Real Betis Keep their Heads to Leave Real Madrid Assessing Early-Season Damage

Betis

London – Thirty-five different teams over 73 games stretching back almost 18 months had tried and failed to stop Real Madrid scoring. Real Betis went one better.

Manchester United couldn’t do it, Manchester City couldn’t do it and Bayern Munich couldn’t do it. Juventus couldn’t do it either. Nor could Borussia Dortmund, Napoli or Sporting Lisbon. The other Sporting, from Gijón, couldn’t do it. They came from Mexico, Japan, Poland and Cyprus and failed too. Barcelona tried four times but they couldn’t do it. Sevilla and Atlético had five goes each. Nope, no good. Along came Valencia, Deportivo and Celta, Osasuna, Espanyol and Villarreal, but they couldn’t do it and nor could Las Palmas, Eibar, Athletic, Cultural, Granada, Málaga, Alavés or Leganés. Real Betis, on the other hand, could. In fact, on Wednesday night they only went and did something even better.

Thirty-five different teams from eight different countries had tried over 73 games and six competitions stretching back almost 18 months and none of them had stopped Real Madrid scoring, but Betis were almost there. There was still time for it to slip away, especially against the team with a thing for agonizing late goals and they were nervous but they were near. It was 11.47pm and the scoreboard at the Santiago Bernabéu, like scoreboards everywhere, had stopped on 90 minutes – information denied when it’s most needed. Alongside, it read: Madrid 0-0 Betis. The board went up: five minutes, one last bugle call, a record awaiting, fans screaming at them to pour forward.

Victory over Real Sociedad on Sunday extended Madrid’s run of scoring in consecutive games, equaling the record set by Santos in the sixties. Three days later, with Cristiano Ronaldo returning from a five-match ban, they were set to break it. On Tuesday Marca’s front cover ran a picture of Pelé with the headline “O’Rei Madrid”: Madrid the King. Thing is, if you’re going to come for the King you’d better not miss, and Madrid had: Ronaldo had thumped over, Bale had hit the post with a wonderful flicked volley, and Betis goalkeeper Antonio Adán had flown. Twenty-seven shots Madrid had taken. But, Zidane said afterwards, “the ball didn’t want to go in”.

Actually, it did. “We had 26, 27 chances,” Zidane said, while Betis’s manager Quique Setién admitted: “They put the ball into our box 20, 25 times.” There were superb saves too and Setién added: “To win here you know you’ll suffer and you know your goalkeeper has to be spectacular: winning here without suffering is a utopia.” But while goalkeeper Adán needed to be spectacular – and on a couple of occasions he really was – while chances were wasted, the siege rarely looked as incisive as expected and, like Madrid’s draw against Levante, it wasn’t as if there were countless chances. Nor were Betis barricaded in – and proof of that came with what happened next.

Adán had just made another save, a comfortable one from Borja Mayoral, and the clock was ticking. But he didn’t boot the ball as far as possible and nor did anyone take it to the corner and keep it there. Instead, they played. Before the game, as they gathered in a circle, Betis captain Joaquín Sánchez had appealed for “personality”. “We’re going to defend with the ball,” he said, “and then we’re going to enjoy having it, eh.” As for the manager Setién, he urged them: “Don’t stress; be calm, especially with the ball. Have faith in what you do. Let’s have it, choose well.” His assistant, Eder Sarabia, paced. “We have to reach the end alive; that’s the key. We’ll have chances for sure.” And so it proved. With 92.11 on the clock, something to cling on to, Adán rolled the ball out and it began.

Javi García carried it forward. It went left, towards the touchline, inside again, across the middle and over to the other side, back to the middle, and round it went. When it came to Cristian Tello, he dashed toward and spread it to Antonio Barragán. There, on the right edge of the area, Betis outnumbered Madrid. Barragán clipped a lovely ball over to Antonio Sanabria, moving into space near the far post and he headed down into the net, before racing towards the corner flag and skidding to his knees. High, high above him, fans in green and white went wild. All around the rest of the stadium, Madrid’s supporters turned for the exit; 93.20, the clock said, and Betis were in the lead.

In a weird sort of way, for all that Madrid sought the goal and a 0-0 draw would have been huge enough for Betis, it had been coming too. They’d had opportunities early, Dani Carvajal clearing one off the line, and even as the game tilted Madrid’s way they protected themselves with possession where they could, and three or four times they had come away cleanly, only to take the wrong decision, misplace a pass, or crash into one-man wall Casemiro. Sometimes, those mistakes put them in trouble and, hearts racing, you could sense fans pleading with them to just put their bloody foot through it. On the touchline, though, the message was different.

“You have to be intelligent to have the ball, keep it, make them run, have some calm in moments of tension. In the last 20 minutes you watch them and you can think: ‘How did you miss?’ You see passes that are relatively easy they don’t make. But after all the effort, the running, you can’t ask them to have the same precision as in the fifth minute,” said Setién. What he could ask them to do was keep trying.

