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.

Off-the-radar: An exclusive interview with Daniel Huertas

A former Leganés youth graduate and nephew of ex-Atlético striker Juan Sabas talks about his experiences in New York…

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

I was born with a ball in my feet honestly. My uncle and godfather (Juan Sabas) was a professional soccer player for teams like Atlético de Madrid, Betis and Rayo Vallecano, so I basically grew up watching soccer every single day. I always wanted to be a professional soccer player and that is what motivates me to keep fighting for my dreams.

How did it feel like being approached by Leganés, and then by Sanse?

I was lucky to be formed in the academy of Leganés, I played there for 6 years and what I am as a soccer player is because of that team. They gave me everything. I felt like at home every single day there. I decided to leave Leganés and play for Sanse because my uncle was the coach and I wanted to learn from him and have him as a coach. It was probably the year where I learned the most.

You played for Leganés B in the Liga Nacional Juvenil and then for Leganés in the Division de Honor Juvenil – did you feel a future first team opportunity was coming your way?

Yes I did. My last year in Leganés I practiced every day with the first team and I was really close to make my debut with them. But unfortunately it ended up not happening but it was a team full of great players and I learned so much from them.

What motivated you to move to Iona College in New York and what were your initial thoughts on the idea of leaving Madrid? Was it a difficult decision to leave Spain?

Well when I got the offer from Iona College it wasn’t easy to make my decision. But at the end you have to think that the career of a soccer player is so short and after it you need something, and here I have the possibility of studying and playing at a high level at the same time, also I felt that they really wanted me to come and that made everything easier. I expected a lot from this but definitely it’s been better than I thought.

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

I was lucky that when I came we were 5 Spanish players on the team and they helped me a lot specially the first months when my English wasn’t too good. But also I love New York and I love the people here. They try to help me always and that makes everything easier when you are away from home.

Do you think that more Spanish players and technical staff will move to the United States in the future?

Yes and I hope so. Soccer is growing so fast in America and it’s going to make it bigger if players from Europe keep coming here to play or to coach.

How different are the playing and coaching styles in Spain compared to where you are, and do you think players in the United States are ready for the European leagues?

At Iona our coaches are very “Spanish” when it comes to playing. They like to keep the ball and that is what I’ve been doing since I was little. But it’s true that I’ve played against teams that are not like that, strong teams that don’t want the ball and feel comfortable giving the ball away. I’m not saying I have something against that but it is definitely not the kind of soccer that I like. And yes I’ve seen a lot of American players that would do great in Europe, but it’s true that it’s not an easy move. But I’m sure more and more players will go to play overseas.

How would you describe your stint in New York so far?

I came here knowing what I wanted and every day I train hard for it. So far it’s been really nice time in New York, not just as a soccer player but also out of the field. It’s a city that makes you fall in love with everything. And also I feel comfortable playing here, and I really hope to stay here for a long time.

What are your plans for the future?

My plans are to finish my career at Iona doing a great job and after that we’ll see what the future brings me but I would love to play here in the MLS, but it’s true that I would love to come back to play soccer in Europe.

What do you do in your free time?

I spend time with my friends, we go to Manhattan and act like we are tourists because there is something always new that you can do in this big city!

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

Off-the-radar: Interviews

Sarthak Kumar interviews various footballers from Spain…especially the ones that go under the radar.

If you are a FC Barcelona fanatic you might have found, and ignored, the one article dedicated to their women’s team, who demolished Fundación Albacete 10-0.

And yet, it was a proud moment for Albacete’s 21-year-old Alejandra Martínez. She wasn’t on the pitch but for the first time she was on the bench of the first team.

A breakthrough into top-flight women’s football was near. And she would do it with the club which represented her city.

Behind the excitement, though, was the thought that no one would recognize that achievement. Women’s football still remains underdeveloped, under-recognized and under-appreciated.

Even in Albacete.

As the men’s football team of Albacete struggle in the second division in a 17,300-seater stadium, the women’s football team are in the first division yet play in a tiny stadium with a capacity of just 3,000. A stadium which also houses the reserve team of the men’s football division, who are fighting relegation to the fifth tier this season.

In fact, if you click on the official website of Fundación Albacete here, you see the words “Página en construcción” (page under construction). It’s the most apt description of women’s football at present.

So, in an exclusive interview, I talked to Alejandra Martínez about the neglected state of women’s football.

Just to get to know you better – which university are you studying at and which course are you doing?

I’m studying at UNED (Universidad Nacional de Educación a Distancia). The degree is called English Studies and I’m in the third year; moreover, I’m studying a superior degree of physical education called TAFAD.

