Arsenal and in specifically Arsene Wenger, over the years have been known to have an eye for young talents. Arsene Wenger has made a career out of spotting potentials stars early on in their career and then nurturing them into super stars.
Despite such success with young talents over the years, there are some names, who at some point of their career came close to joining the London club, only for fate to intervene. All these names have made it big eventually, leaving Wenger and Arsenal fans to sigh of ‘what ifs’.
Here, we will look into some of the big names in world football, who came close to donning the famous red and white jerseys (In chronological order).
In 2000, Arsene Wenger tried to sign the big Swede and called him over for a trial. Wenger even presented him with an Arsenal jersey with his name at the back. But the concept of an ‘audition’ for someone like him seemed very derogative to Ibrahimovic who was brimming with self-confidence even during his younger days.
“Arsene gave me the famous red and white jersey — the No 9 shirt with Ibrahimovic on it and I was so pleased I even posed for a picture wearing it. It was a fantastic moment for me. Arsenal had a great team then and here was an Arsenal shirt made just for me.
So then I waited for him to convince me that I should join Arsenal. But he didn’t even try. He never actually made me a serious offer, it was more ‘I want to see how good you are, what kind of player you are. Have a trial’.
I couldn’t believe it. I was like ‘No way, Zlatan doesn’t do auditions.
I thought ‘You either know me or you don’t and if you don’t know me you can’t really want me’. You see, even back then I had great faith in myself, even though I was still young. I’m sure that some other young players might have agreed to try out because this was the famous Arsenal team and this was Arsene Wenger.
But I knew it wasn’t just Arsenal who wanted me — Roma wanted me and Ajax wanted me. So I said No”
Zlatan Ibrahimovic joined Ajax instead and set off on an incredibly successful career. But it might not be a move many Gooners will regret about considering the fact that the Swede has already played at seven different clubs in his career.
Arsenal tried to sign a young and talented Brazilian by the name of Ronaldinho in 2001. The deal was nearly complete with personal terms agreed between the club and the player only for infamous work-permit law to interrupt.
Ronaldinho was ineligible to play in England as he had very few international caps back then. Instead he signed for Paris Saint-Germain. Interestingly, immediately after his move to Arsenal collapsed, St.Mirren also tried to sign him on loan but failed due to Ronaldinho’s involvement in a fake passport scandal back in Brazil.
One can only theorize what a team containing the likes of Thierry Henry, Dennis Bergkamp, Robert Pires and Ronaldinho would have played like!
In 2001, Ronaldinho was not the only star Arsenal missed out on, a certain Didier Drogba also makes it to the list. Drogba was at Le Mans back then and Arsene Wenger had the chance to sign him for a mere £100,000! But he said no! Even one of the best in spotting talents at young age failed to recognize the ability in someone who would later go on to torment the Gunners like no other.
“We watched him carefully when he was at Le Mans, it was not only us who watched him. But we felt he might not be completely ready. It was a mistake but, when you are in football, everyone can understand. We had Thierry Henry. We said we would follow Drogba’s progress. We never ruled him out.” – Arsene Wenger
Drogba meanwhile believed it was his faith that decided his career path away from Arsenal towards Chelsea. The Ivorian international later said -
“If I did not sign for Arsenal then it was not meant to happen. It was not my destiny. I believe a lot in this. It did not happen for a reason. I don’t think he [Arsène Wenger] missed something because he had Thierry Henry.”
When one looks at the scoring record he would go on to have against the Gunners, one’s belief in destiny only increases manifolds.
Another Chelsea star who came close to joining Arsenal is Petr Cech. The Czech Republic International was tracked by Arsenal long before Chelsea signed him up, but unfortunately the chief scout at Arsenal thought he wasn’t good enough!
“Before I went to Rennes I was watched by Arsenal but when I couldn’t get a work permit the situation was missed. And at the last-minute I think the person who was the chief scout at Arsenal didn’t think I was good enough for the English league. So in the end it didn’t happen.” – Petr Cech
This miss seems even more incredible considering the trouble Arsenal has had over the years to find a reliable goal-keeper over the past few years.
The Portuguese attacker was more close to joining Arsenal during his Sporting Lisbon days than Manchester United. But quite amazingly £8 million was the difference between him joining United in place of the Gunners.
“I had Ronaldo at the training ground. I showed him around and I gave him a shirt. It had got his name on the back. But in the end it was a question of the amount of transfer fee between the two clubs. Of course, he has proved to be a bargain [at £12.25 million]. But the price that we discussed was in fact much lower, it was divided by three.
I saw that he was an exceptional talent but we could not predict that he would become the player that he is. What we did not see in him at that time in Toulon was his capability to score goals. He was something special but he did not score goals, he did not even go in the box.” – Arsene Wenger
Arsenal stalled their talks with Sporting Lisbon due to their transfer fee. Arsene Wenger obviously didn’t value Ronaldo to be £12 million player at that point of his career.
Meanwhile Manchester United played Sporting Lisbon at the inauguration of the Alvaladze Stadium in 2003. The United players were so impressed with what they saw from Ronaldo in that match that they urged Sir Alex to sign up the youngster, and the rest as they say is history.
This was perhaps one of the biggest miss of Arsene Wenger. In Yaya Toure, Arsenal had the best chance of replacing someone like Patrick Viera, someone whom they are yet to find a replacement for. Toure was a perfect successor, but it was not to be.
Yaya Toure was handed a trial by Arsene Wenger in 2003 in a friendly pre-season match against Barnet, but unfortunately it didn’t go too well for the Kolo Toure’s younger brother. Not only did he fail to impress, there was also issues with his work permit in England.
Arsene Wenger later said -
“He can play center back, as a second-striker, as a midfielder and for a long time we didn’t know where to play him. He played in a preseason game at Barnet as a second striker – and he was completely average on the day.”
In another interview the Frenchman said – “I know him very well, since he was 15 years old, so I know him for a long time. He is a top-class talent.
He was here as a young boy but we cannot get players in here if they are not internationals. He had no work permit and was too young. We tried to wait until when he was in Belgium, we tried to get him a European passport. He was not patient enough and left for Metalurh Donetsk, that is the club where he went.”
Arsenal could have had Yaya Toure for half a million pound! Talk about missed opportunities.
It was all perfectly scripted in 2008. Benitez wanted to sign Gareth Barry to ‘improve’ Liverpool and Xabi Alonso was supposed to be the man to make way for him. Arsenal were in need of someone to partner Cesc Fabregas in the midfield and Alonso fitted the bill perfectly. Infact, Fabregas was desperate for Alonso to join him at Arsenal. But it all fell apart.
Alonso was reportedly on his way to London when Liverpool’s asking price of £16 million was deemed too high by Arsenal. The move didn’t materialize, Gareth Barry stayed at Aston Villa, Alonso remained at Liverpool before signing for Real Madrid in the next season, while Arsenal were left with Denilson.
On hindsight, what a combination Cesc Fabregas and Xabi Alonso would have been for Arsenal!
There are few more names that could have made it to the list. Di Maria, Pepe Reina and more recently Juan Mata. One wonders if the seven-year title drought would have existed if even one of these players would have been signed up by the Gunners.