Off-the-radar: The militarist who terrorized defenses – Salva Ballesta

Sarthak Kumar talks more about the striker with controversial political views off the pitch and a knack for goals on it.

In light of Barcelona B’s promotion playoff game against Racing Santander, this is the story of a player who won the Pichichi with the club.

Politics plays a huge role in football. Sometimes it’s subtle, hidden, almost innate. Other times, it’s laid bare, in the open, for everyone to see.

In February 2013, Salva Ballesta was on his way to Vigo – Celta were rumored to have struck a deal with him to become Abel Resino’s assistant, and Salva have just reached Madrid when his phone rang.

It was Celta Vigo’s president, with some bad news.

Celta’s notoriously left-wing base, who greeted him with threats and insults upon his arrival at the Balaídos stadium three years before, had pressured the club to not go forward with the deal.

“I’ve never spoken about politics, I’ve always said that I feel Spanish.”

Salva Ballesta once said that he was apolitical. And maybe he is right – maybe it isn’t political to be nationalistic. Maybe it isn’t political to be Spanish.

Maybe it is Spanish of Salva, born to a military family, to say that he would be the first to serve in the Iraq War if conscripted by then prime minister José María Aznar. Or to be a patron of his hometown’s military helicopter school. Or even to have your idols be Francoist fighter pilot Joaquín García Morato, Luftwaffe aviator Hans-Ulrich Rudel and Antonio Tejero, leader of the failed “23-F” right-wing coup. Or to say that he wouldn’t even consider playing for an autonomous community team.

But is it really Spanish to suggest sending the armed forces into the Basque Country to deal with the ETA? Or, when sent off for Málaga, to shout “¡Que viva España, hijos de puta!” (Long live Spain, sons of bitches!), to Osasuna fans who support Basque independence – something which prompted fans of even bitter rivals Real Sociedad to support Osasuna and display a banner reading “Salva, muérete” (Salva, die) when he visited their Anoeta Stadium? Or to say that “to be anti-madridista makes you a less intelligent person”? Or to say that he had more respect for “dog crap” than for outspoken left-winger and Barcelona defender Oleguer Presas?

Maybe it is – maybe it isn’t. Nevetheless, Salva made very few friends for what many, contrary to his claims, perceived to be far-right politics.

But one thing was abundantly clear – whatever his politics, his controversy off the pitch was in stark contrast to his performances on the pitch. For 90 minutes each week, media frenzy was replaced by media appreciation.

To put it simply – he was unstoppable.

It was the 1999-00 season, and Real Madrid were under pressure. Michel Salgado and Iván Helguera arrived to supposedly bolster an embarrassingly leaky defense, and the signings of Steve McManaman and Geremi were overshadowed by that of Nicolas Anelka, the hottest young striker in Europe, who looked set to provide genuine competition for Raúl and Fernando Morientes up front. But a horrific start to the season meant that Real Madrid were at one point relegation contenders. On the 14th matchday, Real Zaragoza had come to the Bernabéu and demolished Real Madrid 5-1 – the biggest away win all season – leaving Real Madrid in 17th place in the league.

Towards the end of the season, Real Madrid appeared to have sorted their defensive problems out at last and had been on an 11-match unbeaten run in the league while progressing to the Champions League semi-finals with victory over holders Manchester United.

But then relegation-threatened Racing Santander came to the Bernabéu. And two strikes from Salva, resulting in a 4-2 win, ended Real Madrid’s title hopes for good.

Salva finished the season with 27 goals – winning the Pichichi.

Salva was born in Zaragoza, but rose through Sevilla’s youth ranks. His first full season with the club was the 1996-97 season, in which he scored 12 goals but the club was relegated – he stayed on for another season before moving to Racing Santander.

That historic season prompted rumors – big moves to the Premier League or the Serie A were widely touted. However, he resigned an almost certain big-money move for a move to second division Atlético Madrid. Recently relegated, the club desperately wanted – and needed – a return to the elite. And while Atlético marginally failed to reach the promotion places, Salva won his second consecutive Pichichi, scoring 21 goals in the 2000-01 season.

His story thereafter is short of Pichichi’s but isn’t short of success – a La Liga title with Valencia in the 2001-02 season, 18 goals with Málaga in the 2003-04 season – including a hat-trick in a 5-1 league home crushing of Barcelona, and helping Málaga return to La Liga in 2008.

They are linked to the ultra-right movement of Málaga 1487 – an anti-immigrant group whose name commemorates the year in which the Catholic Kings expelled the Muslims from the city. They have repeatedly physically attacked many members of left-wing ultra groups, especially Sevilla’s Biris Norte. They celebrated their 20th anniversary with a Nazi rock concert. They are, unsurprisingly, right-wing ultras.

And they, the Frente Bokerón, chanted his name. He was their unofficial representative – and they made him feel at home.

In the summer of 2007, when Málaga were going through bankruptcy and his high salary was proving to be a deterrent, Salva was faced with a choice – either leave, or stay and reduce his wages. The previous six months, he had chosen to leave by playing for Levante on loan. And he had to choose again.

This time, he chose to stay. His salary of €1.2 million was slashed to almost half (€650,000), and Málaga were promoted that year. After Salva retired in 2010 with Segunda outfit Albacete, it was Málaga – who hadn’t forgotten his service and what he’d done for the club – who offered him a position as a youth coach, alongside former teammate Francesc Arnau.

And in the summer of 2013, when he was refused the Celta job, he was appointed as the new manager of Málaga’s reserves Atlético Malagueño in the Tercera División. His dream is to manage Málaga one day – the club that made the Zaragoza native feel at home.

One day…

This article is reproduced from a series on the faces of Spanish football. You can read it here.