Do many women footballers pursue university in Spain?

I think all women in Spain have university studies because here women cannot live just with a football salary. It is very frustrating, because women work as hard as men, and our effort is not rewarded.

How are you able to split your time between university, training and matches?

My daily schedule is hectic, to say the least. In the morning, I go to TAFAD, which is very hard because we have subjects like lifesaving, in which we swim 2 kilometers every day. In the afternoon, I study English Studies until 8. After that I train with my team. I’m always tired but I’m very happy with my life.

Which position do you play?

I play as right back, or as offensive midfield, it depends on the match and the coach.

What motivated you to pursue football as a career?

My motivation is Vero Boquete; she plays for the Spanish national team and just joined Bayern Munich. She is an inspiration to me because she has always fought against discrimination and she has studied what I’m studying at present. If I could, I would be just like her, but it’s too difficult. (Laughs)

How did it feel to be called up to the first team of Fundación Albacete against Barcelona?

The call-up against Barcelona was awesome; most of the women I admire play in that club and it was incredible!

What do you think needs to be done to make women’s football more popular?

It would be very hard; it is a men’s world, and we don’t have enough money. In fact, only two teams in Spain get paid a full-time salary – Barcelona and Atlético de Madrid. The other teams don’t have that luck. However, there are women are challenging discrimination and lobbying for change, which is encouraging.

Fundación Albacete is going through a bad patch of form. Do you think the team will be able to turn the tables around?

The first team of Fundación Albacete has lost their last five games, but I think the team will finish comfortably in mid-table by the end of the season.

What do you do in your free time?

In my free time, I like to play sports: football, basketball, even skating! I always make sure to play with my friends and the people I love.

A huge thank you to Alejandra Martínez for taking time out to do this, and to Aida López Serna for arranging the correspondence.

A quick comment on the interview:

I think what I found disturbing was the fact that she said “it is a men’s world”.

It’s disturbing because in this day and age it shouldn’t be.

But it’s also disturbing because it’s true.

Off-the-radar: Another exclusive interview with Mikel Alonso

I interviewed Mikel Alonso in December 2015, where he opened up about his hiatus from professional football. He agreed to a second interview – this one…

I interviewed Mikel Alonso in December 2015, where he opened up about his hiatus from professional football. You can read it here.

He agreed to a second interview, where I ask some more questions about his experiences as a footballer.

This is that interview.

Before Real Sociedad, you were playing for Antiguoko. This is an academy that has produced amazing footballers such as yourself, your brother, Mikel Arteta, etc. What is it that differs it from other academies? Did you see anyone play there who you knew were going to be playing top level football – apart from yourself, of course!

We worked a lot on technique and skills. It was a different kind of academy. The coaches made all the difference – Iñigo Santin, Pitu, Txurun, Oscar, Kepa Estebanez and many others. They loved this game and show us how to love it and understand it. We tried to look at the big picture of various game situations. They were inspirational. The managers were really passionate and tried to pick the best players in the area. There was a great taste in the way they encouraged us to play football; they wanted us to pass, pass, pass. To treat the ball carefully, to have resources. Many players have been playing top level from that school. Not just Aduriz, or Arteta, or Xabi and me. Think about Aduriz, Iraola or many others. But there were others such as Azpilicueta, Olondris, Fagoaga, Altuna, Saizar, Careaga and so on….To be honest there were so many good players, quality players. We always dreamed of being a professional at Antiguoko, and playing together professionally when the time to depart (each one had to take his own path after Academy years finished) arrived.

Not just that, to play top level you must be lucky; it’s not just to have the talent. There were so many players those years, in that academy enough talented to have played top level. It was easy to play as a kid alongside such talented friends.

How supportive were your parents about a career in football?

My parents always focused us in saying that the most important thing was to study. My father knew too well that put all your effort in being a professional is too dangerous, because you must be lucky. And apart from that, football finishes soon. I think they were too conscious that the footballer life is something too precarious and they tried to tell us to focus in study, in being good people ready for real life, that is outside of football – to study or to have a job. That doesn’t mean they didn’t want us to play and to enjoy and give our best (football is very educational, a great school of life), but they didn’t want us to put all our lifelong expectations in there.

Last time we did an interview, it was the 2015-16 season. Real Unión had been third for most of the season and in the last two games fell to fifth place and Toledo came in fourth. This season, once again, Toledo are fourth and Real Unión are fifth – what is the atmosphere at the moment and do you feel confident about making the playoffs?

