Gedion Zelalem is 16 years old. He has yet to feature in a competitive game for Arsenal, although that could change on Friday night in the FA Cup against Coventry City. He does not even have a professional contract, although that, too, is about to change. When he turns 17 on Sunday, he is due to sign his first professional deal. The pitfalls of promoting him are large and obvious. How can the hype begin so soon? The English media always builds them up to knock them down. It is unfair.
The disclaimer, however, rings hollow in this case or, at least, it is overwhelmed by the weight of excitement that has built around this precocious midfield talent. At Arsenal, they dare to believe that they have unearthed their most promising player since Cesc Fábregas while the story of Arsène Wenger’s first look at the boy, during his trial at the club, has crackled around football’s grapevine.
The manager watched for a matter of minutes before he pulled Zelalem’s father to one side. “Your son will play for Arsenal,” Wenger said. Academy forms would be prepared. He joined upon his 16th birthday last January.
Zelalem’s reach already has a global feel. Three countries in three continents are pushing to secure his allegiance and this does not include England who, on the evidence of the overtures to Manchester United’s Adnan Januzaj, might also be alive to Zelalem’s possibility, as he begins to fulfil the residency criteria.
Jürgen Klinsmann, the USA coach, made a personal call to him at the beginning of the season and urged him to commit to the Stars and Stripes. Zelalem, who was born in Berlin and has represented Germany at under-16 level, lived in the Washington area from nine to 16. His parents are Ethiopian and so the African nation has a claim on him, too. There is no little irony behind Klinsmann’s attempt to woo the player. Klinsmann is enshrined in German footballing legend.
Zelalem has made coaches, scouts and agents purr. How about this from Matt Pilkington, the Olney Rangers youth coach in the US, who helped to develop him? “He dribbles like Iniesta and he passes like Xavi,” Pilkington said. “I’ve thought like that for the past few years but I’ve been wary about saying it. I don’t worry now.”
Zelalem came to prominence in pre-season and he was arguably the star of Arsenal’s east Asia tour, when he appeared as a second-half substitute in each of the club’s four matches. He wowed with his vision and easy rhythm, with one outside-of-the-boot through-ball for Thomas Eisfeld against Indonesia generating the YouTube hits. His assist for Theo Walcott against Nagoya Grampus made headlines.
“It won’t be long before he is ready,” Jack Wilshere, the Arsenal midfielder, said at the time. “He sees passes that not a lot of players can and he’s so comfortable on the ball. Even in training, he’s a nightmare to play against. He keeps the ball away from you and shields it. He’s not very big but he’s strong. He drifts in and out of players. Technically, he’s right up there. He can use his left and right and he sees so many passes.”
Zelalem’s season so far has been coloured by frustration. He was an unused substitute against Fulham and Tottenham Hotspur in the Premier League at the beginning but a knee injury in early September put him out for two months. It meant that he did not play in the Capital One Cup ties against West Bromwich Albion and Chelsea, as he surely would have done and, for a young man in a hurry, it was tough to take.
But he has worked his way back to fitness over eight appearances for the club’s academy teams and, having come to train at regular intervals with the first team, he senses opportunity. Wenger has named him in the squad for Coventry’s visit to the Emirates Stadium and he stands to follow Fábregas in making his debut before his 17th birthday. Either way, time is most assuredly on his side.
Zelalem has a maturity about him, which stems, in part, from his globetrotting experiences. He emigrated to the US when his father, Zelalem Woldyes, chose to pursue a new life for himself and the family (Zelalem has his father’s Christian name as his surname, in keeping with Ethiopian tradition). Woldyes, who had taken asylum with his wife in Germany in 1990, had friends in the Washington area, which is home to one of the world’s largest Ethiopian communities outside the country itself.
Zelalem had been part of the Hertha Berlin youth programme and, in the US, he bounced around a series of junior teams before he joined Olney Rangers. Pilkington, a Rochdale boy, who had trials at English clubs before taking a soccer scholarship at George Washington University and settling across the pond, has vivid memories of his first look at Zelalem. Most people do.