Off-the-radar: Replaced by Johan Cruyff for his son Jordi – Luis Cembranos

Sarthak narrates the story of an ex-Barcelona youth player who was personally recommended by Johan Cruyff, but was then replaced by Johan – for his son Jordi.

7th October, 1995. Johan Cruyff must deal with the absence of Kodro, Hagi, Prosinečki, Popescu Bakero. Barcelona are travelling to Betis, and it is the only La Liga game of the day – all eyes are on it.

Those eyes then quickly turn – Diego Maradona rejoins the Boca Juniors squad after having been suspended for fifteen months. And even in Spain many focus on Jorge Valdano’s Real Madrid who are struggling – and Atlético Madrid’s Radomir Antić who calls club president Jesús Gil’s dreams distant from reality.

But the eyes that remain go wild – Johan Cruyff has produced a revolutionary lineup. Eight new young players make their debut. Eight. And they tear Betis apart, in a performance that is still vivid in the memory of some Barcelona fans.

That season – the 1995-96 season – saw a record 20 youth academy players trained with the first team. Ten of them made their first team debuts – La quinta del mini, they called it*. There are some who go further, who call the B team of 1994-95 the ;Lleva del Mini for obtaining a record 42 points (wins were two points then) and coming in sixth place.

The 1995-96 season may have trophy-less and may have led to the unceremonious firing of Johan Cruyff. But that season preceded three seasons of trophies galore.

And it officially embedded La Masia in the “Barcelona way”.

*Celades, Roger, De la Peña, Javi García, Juan Carlos Moreno, Juanjo, Rufete, Setvalls, Toni Velamazán and Xavi Roca.

He was born in Switzerland but played for the Spanish national team. He was personally recommended by Johan Cruyff, but was then replaced by Johan for his son Jordi. He was a Barcelona youth graduate but could’ve just as easily been a Valladolid one – or even a Real Madrid one.

Luis Cembranos was born in Lucerne, Switzerland, to Spanish immigrants in Switzerland, and returned to Spain in his teens. He was thrown out of Madrid’s facilities without explanation, and, being from León, was about to sign for Real Valladolid. A call from Barcelona changed all that, and meant that he would be moving to Catalonia instead of Castile and León.

His impressive performances at Barcelona C earned him a loan move to Segunda club Figueres for the latter part of the 1992-93 – his first shot at professional football. And he took that shot superbly – something that was said six times in his ten games at the club.

It was his performances for the B team the following two seasons that cemented his reputation. He could play anywhere – his energy was his biggest asset. And it prompted Johan Cruyff to give him a shot – he played three league games and the first half of a Champions League game at Old Trafford.

However, Johan made it clear that Jordi would be the one to take up the right midfield, jack-of-all-trades role, and Luis Cembranos left in early 1995 for rivals Espanyol – where he first began to appear regularly in the top level.

In another January transfer window move – January 1999, Cembranos joined Rayo Vallecano, being an essential member in his first months as they eventually returned to the top flight, scoring six goals. The following season, Luis embraced a super-sub role, scoring nine goals in less than 1300 minutes as the club qualified for the UEFA Cup for the first time ever.

His performances earned him another accolade – he is the last Rayista to have played with the Spanish national team. He earned his sole cap with Spain in January 2000 when he came on as a substitute for Juan Carlos Valerón in the 76th minute of a 3–0 friendly win against Poland.

Cembranos appeared very irregularly in his final three seasons, troubled with constant injuries that had already made him miss a good number of games at Barcelona and Espanyol, mainly in the right knee. He was forced to leave Rayo in 2004, and joined amateurs Promesas Ponferrada in November 2004 – officially retiring in 2005 at the age of 33.

Since then, he has become a highly successful coach. His first steps as a coach were at Huracán Z in the Tercera from 2007 to 2009. Two years later he landed at Cultural Leonesa, who he managed to promote to the Segunda B (2012-13) and where he stayed until 2014. He later formed a partnership with Luis Milla, as he became Milla’s assistant at Lugo and Zaragoza – both in the Segunda.

Today, he signed for Rayo B in the Segunda B. And this time, injuries won’t stop him from success.

Off-the-radar: The Szymanowski siblings – united in struggle

Sarthak Kumar narrates a story of struggle – the struggle of two siblings to reach the top of their profession.

In light of Barcelona women’s fixture today against Valencia, this is the story of Valencia striker Marianela Szymanowski and her brother Alexander.

For almost three years, Guadarrama was the battlefront of the Spanish Civil War in Madrid. The town was completely destroyed – and therefore completely rebuilt into a tourist resort. An artificial town with all signs of history removed.

Their dad’s pizzeria in Buenos Aires was held up at gun-point. Having to rebuild their lives, 12-year-old Alexander and 10-year-old Marianela, along with their parents and their other 9-year-old sister Melani, came to this town in northwestern Madrid to start anew.

Alexander had been playing for the youth team of Ferro Carril Oeste from the age of 10 in Buenos Aires before moving to Spain. Located in a small barrio of Buenos Aires called Caballito, a humble, working-class district, the club was formed by workers of the Buenos Aires Western Railway, and the club still, at least in spirit, belongs to the railway workers.

His first months in Spain were spent on trial at Real Madrid – but four months later he was released. His subsequent journey in Spanish football would be characterized by instability. As far as his youth career is concerned, he played for the cadets of Atlético Madrid, and the juvenils of Unión Adarve, Rayo Majadahonda, Leones de Castilla and Alcobendas.

After finishing his final juvenil year at Alcobendas, he made his senior debut in the Segunda B at nearby San Sebastián de los Reyes in the 2007–08 campaign, suffering relegation from the division into the Tercera. He continued at the club for another season and subsequently joined Antequera in the Tercera for the 2009-10 season.