It is weird. Last two year we were great in December, January, February and March, and performing poorly in the last two months. Now we are doing the other way around. 2 months ago we were far from playoffs, and weren’t expected to have chances. However we won many games in a row and now we have some chance, although it is difficult: we don’t depend on us. We need to win every game and expect the others to drop points. Hopefully we can be lucky. Of course we are confident, but it is being hard because many teams are involved in that fight to get into the first four places. But we want it too. It is going to be a terribly demanding last few games.

How would you describe your time at Tenerife?

The last two years before Tenerife, I didn’t play continuously, neither in Real Sociedad, nor in Bolton. At Tenerife, I had the chance to be in a great group of people and the manager trusted in me from the beginning.

It was great. Tenerife is such a great island to live. I really enjoyed those two years and a half there. We played beautifully and got promoted to La Liga the last year. After two years, to have the chance to play again with continuity in La Liga, was so great. The atmosphere in the stadium, Heliodoro Rodríguez López, was amazing and I enjoyed it so much, especially the love from the fans. The manager had very attacking football ideas and we enjoyed ourselves; and what it is more important: we made the fans enjoy so much as well. However in away games, we weren’t solid enough and that got us relegated at the end. The second year in Segunda was much harder: the expectations of coming back soon to Primera played against us, and nobody was patient. We went straight to the Segunda B.

Tenerife is like a second home for me. I have fond memories from there. Such a beautiful place to live and enjoy the passion of football. Both years I played a lot of games, many times at a good level, and I felt the respect of the club when they proposed to stay in the club after those years.

I remember when Tenerife were relegated twice in two seasons – before Charlton came calling do you think you would’ve stayed with Tenerife in the Segunda B?

Yes, why not, it was an option. The club offered me a new contract and I was happy in the island. I was happy because the club trusted in me and I loved to play there. However Charlton offer was something different and exceptional. But the offer of Charlton was very good. I couldn’t say no.

Given how your time at Bolton had been, what were the first thoughts in your mind when you heard Charlton were interested?

I knew it was going to be hard, but the interest of the owner of Charlton and the sport manager was really enthusiastic in signing me – they knew me from Tenerife and Real Sociedad. I was happy for the new opportunity to have the chance to enjoy English football from within. Being League One, I knew that wasn’t going to be exactly like Bolton that was in Premier League. But it was a big club, in League One, with a great stadium and great supporters. A classic London club that had played in Premier League some years ago. They were trying to “rebirth” the team and bring it again to the top. There was a lot of signings those years and the team did well and we went up to the Championship. I was curious, eager to learn and try to add some quality and experience to the squad. I would have liked to play more than I did, but team was very competitive and I just played a very few games which is sad. I really would have loved to play more in the Valley, and I am always going to remember that chance.

As someone who has witnessed the pressures of professional football and how damaging it can be on a psychological level, do you think that modern football puts too much pressure on footballers to succeed and how fair do you think this pressure is?

I think that is modern life, isn’t it? It is not just about football. It is about any accomplishment or job you try. You can feel it in journalism or being a doctor. Sometimes the pressure comes more from inside than from outside. I mean: a football player can feel more pressure in front of a crowd of two people than other player in front of 100,000 people. Sometimes it is more about oneself that about the task of being a footballer. Or the surroundings: television, big crowds. All that being said, it is true that maybe sometimes we have a wrong idea about what success mean, or we put maybe expectations in a level that makes it difficult to match them with reality afterwards. In football, with some many people around watching at you interested in what you are doing, that feeling can be bigger and more demanding. And apart from that, in Spain (at least in San Sebastián or in Tenerife) the game of the weekend is too important for everyone, that can make you feel anxious and too responsible, and at the end feel blocked. But it is true that, at the same time, that is what makes it so interesting.

What advice would you give any footballer or sportsman who felt the way you did during those times?

I think it is important to express yourself. Don’t feel ashamed of being weak, or having feelings like “I’m hating football”. Sometimes you can feel guilty because what everybody told you it was going to be dream, it is being a nightmare. But there is nothing wrong with that. Feelings are natural, and sometimes we don’t know why  we are not enjoying ourselves. Probably, depending the situation and the particular player, psychological professional help can be very helpful. At least to have the opportunity to have people around to talk about what is going on in your career and what are your thoughts. And apart from that I would recommend to have friends from outside football, to think about things outside the football. We live in a bubble of privilege, and sometimes we are too comfortable within it. We should be able to look outside that bubble more often while playing football.
What are your plans for the future in terms of playing on the pitch?

