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Gedion Zelalem – Arsenal’s former starlet on his way back after tragedy and torment

There is no predicting what life will throw at you.

A decade ago, the former Arsenal midfielder Gedion Zelalem was being compared to Cesc Fabregas. Now 27, he is playing for Den Bosch in the Dutch second division after serious knee injuries and the loss of close family members took its toll on the former Germany and U.S. youth international’s career.

Speaking to The Athletic on January 24, 10 years to the day since his debut against Coventry City in the FA Cup, he says: “Is it really today? Damn, that’s crazy. I remember signing my professional contract a couple of days before and asking Arsene Wenger if I’d play because I really wanted to make my debut when I was 16. Cesc Fabregas and Jack Wilshere did, so I wanted to follow the same path.

“All he said was ‘We’ll see’. So when I saw my name on the bench, I knew there was a chance.”

Two days shy of his 17th birthday, Zelalem came on with Santi Cazorla in the 71st minute of the fourth-round tie. Arsenal were 2-0 up and his line-breaking pass led to Cazorla completing a 4-0 win. Born in January 1997, the midfielder became the first player born after Wenger took charge in October 1996 to represent Arsenal competitively.


Zelalem on his Arsenal debut as a 16-year-old (Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)

Zelalem calls that landmark “surreal”, but he had been around the first team for months, joining the pre-season tour of Asia and at the Emirates Cup in the summer of 2013. His performances only fed the online hype.

“I didn’t pay much attention to that stuff, I had my own expectations,” he says. “Although I wanted to follow the path of Fabregas and Wilshere by making my debut at 16, I knew I was a different player.

“It was amazing just being on tour with Arsenal’s first team at 16. For an American kid, it’s unheard of. I knew I earned my spot, but I didn’t realise how good it would go and I just grew in confidence. It was memorable on and off the pitch as Wenger told me I’d stay with the first team.”

Later in 2014, he made his Champions League debut for Arsenal at 17 against Galatasaray. He then spent the 2015-16 season on loan at Rangers, who were in the Scottish Championship at the time, where he made 21 appearances.

After making two substitute appearances in the first half of the 2016-17 season for Arsenal (both in the League Cup), he was loaned to Dutch side VVV-Venlo for the rest of the campaign and won the Eerste Divisie (second division).

Born in Berlin, Germany, to Ethiopian parents, the family moved to Washington D.C. in 2006, which allowed him to represent the U.S. from 2015 onwards. A sliding doors moment came when representing them at the Under-20 World Cup in 2017.

“I still think if I hadn’t got my anterior cruciate ligament injury, things would have gone differently at Arsenal, even though I had stagnated and gone out on loan,” Zelalem says of the injury he suffered in the opening group game against Ecuador.

“I was out for six months, but then I needed another surgery and was out for over 400 days. The worst part was I was nowhere near myself for two or three years.

“Not being as nimble as I was was hard to take because I was always one of the best players on my team. To go from that to not being that guy was really difficult.

“I never got rhythm and playing time, so I could never truly get match fit. On the outside looking in, people may not have seen much of a difference, but as a player you know your body and how you used to play.

“It’s only been in the last two years that I’ve truly felt like myself again.”

Aside from dealing with lengthy injuries, those outside may not have understood the emotional turmoil Zelalem went through.

“I lost my younger sister in a car accident in July 2018 and that had a massive impact,” says the midfielder, who had lost his mother as a child. “Freddie Ljungberg (then Arsenal Under-23s head coach) told me I had come back really well from the ACL in my first four weeks of pre-season. Then the accident happened while she was in Ethiopia and I was in London for pre-season, which was a really tough moment.

“I was in Ethiopia for a couple of weeks with family and I came back not me at all. I wasn’t there physically or mentally.”

A fresh start was needed and Zelalem left Arsenal in January 2019 for Sporting Kansas City in MLS, where he spent a year before joining New York City FC.

In July 2020, another absence of over 400 days was enforced through a knee injury at the start of his time on the East Coast, making opportunities harder to come by. In 2022, Zelalem’s final year with NYCFC, he made only 11 appearances, 10 of them coming off the bench.

“I should have played more than I did in MLS but every coach has their reasons,” he says. “If it worked out in MLS, maybe I wouldn’t be in the situation I am now at Den Bosch where I’m playing every game, captaining the side at times with a real opportunity to step up.

“In the last six months at NYCFC, my knees were getting a lot stronger and I was coming to Den Bosch in a very good physical and mental shape, ready to show what I’ve got.”

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Zelalem wanted more chances with NYCFC (Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Zelalem’s move to Den Bosch was aided by a strong Arsenal connection. The technical director, Yousuf Sajjad, arrived from Arsenal’s academy last January. It was in Sajjad’s conversation with Arsenal academy manager Per Mertesacker and under-18s head coach Wilshere that they recommended Zelalem. 

A year on, he has played more games for them (30) than any other team in his senior career. While he broke onto the scene at Arsenal as a more advanced creative force, Zelalem now operates more as a deep-lying playmaker with a better appreciation for his defensive duties in the No 6 position. 

He recently had an option in his contract activated for next season, too. He now feels himself again.

“It’s amazing to be having fun playing football again,” says Zelalem, who still watches Arsenal and refers to them as “we”. “I didn’t have that for a long time. Now I don’t even call it training, I say I’m going to play. I feel like a little kid playing again, just running around effortlessly. I’m feeling the best I’ve felt in the professional game.

“People were worried because I hadn’t played regularly for years. It was very frustrating, but I knew if I went into any environment how I’ve been feeling for the past two-and-a-half years, I’d do well. Hopefully, people are starting to pay attention and I can prove myself.

“I still have the same ambitions as when I was 17 to at least try and play at the highest level I can. If you put me into one of the higher leagues I think I’d do pretty well, but it doesn’t work that way.

“I have to continue to impress here. I also want to repay the faith Den Bosch put in me by giving me a chance when a lot of people looked the other way. I’m slowly doing that.”

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(Top photo: Joris Verwijst/BSR Agency/Getty Images)


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