Scoring six goals in his 34 appearances, his performances earned him a move back to SS Reyes – a move that was to be the start of a rapid rise in the Spanish football pyramid. He helped the club to promotion in 2010-11, which earned him a move to Segunda B club Alcalá. It also earned him a reprieve from having to work a second job – he had worked in a sports shop, as a delivery boy, as an unqualified lifeguard and as a waiter while playing in the Tercera.

His 11 goals in 38 games earned him another rise – this time to Segunda club Recreativo. His first professional season ended with another 10 goals in 38 games, narrowly saving the club from relegation.

In 2013, Alex, who was nearing the age of 25, moved to Denmark, signing a loan deal with Brøndby. Good performances in the first six months meant that, in January 2014, the club activated the buyout clause in Alexander’s contract; however, he was released in July 2015 – a year before his contract was set to expire. He returned to Spain and to Madrid, signing for second-tier club Leganés.

The rest, as they say, is history.

12 goals in his first season propelled the club to its first ever La Liga season, and he isn’t too shabby in the top tier of Spanish football either.

It’s easy to forget that Alex never expected to even make it in professional football. There were times when he was in the Tercera and his dream was to make a decent living from football, and nothing more.

It was Marianela who, in his words, had “blind faith” in his ability.

Marianela’s experience in Spain was no easy ride either.

Even though she began playing football at the age of 11, she wanted to be a playwright – it was only at the age of 16 that she seriously considered football as a career. She played with the small Madrid suburban club Rayo Ciudad Alcobendas CF from ages 11 to 18. She then moved to Atlético Madrid aged 19, where she debuted in the Primera División and in the Champions League with the club. Two years later, she joined three-time-champions Rayo Vallecano, whose board had slashed the budget of the team. Essentially, Rayo were no longer league contenders.

But that wasn’t the only reason.

On 11th August, 2011, Rayo were playing Peamount United in the Champions League, and Marianela came on for Pilar Villalba in the 81st minute. It was her debut for Rayo – a proud moment.

A moment that was about to go horribly wrong.

A routine kick to the knee, a knee that already had an external meniscus removed and was swollen with fluid, damaged the whole joint and meant that star-signing Marianela was out of the game for more than two-and-a-half years.

At that time, Marianela moved in with Alex – she could not walk or stand for more than half an hour at a time. The pain was unbearable at times – it prevented her from concentrating on even simple things like reading or studying, which meant she had to halt her studies. Two operations later, six out of eight doctors told her there was no way she would return to playing football.

She would go on to make her Rayo return in December 2013, and even went one step further – she played for Argentina in the 2014 Copa América Femenina, finishing fourth. She is now at Valencia, having joined from Rayo in 2016.

An inspiring journey, which – considering that she turns just 27 next month – isn’t set to end anytime soon.

Guadaramma might have all signs of history removed, but the Szymanowski family haven’t forgotten their roots. They still speak in an Argentinean accent.

And, like the barrio they come from, the once-poor family have worked hard to reach the top of their profession.


Off-the-radar: The late bloomer – Cartagena’s Mariano Sánchez

He reached the Segunda at he age of 31, the Segunda B at 26. This is the story of Cartagena legend Mariano Sánchez.

In light of Barcelona B’s promotion playoff game against Cartagena, this is the story of one of its legends.

“In an emergency situation, I will be the first in line to help Cartagena. That’s very clear”

It’s funny to think that things could’ve been so different.

A Pinatar CF youth graduate, Sánchez rejected an offer to play youth football for Real Murcia when he was 18, after deciding to move to Madrid to study architecture. The possibility arose of him entering the Juvenil team of Real Madrid but, after three weeks, chose to leave it to be able to focus on its studies. Before dismissing football completely, Atlético also knocked on his door, but two weeks after training with them, he told them the same thing – he had made up his mind.

He had chosen to retire from football.

He graduated as an architect at the age of 23. After five seasons without any football, at the age of 25 he joined amateurs AD Mar Menor-San Javier for the 2003-04 season in the Tercera, playing 32 games and scoring 6 goals.

In the final round for promotion the team was defeated by Alcoyano. His performances throughout the season, and in those games, set up his shot at making football a career – in 2004, CD Alcoyano gave him a chance in the Segunda B. He was an undisputed starter in defensive midfield, and earned himself a move to FC Cartagena in 2005 – Juan Ignacio Martínez, the new coach, had coached Mariano at Mar Menor and personally asked for him.

In fact, in his first season, Cartagena reached first place in the group, but remained in the Segunda B, being beaten in the playoffs by Vecindario. And in his fourth season, he was given the captain’s armband, and led Cartagena to their first ever promotion to the Segunda.

At the age of 31 years and seven months, he – finally – made his debut in the Segunda.

He never appeared in less than 34 league games during his three seasons in that tier, suffering relegation in his last – the team missed him as he nursed a sprain in his left ankle at the beginning of the season, and never really recovered.

Despite many rumors to the contrary, Mariano actually renewed his contract for a further two years in June 2012, aged 34. In those two years, Cartagena came 2nd but failed in the promotion playoffs both times.

After having played 312 times for the club over nine seasons – a club for whom only Perico Arango (540) and Alejandro Sagarduy (514) have played more – the player who, for nine seasons, had become the face of Cartagena, retired at the age 36.

Guess where he is right now?

Back in Pinatar where he is currently the owner of the Pinatar Arena. The arena that has since had over 186 teams from 25 different countries come down to what has become the sanctuary for many European clubs seeking refuge during the harsh winter of their countries – including Spanish youth teams, Shakhtar Donetsk, Standard Liège, Bochum, Heerenveen, and Borussia Dortmund. The arena that now owns a hotel to attract said clubs. The arena that lies in a small town of 24,000 people on the banks of the Mar Menor.

