Cesc Fabregas and nearly Lionel Messi: Francis Cagigao's 24 years at Arsenal

Cesc Fabregas and Arsene Wenger while at Arsenal
Cesc Fabregas signed for Arsene Wenger's Arsenal in 2003

He is the scout who helped bring players such as Cesc Fabregas, Robin van Persie and Gabriel Martinelli to Arsenal - and also tried to land Lionel Messi.

But after 24 years of service, the club's former head of recruitment Francis Cagigao left by mutual agreement in August.

As he weighs up his options before deciding his next move, London-born Cagigao, 51, spoke to BBC Radio 5 Live's European football expert Guillem Balagueexternal-link about his time at Arsenal, the art of identifying talent, and just how close the club came to signing Argentina and Barcelona icon Messi.

Fabregas, Martinelli and a 'smell for the game'

Confirmation of Cagigao's departure from Arsenal prompted a touching tribute from former Gunners captain Fabregas, one of the several talented youngsters he brought to the club.

Fabregas, who previously tweetedexternal-link 'Francis Cagigao strikes again and again. Legend' after two of his discoveries - Hector Bellerin and Martinelli - struck against Chelsea in January, said: "Nothing would have been the same for me if you didn't spot me at 15 years old. Your next team will be very lucky to have your football brain."

On signing a young Fabregas - who became the club's youngest player aged 16 years and 177 days in October 2003 - from Barcelona, Cagigao said: "I can't remember any other case at the time of such a young player joining us from such a big club.

Martinelli, 19, scored 10 times in his breakthrough season for Arsenal last term
Martinelli, 19, scored 10 times in his breakthrough season for Arsenal last term

"He was playing in the best under-16s side I've seen until this day. He had to come to London by himself. I knew it was going to be tough but the maturity he showed was exceptional.

"Arsene used to call it that smell for the game - that smell for something special. Of course, you have to quantify it and measure it. You would say that very quickly of someone like Fabregas, for his intelligence, his awareness, for his football brain.

"It wasn't something you would often see in a 15, 16-year-old - and in someone like Martinelli for completely different reasons. You do sense there's something different in the make-up of those players. You would see something special, sometimes you couldn't fully quantify it but you know something is there and you take a gamble."

Chasing Messi - 'discussions took place'

It would have been the signing of the century for Arsenal - but just how close did Arsenal really come to landing Messi?

Messi wasn't the only Barcelona legend that could have arrived in north London around that time either, with defender Gerard Pique even closer to signing a deal with the Gunners - before instead heading to Manchester United.

"I think Arsene stated while manager that we were close to signing Messi [in 2003]. I wouldn't go as far as saying we were close. We were there or thereabouts and discussions took place with his representatives. He had issues with a work permit, so that was discarded," said Cagigao.

"It's public knowledge that Pique came inches away from signing a contract with us and signed for Manchester United six months later. The only thing I can say is there was some contractual disagreement between the club and Gerard's representatives at the time and it didn't go forward because of those."

'Cazorla is one of the most talented I've seen'

In August 2012, Arsenal signed Spain playmaker Santi Cazorla from Malaga.

The attacking midfielder was popular with Arsenal fans but an Achilles injury sustained in October 2016 threatened his career and cut his time at the club short.

"I think he is one of the most talented footballers I've ever seen," Cagigao said on Cazorla.

"You would watch Cazorla in training taking set-pieces with his left foot and right foot and not know which was his stronger. He is really an exceptional figurehead and someone who young players can really look to.

"There were doubts about Santi. People would say he's so small, he's not the quickest, he's not strong, but he has an exceptional football brain, exceptional technique and he's a winner. "

'You can't afford to be bitter' - what next for a scout in demand?

Cagigao was "approached by a lot of clubs" during his time at Arsenal - a period that represented the large majority of his working life.

Now unattached, he is looking forward to his next challenge following his abrupt departure from the Gunners.

"I didn't feel it was right at the time to move to any of those clubs," Cagigao said.

"Now I'm a free agent I can look at those offers with a different perspective. I'm one of those people who finds it difficult to switch off so I need to take a step back, reflect and then I'll be ready for the next project.

"You can't afford to be bitter in life. You have to have a thick skin and get over things quickly. I'm proud of my personal achievements and I feel very privileged to have worked for Arsenal - a club which gave me so much and where I was able to progress. "

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