A talented member of Barcelona’s La Masia youth acedemy, Fran Mérida was at one point in the same position so many before him were – labelled as the “next big thing”. The young Catalan midfielder had more than just hype. It seemed the teenager could back it up and was labelled as another Cesc Fabregas.
When Mérida left Barcelona in 2005, it was the youngster’s parents, concerned about all the young players heading to La Masia and felt that he would have a better chance elsewhere. That elsewhere was ultimately Arsenal, despite initial interest from Real Madrid and AC Milan.
But the move turned out to be costly, when in October 2007, a Spanish court ruled that Mérida had infringed his contract with the La Liga club. “The ruling recognises the rights of the clubs that are educating and raising children,” then-Barcelona vice-president Ferran Soriano said at the time.
It was a rocky start off the pitch for the then-17-year-old. But his reputation about what he could do on the pitch was generating momentum. Up until the court case, Mérida only made one appearance for Arsenal, and that was in a League Cup match. Arsene Wenger even denied letting the Catalan go out on loan citing that he had “too much talent”.
But the following year, he did indeed send him out on loan, to Real Sociedad. He played in the first team for the entire year before going back to the Emirates.
“I had some opportunities,” he said many years later. “but the competition was high. Arsenal bought Aaron Ramsey and Jack Wilshere into the first-team. Nasri, Fabregas, Rosicky and Denilson were also in my position. It was difficult for me.”
Then in 2010, Mérida generated interest from Spanish giants Atlético Madrid – the club he supported as a boy. He started well in the Calderon but began to lose his confidence and played less and less as time went on. Atléti put him out on loan to Portuguese side Braga.
Mérida lasted four months in Portugal, playing a mere 132 minutes of football before returning to his native Spain and signed for Hercules on a four year contract. Citing a lack of confidence and internal issues at the Alicante-based club, in 2013 Mérida received interest from Brazilian top-flight side Atletico Parenese, an offer he accepted.
Missing the first ten games due to a work permit, Mérida broke into the first team and played well. The Curitiba team finished third in the Brasilian Serie A that season. Sadly when the club were knocked out of the Copa Libertadores, the chairman told players that he was changing numerous things. His contract was not renewed and he returned to Spain in July 2014, but he would go the next four months unemployed.
Despite interest from Greek and Cypriot clubs, Mérida was keen to stay in Spain. He had to wait until January 2015 and then he signed for third-tier side Huesca. A club that he regained his confidence and excelled and, while clearly the most technically gifted player at the club at that time, he helped the club gain promotion to the Segunda.
He enjoyed living in the city too. A small city with a population of just 52,000, located around 70 kilometres north of Zaragoza, and a city where he could walk the streets without hindrance. He began to enjoy his football once more.
His excellent performances at Huesca caught the attention of top-tier side Osasuna, who snapped him up in July 2016 on a four year deal.
It must be worth pointing out that Fran Mérida was one the absolute bright talents in European football a decade ago. It was in the script that he was to be another Cesc Fabregas – a wonderkid from Barcelona’s youth academy with bags of talent and brought to the cold English league to ply his trade. Cesc went right to the top. Mérida, for a variety of reasons, didn’t go all the way. But, despite the whirlwind, he’s still playing top-level football, he’s happy, and you can’t ask for more than that.