The arena that a former-architect-turned-entrepreneur is slowly, but surely, building into another underrated footballing story.

This article is reproduced from a series on the faces of Spanish football. You can read it here.

Off-the-radar: A sorcerer, a van Gaal reject and two slayed Goliaths – the amazing story of Diego Cascón

Sarthak Kumar narrates the story of van Gaal reject Diego Cascón – a story that involves warding off the evil eye and slaying Real Madrid and Villarreal.

In light of Barcelona B’s promotion playoff game against Cultural Leonesa, this is the story of one of its youth graduates.

The rugged pitch of the Estadio Santo Domingo was greeted by the applause and cheers of 3,000 spectators. The stadium was half-empty, but for the amateur club, it was a dream to be a part of the match. This match.

This match, they were playing Real Madrid.

Read the Madrid lineup – Dudek; Arbeloa, Albiol, Metzelder, Drenthe; Mahamadou Diarra, Guti, Van der Vaart; Granero; Raúl and Benzema – and you would have goosebumps as a first division side, forget an amateur third division side with an average annual salary of €36,000. Oh, and Gago, Marcelo and Van Nistelrooy also played in that match.

It was AD Alcorcón vs Real Madrid, and it was spectacular. It was spectacular because it was Alcorcón’s first match against top-flight opposition – and what better way to have a match like that than against nine international players in the starting eleven. It was spectacular because no one had known about this small club or that it was based in Madrid itself. It was spectacular because of the financial gap between the two teams. The wage bill of Alcorcón’s matchday squad was one million euros, exactly 110 times less than that of Real Madrid.

It was also spectacular for another reason. Real Madrid were destroyed.

Alcorcón’s midfield, who nobody knew about, suddenly looked better than internationally capped players. Ernesto Gómez and Fernando Béjar, the interiors, ran like dogs, chasing the ball and hassling the opposition at every opportunity. Rubén Sanz, on the tip of the midfield diamond, was neat and tidy in possession, keeping the play ticking and the ball flowing in the final third. And donning the number 10 shirt, Sergio Mora, sitting in the base of midfield in a regista role, became central to every play.

The passing, pressing and possession was excellent. Real Madrid’s midfield looked liked the ones in the third division. They were being outplayed in every department. The desire to win was evident. Shot after shot, world-class pass after world-class pass, recovery after recovery, Alcorcón had the game in their hands.

The first goal was precisely that – a beautiful pass from Sergio Mora found Real reject and striker Borja Pérez, who dribbled past two Real Madrid defenders and scored past a third. The second came from Mora again – released by Béjar, he passed to Borja in the box for a certain goal. It was a goal, just that Arbeloa had got there first.

Real were shocked. And it was disappointing that they had only two shots to show as a recovery, which former Atlético Madrid goalkeeper Juanma easily parried away.

Alcorcón were still dangerous, still playing extremely well. A deadly cross from right-back Nagore found the post, the goal-line but not the goal. A deadly counter from Alcorcón saw second striker Diego Cascón play the ball into the box again. This time, Ernesto made a perfectly timed run to slot past Dudek.

By half-time, Alcorcón were ahead by three goals. By the hour mark, they would make it four, as a poorly cleared set piece found Borja, who coolly finished home. Real Madrid tried. But as hard as they tried something always came in the way – Juanma was spectacular but so was the team. Whenever a Real Madrid player got the ball there was an Alcorcón player in his face. Whenever there was an Alcorcón player on the ball there were four more ahead of him to pass the ball too. With passing that exquisite and moves that intricate, all that was left was to walk the ball into the net.

AD Alcorcón 4-0 Real Madrid. On 27th October, 2009, the damage was done. Real Madrid went trophyless that season; the psychological damage had been too much.

By contrast, Alcorcón were promoted that very season, and for the first time were playing in the professional leagues in 2010-11.

“In the first forty-five minutes there was hardly a difference between a first division team, Villarreal, and one of the Segunda B, Polideportivo Ejido. It was the “inferior” team that was clearly dominating.”


There was no way through.
Villarreal tried and tried. They tried through balls and long balls. They tried ground passes and crosses. They tried pressing higher up the pitch and they tried pressing in their own half.
Nothing was working.
It wasn’t that Poli Ejido were defending deep – it was that you could see their desire on the pitch more. They cared more. There were always two men on the Villarreal player who had the ball. They dribbled past an unsupported Villarreal defense with ease.
Villarreal never even stood a chance.
Jorge Molina got a hat-trick. Gregory got two more towards the end. Juli ran the show with exquisite dribbling. Mikel Rico ran and ran until he could run no more.
Poli Ejido won 5-0 against a team that couldn’t even challenge its goalkeeper Razak Brimah, a 21-year-old who had only played two cup games in Spain before that game.

Diego Cascón began in the world of football in Loyola (the school team where he studied in his hometown, León: los Jesuitas), up to the “freshmen” cadetes. While in the alevín team, Barcelona took interest in him.

But there were problems with him and another guy from Salamanca. Barcelona ended up sacking Serra Ferrer and hiring Van Gaal, who ruled out all signings that Serra Ferrer had proposed for the youth teams.

Subsequently, in the second year cadetes he played for Cultural. At the club, he ascended to the juvenils and then to the first team which was playing in the Segunda B in 2003. He stayed at the club till 2007, scoring 12 goals in his last season at Cultural.

He would go on to play at Badalona, Poli Ejido, Alcorcón, and Eibar for a season each. It was at these clubs that he gained the reputation of being an effective super sub – someone who could make an impact in the last minutes of the game. In fact, he scored five goals in 29 appearances at Ejido, despite playing just 714 minutes!