I have been injured the last three months. I started playing again last week. I would like to go on playing. My career has had many ups and downs, but I’m enjoying every day more and more with the subtle complexities of this beautiful game. At the same time I’m learning, I’m studying to become a coach too. Despite my age – I turn 37 next month! – I’m physically at a good level, so I would be happy to go on playing and doing my best for the club I play for. In my many ways I think this year I was playing the best football of my career, and becoming more mature mentally and physically. So let’s see what happens, but I see myself playing next year.

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

Off-the-radar: Osasuna and Iran, an unlikely connection

Sarthak Kumar talks about the Iranians who moved to Osasuna and their impact on Spanish football.

A solitary point in three games didn’t tell the whole story – they should’ve scored more when they lost 3-1 to Mexico, they held Portugal to 0-0 for large parts of the game before capitulating by two goals, and they really should’ve won against Angola but had to settle for an undeserved 1-1 draw.

Iran had just bowed out of the 2006 World Cup with their heads held high. And their no. 6 was the name on everyone’s lips.

The epitome of a one-touch playmaker, Javad Nekounam was free to select from a variety of European clubs.

After his performance at the 2006 World Cup, Javad Nekounam was linked to the likes of Hertha BSC of the Bundesliga and Ligue 1’s Olympique Lyonnais, And it wasn’t the only time he had been recognised – he had been linked to 1. FC Kaiserslautern and Tottenham Hotspur six months earlier before joining Al-Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates. Widely expected to join the Bundesliga’s growing Iranian contingent, he shocked many when he eventually joined CA Osasuna on a two-year contract, with a €5 million release fee on his contract – becoming the first Iranian player to be signed by a Spanish club.

His stock only grew from there – On 22nd February 2007, he scored in the 120th minute of the match against FC Girondins de Bordeaux in the knockout stages of the UEFA Cup to help to a 1–0 home win and aggregate score. His first season was so successful that Scotland’s Rangers had a £1 million pound offer publicly rejected.

On 22 March 2009, Nekounam netted a last-minute goal against RCD Espanyol for a 1–0 home win, and finished the season as Osasuna’s second goalscorer behind Walter Pandiani, scoring nine times in the league (a career-best in Spain). In the 2009 summer he received offers from both Espanyol and Villarreal, with the latter in particular being ready to pay the buy-out clause in Nekounam’s contract; however, the player repeatedly insisted on staying.

Nekounam was again a regular starter for Osasuna in the 2010–11 campaign. On 20 February 2011, in the second game upon his return from Qatar, he scored twice in a 4–0 home win against Espanyol, and eventually finished the campaign with six goals in 26 appearances as his team again avoided relegation.

In July 2012 of the following year, amidst interest from Iranian powerhouse Esteghlal F.C. and unnamed Turkish and Qatari clubs, it was reported that he would only remain with the Rojillos if he accepted a salary reduction – he was the highest-paid player. He ended up leaving for Esteghal.

But that wasn’t it – he would end up returning to freshly-relegated Osasuna for the 2014-15 season, helping them narrowly escape a second consecutive relegation.

For the 2014-15 season there was another Iranian joining Javad at Osasuna. Striker Karim Ansarifard came in from Tractor Sazi for a solitary season before leaving for Greece.

That was Javed’s second stint – during his first stint a sense of déjà vu hit fans – another Iranian player was joining from Al Sharjah.

On 23 June 2008, after previous attempts from VfL Wolfsburg in Germany and Italy’s S.S.C. Napoli, Masoud Shojaei – who could play as a winger and as a striker – signed with the Spanish side for three years,

During his first two seasons he appeared almost always as a substitute, as the Navarrese managed to maintain its division status; the player remained a regular even after the coaching change at the club, as José Ángel Ziganda was replaced by José Antonio Camacho.

Shojaei appeared regularly again for Osasuna in the 2010–11 campaign, but spent the entire 2011–12 on the sidelines, due to injury. On 25 February 2013, in only his fourth appearance since returning, he scored a stunning goal to help Osasuna win it 2–0 at Levante UD.

Despite a solid start to his spell, Shojaei was eventually released in June 2013. Shortly after, he was linked with a move to fellow league club Real Valladolid, but nothing came of it and he joined Segunda outfit Las Palmas for a year, before moving to Al-Shahania in Qatar. He now plays in Greece.

Only three Iranians have ever played in Spain’s top three divisions – and all three signed for Osasuna first. With varying degrees of success, generalizations about how future Iranians will fare in Spain are premature.

But one thing is for sure – the floodgates have opened, and the doors have opened for foreigners to make their mark in Spain.