent victims, as if a decision to move on is taken in a vacuum -- entirely independent of life at the Emirates. But are they really?
Fans and players want the same thing: the difference is that players can change clubs to get them. And all there while there was Barcelona -- his Barcelona and now the best team in the world -- who wanted Cesc. Of course he wanted to go. He is not old, but time slips away, opportunities too. He wants to be the best in the world. It may be selfish, it may even be wrong as it turns out, but it is logical to assume that he can better do that at Barcelona.
Cesc was a key player at the European championships in 2008, playing brilliantly in the semifinal and the final for Spain. He provided the pass for Andres Iniesta to score the wining goal at the World Cup. He has two winners medals and the satisfaction of having made a big contribution. And yet he went into both competitions, and came out of both of them, a sub. Moving to Barcelona would immediately see his status increase. The chance to establish himself in the Barcelona team with his international team mates -- which is itself a difficult task but Cesc knows he has Pep Guardiola's backing -- would cement that.
He might also win something at club level; it is no good being a team for the future; tomorrow never comes. And that is something that has come to obsess him. Cesc himself said: "Sometimes it feels like we [Arsenal] are always saying to the fans 'next year we'll be great, next year we'll do it' and they don't like that and nor do I. You have to win."
And that was four years ago.