In 2011, he joined Jaén in 2011 – also in the Segunda B – where he played for three seasons and captained the team in the last two.

It was here where he showed that when managers really put their confidence in him and gave him regular minutes, he did make an impact. He scored 12 in his first season at Jaén.

But his poor stamina, combined with his incredible speed and strength, meant that teams would use him to make sure opposition defenses didn’t push too high towards the end of a game.

In his second season, he would lead Jaén to the Segunda, and even scored eight goals. But those goals came in the first half of the season. In April 2013, Cascón solicited the services of a sorcerer in April 2013 in an attempt to end a negative scoring drought, feeling he was a victim of the evil eye.

He never scored for Jaén again.

Even though he made his professional debut at last at the age of 29, after making just 11 substitute appearances, in January 2014 he was told by Jaén he was no longer needed. He waived the compensation due on his contract, rolled back tears at his farewell press conference, and moved to Kitchee in Hong Kong. After winning the Hong Kong first division and finishing as runner-up in the FA Cup, in July 2014 he received an offer from Cartagena.

Instead, he moved to Columbia, signing for “Red Devils” América Cali, where he played 14 games and scored zero goals.

He is now back in Spain. In 2015, he signed for Melilla, where he scored 9 goals in his first season, but just 285 minutes in his second season prompted him to move this January to Mérida.

At the age of 32, his chance to play professional football again is all but over.

The sad reality is that Diego Cascón’s story is only reported, however meagerly, because he started, and finished, that fateful game against Real Madrid, and replaced hat-trick hero Jorge Molina for fourteen minutes in the 5-0 demolition of Villarreal.

The sad reality is that stories similar to his will not matter.

Because they will never be heard.

This article is reproduced from a series on the faces of Spanish football. You can read it here.

Off-the-radar: An exclusive interview with Roger Riera

Ex-Barcelona and current Celta Vigo defender Roger Riera talks about his move to Nottingham and La Masia.

When did you make the decision to pursue football and what motivated you to do so?

I started to play football when I was 4. I always liked football and I really enjoy playing football. That’s the best motivation I have to play football.

How did it feel like progressing through the ranks of La Masia?

I started playing football at Gimnàstic Manresa, a football club from my hometown (Manresa). When I was 9 years old I moved to Barça and I spend there 9 seasons. It was like living a dream and every time I progressed a step up I felt amazing and proud.

What do you think La Masia does differently, apart from football philosophy, that sets it apart from other youth academies?

I think that in La Masia you can progress as a footballer, but what’s most important, you progress as a person. Thanks to them I keep studying my Business Degree at the university and I think that everyone that has the luck to spend some time in La Masia becomes a better footballer but what’s more important, a better person and ready to take new challenges.

You played for Barcelona’s Juvenil A side and helped them win the UEFA Youth League – how would you describe that experience and did you feel a future first team opportunity was coming your way?

I think that winning the UYL was one of the best experiences I had at Barça. It’s an amazing tournament with great teams, great players and that it’s very difficult to win.

After winning it, I never thought of progressing to the first team. Obviously every player at Barça has the dream to play for Barça first team, but at that moment, after Juvenil A (under 19) we all had the dream to progress and play for Barça B. I couldn’t reach that step but as I said before I’m very proud of what I did at Barça because I gave my 100%.

What motivated you to move to Nottingham and what were your initial thoughts on the idea of leaving Spain? Was it a difficult decision?

I always liked English football and I’m a big fan of the Premier League. I wanted to live a new experience and I couldn’t have had a better chance. Nottingham Forest it’s a big club that helped me a lot to keep progressing as a footballer.

Did you feel welcome in Nottingham and how easy or difficult was it for you to adapt?

Every one tried to helped me. It’s not easy when you have to move from your country into another culture and language. It was also another football philosophy and tactics but I think I learned English quite quickly and that I adapt myself quite good at Nottingham Forest. As I said that’s thanks to Gary Brazil, Jimmy Gilligan and the rest of the people working at the club.

How different are the playing and coaching styles in Spain compared to Nottingham, and how would you describe your stint there?

It’s another style of football. More physical and less tactic in my opinion, but at the end of the day it’s very competitive like in Spain.

The first season I spend at Forest it was really good. We won our U-21 league and I played a lot of games that helped me to progress.

The second season I started the preseason and the first bit of the season with the first team and I was involved with them but I never had the chance to play with the first team. Then it was when I decided to move on January.

What attracted you to the project in Celta and were you more confident of breaking through into the first team when you joined?

Celta made me an offer and I think it was the right time to join the club. The club is progressing a lot and they are getting better and better every season. I’m playing with Celta B and we are now in the playoff positions to get promoted to the Second division of Spain. It’d be a great achievement for the club.

What are your plans for the future?

I finish my contract at Celta at the end of this season and I haven’t decided what will I do next season. In football it’s difficult to make plans for the future.

What do you do in your free time?

I’m studying a Business degree at the Spanish University and when I don’t have to study I like to spend time with my friends and teammates.

This interview was reproduced from the Hinchas y Jugadores project. You can read it here.

Off-the-radar: An exclusive interview with Pablo Couñago

Ex-Málaga and Ipswich legend Pablo Couñago talks about his experiences in Spain and abroad.

In light of the upcoming fixture against Málaga

When did you make the decision to pursue football and what motivated you to do so?

It has always been a dream for me to became a footballer since a I was a little boy.  When I was called by the national team at the age of 15 I realized that my dream could be true.

What was the experience like when you played for Celta Vigo for the first time?

I remember that I was very excited because I was only 16 years old and it was a very happy moment.