“He was with another team at the time and it was on the Futsal court,” Pilkington said, the Rochdale tones still strong underneath the transatlantic drawl. “I can remember it to this day … this little Ethiopian kid, and he was just doing stuff on the ball.
“Futsal is five-on-five and on a small court, where there basically isn’t much space but he had so much time and space. It was the little moves, the awareness. Also, people have talked about his weight of pass but what you haven’t seen yet is his dribbling ability. He can sail past guys at pace. He can do stuff that is just mesmeric.”
Pilkington has been pivotal to the Zelalem story. He got him in November 2010 at Olney Rangers and he played him in the under-15s and under-16s. The club’s philosophy of promoting skills development and technique over winning undoubtedly helped. Zelalem blossomed.
Pilkington sought to find Zelalem a professional club and, to borrow the US phrase, he reached out to Danny Karbassiyoon, the Arsenal scout in north America. Karbassiyoon, the one-time Arsenal player, came to see Zelalem train and play and, in April 2011, he recommended that others from the club watched him at the Dallas Cup, the annual youth team tournament.
An Arsenal side that featured Emmanuel Frimpong was playing that year and Steve Bould, then the club’s head academy coach, together with Steve Morrow, the international partnerships performance supervisor, saw Zelalem and they liked him. A lot.
Other clubs were on the case, chief among them Sporting Gijón, and they had Zelalem over to train with them. The Spanish club boast links to Barcelona and Zelalem was tempted by the thought of developing at Gijón and earning a transfer to the Camp Nou. But Arsenal nipped in. They invited him to train with them for 10 days in the summer of 2011 and Wenger knew immediately that he had to sign him.
Zelalem’s status as a German national made his move to the Arsenal academy straightforward. After the age of 16, he was free to work anywhere within the European Union. But a unique complication looms as Zelalem considers his international future.
He has spent the key years of his young life in the US and he not only sounds American, he considers himself to be American. His laid-back attitude and quiet self-assurance are characteristically American. If all things were equal, he would surely choose to declare for Klinsmann and the USA national side, who would love to add a little fantasy to their game.
But all things are not equal. According to Section 25 (i) of the German Nationality Act, German citizenship “shall be lost by a person acquiring a foreign citizenship upon his/her application. This does not affect persons acquiring the citizenship of an EU member state or Switzerland.”
Zelalem has a claim for a US passport but, if he pursued it, he would not only lose his German citizenship but his EU rights, which could affect his ability to work in England. At the very least, he would have to apply for a work permit and that could lead him and Arsenal into choppy waters.
The system is not designed to accommodate super-talented non-EU youngsters, rather established top internationals. Advice would have to be sought from the UK border agencies while lawyers would also become embroiled. There is no precedent for a Premier League player giving up his EU status and then having to explore the means to remain at his club. The situation would stand to be time-consuming and fraught with risk.
It is not difficult to imagine who Wenger would prefer Zelalem to declare for, and that is before the travel demands of having a US international at a European club are factored in. There is a further irony in that Arsenal’s majority shareholder, Stan Kroenke, and the club’s transfer fixer, Dick Law, are American while the chief executive, Ivan Gazidis, spent a good portion of his working life in the US.
Arsenal simply want to tie down Zelalem to his first professional contract, which he can only sign when he turns 17. The vultures have circled over the past 12 months and, whisper it, he has been poachable, in much the same manner that Fábregas was when Arsenal took him from the Barcelona youth system.
But Zelalem is ready to commit. He chose Arsenal for a reason in the first place and none of his feelings towards them have changed. Wenger fast-tracked him to the under-21 team last season; he took him on tour and he has given him a first-team squad number. Arsenal have put in the effort since he was 14. They have been correct and diligent. They have treated his family well.
Gedion Zelalem is primed and determined to make his mark. Remember the name.