How would you describe your time at Celta, and do you think your experiences on loan at Numancia and Recreativo helped shape you as a player?

I was very young, everything passed by very fast. It was the moment when finally my dream of being a footballer came true. It was a learning experience.

At Numancia and Recre was my first time away from home and family, for a 18 year old boy it could be difficult but that made me grow as a person and made me realize that that is the life of a professional footballer.

You helped the Spain under 20 team win the 1999 FIFA World Youth Championship in Nigeria as the top scorer. Do you think the team exceeded initial expectations, and were there any players in that team who you were sure were going to become world beaters?

Yes, top 8 was our target!

Sure, Xavi was top class already at that moment, he was one of the most talented players and playing with him for me was very enjoyable. Casillas at that moment was good but nobody thought that he will became the best keeper on the history of Spain.

What were the initial thoughts running through your mind when you first heard that Ipswich were interested in you, and did you find it difficult to adapt to the new surroundings?

ITFC were top 6 in the premier league so I didn’t have any doubt. They were performing very well. So, although I had other options it was easy to choose (the best decision I took in my career!)

The adaptation to the football was easier than the style of life as I didn’t speak any English but the club helped me a lot to settle in the town and to learn the language.

How would you describe your two stints at Ipswich, and did you find it difficult to move back to Spain in between?

Two different stints, both very exciting, most of the time I felt so happy and enjoyed playing football. There were some difficult moments so I decided to go back to Spain, once in Spain and in spite of playing La Liga I missed Ipswich and English football so I took the opportunity to come back to Ipswich when I finished my contract with Málaga.

Which footballing moment at Ipswich do you remember most vividly?

It is difficult to choose, probably my second season after relegation. Personally it was a very good year for me, for my performance. I started feeling so beloved for the fans. Hearing the stand singing my name for the first time was a magical moment for me.

Many players move from Spain to the Championship and end up leaving within a season or two – what physical and/or mental traits do you think made it possible for you to succeed for so long in such a difficult league?

I consider myself very easy going. I don’t need much to settle away from home. I’m mentally strong and like simple things in life. I’m a quiet person and that helped me. Physically I adapted to English football because I was strong and fast in short distance.

You’ve subsequently played in Vietnam, Hong Kong and Finland, with stints at Spain in between – how were you able to assimilate in such varied football cultures and do you think you will be interested in more international offers in the future?

Since I had a family (my wife and two sons) it is easy for me to settle when I have them beside me.
Vietnam was the most difficult place because of the climate and long trips.

Do you think that playing abroad put you, and Spanish players in general, at a disadvantage in terms of getting selected for the national team?

No, I don’t. Nowadays all players are visible for the managers.

Currently, Alondras are just two places off the relegation zone in the Tercera – what is the atmosphere in the dressing room at the moment and how confident are you of avoiding the drop?

Right now we are finally saved from relegation so the atmosphere is more relaxed.

What are your plans for the future?

I will play at least one more season, as I feel fit enough and I still enjoying the game.

My future plans are keeping involved in football, sport director, scout, manager… I’m already getting the preparation and knowledge to do that.

What do you do in your free time?

First I’m a dedicated father. I love being with my kids! Playing sports is my hobby, especially basketball, paddle tennis, and tennis. And of course watching football games!

This interview was reproduced from the Hinchas y Jugadores project. You can read it

Off-the-radar: An exclusive interview with Jade Boho Sayo

Sarthak Kumar interviews an ex-Rayo and ex-Atlético striker with three consecutive league titles.

I interview Gerard Nus, the legend who staged a protest against the Ghana FA for non-payment of staff – and won. Unfortunately, I didn’t post it properly – you can read it here.

This interview is in light of Barcelona’s title deciding fixture today against Atlético Madrid in the Liga Iberdrola…

When did you make the decision to pursue football and what motivated you to do so?

The first time I saw a soccer ball was at 3 years of age. I remember perfectly seeing my brother playing and from that very moment I was in love with this sport. All I learned was thanks to my brother.

What was the experience like when you played for Torrejón for the first time?

For me it was a dream come true because I was going to have the possibility to play in the first division and I have to say that everything was thanks to my team A.D. Orcasitas that was in a lower category (2nd Division). It is a time in my life that I will never forget because it was where I got to know myself and where I learned to grow as a player.

What were the initial thoughts you had when Rayo Vallecano approached you?

The truth is that I felt very flattered and fortunate because they had a great project with great players and I was very excited that they wanted me to be part of the team.

You were one of the stars of the Rayo team that won three league titles in a row as well as a Copa de la Reina – were you expecting to have so much success with the team?

We had a great team that could choose to get or fight for titles but personally do not imagine that everything was going to turn out so well but finally we believed in what we could do and we worked very hard to achieve the objectives.

How would you describe your time at Rayo, and what influenced you to rejoin the club in 2014?

My time at Rayo was very good, and would have been even better to have been able to play more minutes but I learned many things and I take great friendships. – I decided to return in 2014 after my season with Atlético Madrid because it has always been my home and when they knew I was not going to continue with Atlético were the first to open their doors.

What were your thoughts when Bristol became interested in you, and was it a difficult decision to leave Spain?

I remember that my agent gave me the news and I was so excited that I could not believe it. I have always wanted to go abroad and try on a professional league, more physical and harder. I needed to know if I could be on the level and I was not going to miss my chance.

How difficult was it to adapt to England after having played for so long in Spain?

No one had ever made me feel so good in a place away from home, much less in a different country away from all your family, your partner and friends. In just two weeks I was already integrated with the rest of the team. People treated me like “one more”, almost like family and that was shown later when I played. I was delighted with everyone and I only have words of gratitude.

How would you describe your stints at Bristol and Reading?

Bristol was perfect in every way! Maybe would change some small details here and there but it was more than perfect. In Reading I would change many things from beginning to end – one of them being more decisive…

Madrid CFF are currently in the promotion places – how confident is the team about making it to the Liga Iberdrola and what is the atmosphere in the dressing room at the moment?

Madrid CFF has a great team this year. I think it has balanced very well with the young people who will give the team freshness and that spark that infects everyone, that mixed with the people who have been newly signed from the first division gives an experience to the team that maybe the team before did not have and lacked. We are all excited because the time comes soon but until then we have not stopped working very hard every day.

What are your plans for the future?

I still can not talk about future because you never know it can happen but I would love to be able to continue at the club.

What do you do in your free time?

In my spare time I love reading, going to the movies, going to the gym to work on my body, I love listening to music and doing other sports when football allows me to.

This interview was reproduced from the Hinchas y Jugadores project. You can read it here.

Off-the-radar: An exclusive interview with Gerard Nus

Sarthak Kumar interviews the legend who staged a protest against the Ghana FA for non-payment of staff – and won.

When did you make the decision to pursue football coaching and what motivated you to do so?

Well, I’ve been interested in it since always. I was a football player when I was a kid, and my football coaches used to be my target. It’s why I’ve been working in football for so many years and  I hope to do so for many more years to come.

What was your background before Liverpool came calling?

I used to be in my local town, which is Reus – they’re now in the second division. I was also at Gimnàstic de Tarragona, before which I worked for UE Rapitenca. I used to be involved in organisation and football coaching while at the same time obtaining my coaching license (while at Rapitenca) and studying sports science at the Universitat de Lleida for four years.

What were the first thoughts in your mind when Liverpool offered you a position and was Rafael Benítez connected to the deal?

I was the first Spanish coach there but was never appointed by Rafael Benítez – I was appointed as a coach at the Liverpool football academy by the people who worked there. So I wasn’t brought to England by Rafa – but after a year Rafa offered me a job to work with the first team in Melwood – the training facilities for the first team.

How different is the coaching style in England – especially Liverpool – compared to Spain?

There’s many differences – we’ll need hours to talk about it! Between clubs, whether they are in the same country or not, there are always differences in coaching styles. Depending on league level, the team’s ambition, the coach, and many other things, the coaching style changes quite noticeably.

You’ve worked as an assistant for Chunnam Dragons, Head of Academy Coaching at Brighton & Hove Albion and assistant coach at Melbourne Heart – what motivated you to take up roles in foreign, uncharted territories, and do you see Spanish players and managers moving to South Korea and Australia in the future?

In one word – determination. I didn’t really look for international opportunities – I hadn’t put those countries on my GPS! But they came up, and when you have to make a professional decision, you choose the best option. For me it has never been an issue to leave my comfort zone because I believe that’s part of the job description – if you really want to have higher chances of success and better your coaching style and opportunities in the future.

I think so – nowadays, Spanish coaches are making their impact worldwide. The success of Real Madrid, Barcelona and the Spanish national team with two Euros and one World Cup has helped make footballing opportunities for Spanish coaches brighter. But it’s really a case of Spanish coaches taking opportunities more – there have been and there are so many talented players and coaches whose development has happened in Spain.

You worked as the head coach of Rayo OKC – how nervous were you to take up the main managerial position for the first time, and how did the experience shape your footballing philosophy?

I was not nervous – I was excited! It was exactly what I wanted to do, and many years of preparation had finally paid off. You still have to analyse teams, try to recognize what you can bring to the squad, what you can realistically change – but I was really happy to have received the offer. It’s very sad that the team doesn’t exists anymore, but those circumstances were out of my control. There were issues on another level. But on the sporting side the team did really well, we qualified for the semifinals of the NASL league. It was a big achievement – in the last 10 games we went unbeaten. In fact, we won our last five games straight! So there were many positives to take from that season.

What was working under Avram Grant at the Ghana national football team like?

I worked with the national team since December 2014, when I went to the African Cup of Nations in Equatorial Guinea. We lost on penalties in the final. Then I was under Avram Grant as an assistant coach, and under him we reached the semifinals in this year’s AFCON.

I try to learn as much as I can from all the coaches I’ve worked under – from Rafa, from Gus Poyet, and all the other coaches I’ve been honoured to work with, and I am happy to have had those opportunities and experiences. With Avram, the way he managed problems – he doesn’t make a mountain of a problem but tries rather to find a solution. He is a very psychological kind of person. He tries to talk a lot with his players and have deep conversations. Obviously, he has an amazing amount of experience – he’s worked for top clubs such as Chelsea.

It was very heroic of you to have staged a sit-in in Accra until the Ghana FA paid all the staff – were Rayo supportive of the situation? Did you ever feel that people were pressuring you to leave?

Thank you! Rayo supported me, but they were not happy about the situation because I wasn’t happy either! We wanted to resolve the situation as quickly as possible, but unfortunately the situation was out of my control.

Well, I can’t say much, but to put it simply they were more comfortable if I had left, if I had given up.

Rayo Vallecano are currently quite close to the relegation place. While results have improved lately, what is the atmosphere at the club at the moment and how confident are you of avoiding the drop?

I think the team has been improving in recent weeks. We are winning more games and there is more positivity on avoiding relegation. Of course, I cannot talk too much about it because of my involvement in the United States and Ghana – I can only talk about what is here right now, and that is a positive environment and I’m sure the team will survive in this league. And hopefully next season we can compete for promotion to La Liga.

What are your plans for the future?

Well, I do have a contract for another year with the club but it’s up to the people in charge. My position is clear in terms of termination and my desire for a coaching role. First and foremost I am open to help the club but secondarily I’m listening to offers for a head coach role because that is something I’m look forward to be involved in one day, as I have already done with Rayo OKC.

This interview was reproduced from the Hinchas y Jugadores project. You can read it here.

Off-the-radar: An exclusive interview with Damià Abella

Sarthak Kumr talks to ex-Barcelona player Damià Abella, who rose from the eighth tier to the first in just two seasons

When did you make the decision to pursue football and what motivated you to do so?

I never thought I would have been good enough to become a professional player. In fact, from 19 to 20 years old, I played for a team called “Caprabo” (neigbourhood supermarket) 7 divisons below La Liga. Two years later, when I was 22 I played for Barça, I played two “El Clasico” games against Real Madrid in front of 100.000 people in the stadium and 400.000.000 live in TV. We also won La Liga,…. as much as I remember it I still feel it wasn’t real.

I mean, I was focused on my Physical trainer Degree, when some Tercera teams (similar to League two) paid attention on me. From there everything went so fast, intense and quite crazy.

How did it feel like making your debut with Figueres?

That was so nice. I’m from Figueres, I always lived there and it’s where I live now. That was a kind of little dream made true, In addition I had a very good season which allowed me to sign for FC Barcelona’s 2nd team (2B Division). Some games after the season started, I had a chance to play for the First team. From there, I stayed in the first team for a year and a half until I left FC Barcelona towards Racing de Santander.

What were the initial thoughts you had when Barcelona approached you?

My first thought was, “I’m not the kind of player for FC Barcelona but if I do it right, I may reach LaLiga or La Segunda and became a true professional”. I didn’t realize how big FC Barcelona is until I put my feet in there. It wasn’t a dream come true, because it was miles above a dream!

Did you expect to play for the first team at some point, given the relative lack of competition in your position?

In fact, no. I had been playing as a winger for FC Barcelona B when a couple of injuries hit the first team’s right backs. Then Frank Rijkaard, the manager looked onto us, and he picked me despite having never played as a fullback. It was a big surprise and a huge challenge for me. I feel proud for how I faced that challenge, and I will always thank Frank Rijkaard for believing in me.

You played an important role in helping Racing Santander avoid relegation – how would you compare playing regular football at a smaller club and being an important backup at a championship winning club?

In Santander I realized I was better than I thought. Playing for FC Barcelona is amazing, it’s hard as well, but it may be easier than at other clubs if everything goes well, as it happened in those days. I have to admit I had some doubts about my level which disappeared once I started playing for Racing Santander every week. I became important for the team, and to me, that was bigger than play for FC Barcelona.

You were out for more than a year due to a hip injury – how damaging was the injury physically and psychologically, and how were you able to recover from such a lengthy layoff?

I remember those days as a hard days. Injuries are part of the job and we know that, but when things don’t go as they should, too many questions unanswered make your journey pretty difficult. Something similar happened during my days in Middlesbrough FC, unfortunately I had to quit football because of a knee injury and several operations. What it “kills” you is the thought that is all is finished. In this case, all finished with that knee injury. It’s never easy to accept you have to finish your career when it is not your decision. The psychological tax is bigger than the physical, especially the thought that I cannot do whatever I want in terms of physical activity and sport.

How would you describe your experience at Real Betis and Osasuna, where you played regularly?

I guess those places are where I got knowledge about my sport, my job. They are so different, both crowds are so passionate, but in different ways. Playing regularly makes you mature, “wise” and confident. I would say at Osasuna is where I found “myself”, where I felt great links with the club, the city and the area. I go visit Osasuna as a club, and Pamplona as a city from time to time to say hello since I left three years ago.

What were your thoughts when Middlesbrough became interested in you, and was it a difficult decision to leave Spain?

It was an easy decision to make, I’ve been waiting for a chance in a different country, and to be honest I always wanted to play in England. I had a couple of options to go to the Premier League years ago, but for some reasons I didn’t take them; mostly because the clubs I played for didn’t let me go. In addition, Aitor Karanka, Middlesbrough’s manager, was the one who called me and wanted me playing for them.

How would you describe your stint there, and if you were given the decision to do so would you leave for England again?

I would do the same, exactly. Life is about getting experiences, knowing people, make friendships, and explore. I was so lucky that my job brought me to many places, some for few days, some for years. It fills you with thousands of experiences with hundreds of new relationships (some became deep and for ever). So yes, I would leave for England again. It’s a shame I wasn’t able to make my career longer for many reasons, but the main one is the life experiences football gives you.

What are your plans for the future?

I am focus on my coaching UEFA-PRO license, which I’ll get by February 2018. Those ups and downs of adrenaline that football gives you weekly is a kind of addiction, and I want to be on the pitch again, every day, outside, been passionate for my job and get involve in competition again, from the bench. Also, I was in the University when I became professional, I had one year left to graduate in Physical trainer, and I am finishing this Degree right now. This is going to add some extra skills in terms of coaching and managing a football team.

What do you do in your free time?

Well, this is a good one. I’m pretty restless, and I always find new things to learn about, which take my attention. But what it always takes part of my free time is sport. Running, MTB, open water swimming, Scuba diving, fishing, longboarding, snowboarding,… whatever the season lets me do. I also love music, and I can spend hours and hours discovering songs and artists, especially when I go deeper into myself. Lately, and because I wasn’t able when I was a player, I spend some time ridding a motorbike. I like vintage cars & bikes, so I like to modify a British motorbike and a classic American car I’ve got. Obviously, football is a big part of my life, and I’m on the TV everyday. I go to the Camp Nou to watch FC Barcelona playing in La Liga and Champions League games few times a month as well.

This interview was reproduced from the Hinchas y Jugadores project. You can read it here.