Betis made changes and saw Víctor Camarasa, their best player until then, forced off just before half-time. Reading the line-up on the Metro, seeing no Sergio Leon, Joaquín or Andrés Guardado, frankly the temptation was to turn back. But they had only gone and done it. Real Betis had become the first team in 74 games to stop Madrid scoring, the record shared, not taken, from Pelé’s Santos, and then they’d scored themselves. They had won at the Bernabéu – the first time anyone other than Barcelona or Atlético had beaten Madrid there in six-and-a-half years and the first time Betis had left with a victory for 19. For Setién, it was a third consecutive game against Madrid without defeat. “Is it going to be a long night?” he was asked. “As long as I like,” he smiled.

“It’s only three points but it’s three prestigious points,” said Setién. Three points that will reinforce their identity, too, one that is still being forged. And few coaches have an identity quite so clear cut as his. “In these days when everyone thinks you have to run, fight, work, compete, I ask my players to think,” he added.

For Zidane, there was a lot to think about. This was Madrid’s third home game in the league and they have not won any. With a little more luck they could, and probably should, have won all three; the shot count for the three is up near 80; that scoring run surely shows they have no goalscoring crisis. But Madrid do lack a little fluidity and the chances are not always as clear as the stats suggest. The truth is, they don’t look quite right.

“At home we’re finding it harder to generate football,” Isco admitted. This night was occasionally chaotic and clarity was rare: at one point they had briefly had 12 men on the pitch because Luka Modric didn’t realize he was the one coming off – and not everyone was happy he was – while Lucas Vázquez twice had to ask Zidane where he was supposed to be. As the ball went forward, it was too often just put into the box. Casemiro said it was “hard to understand” but also suggested they had needed to have a bit more “head”. They also need more points – and fast.

It may only be momentary but the damage done is significant. Two draws, against Valencia and Levante, and a defeat against Betis, is their worst start at home in 20 years. Only twice before – in 1969-70 and 1995-96 – have they not won in the opening three games. Worse, it leaves them, in the words of one front cover, “SEVEN POINTS!” behind Barcelona already. It wasn’t supposed to be like that, but it’s like that and that’s the way it is. “That’s football: you have to accept it,” Zidane said. “Maybe last year we won some games we didn’t deserve to: now it’s the other way around.” He also reminded everyone there’s a word he likes even if everyone else doesn’t, one that sums him up: tranquility.

“Should you be worried?” he was asked. “No, I don’t think so,” he replied.

The Guardian Sport

Álvaro Morata, Chelsea’s New Mr Nice, Wants to be Antonio Conte’s Beast

sport

London- Álvaro Morata is very nice. A buenaco (roughly, a lovely bloke), in the words of Diego Mariño, who played with him for Spain’s European Under-21 champions in 2013. There is, Mariño says, “no malice” to Chelsea’s new striker and talking to those who know him, the fondness is clear, almost overwhelming – even if Fernando Pacheco, a team-mate in the youth system at Real Madrid and for Spain, says he’s a “pain in the arse” to share a room with. And rubbish at PlayStation. A coach at Atlético Madrid, where Morata began aged 11, says: “He has a special aura; I have a huge amount of affection for him.”

Talking to Morata, you see it: thoughtful, open, sensitive, there’s something almost gentle about him. And that, some think, might be a problem. “Sometimes in football you have to be more of a bastard and he’s not,” Mariño says. “Maybe that ‘kills’ him in people’s minds, but in the end, it comes down to football … and Álvaro does everything well.” Yet if, as Mariño suggests, image and reality are not the same, if bad-guy-as-a-good-thing is a bit of a myth, others have urged him to be nastier – including those who love him most. Gigi Buffon advised him not to let people see him cry, for a start, telling him not to allow the world to see weaknesses or its pressures to permeate his skin.

“I told him, joking, he had everything a striker needs if he could get over his mental hang-ups. I told him if he stopped feeling sorry for himself he could be a match-winner,” Buffon said last summer. The Juventus goalkeeper was half-joking, insisting he was pleased Morata, emerging from his difficulties in Turin more mature, was “proving” that very striker, but there might still be a little something in that. Spain’s coach Julen Lopetegui told Morata he needed more mala leche, or bad milk: aggression, toughness, edge.

Belief, too. Lopetegui also told him: “You’re better than you think.” Buffon had said much the same. “Morata’s still a young man and not even he’s aware just how good he is at times,” the Italian said. “He has the gift that only the top players have.”

Morata was always good, although growing up he might have been better at tennis, but his path in the game has not always been a clear one. He might not always have believed, but he has battled; this was not easy. Football obsessed and with a thing for boots – he spent hours gazing at them in the sports shop Decathlon as a kid and years spent collecting them as a pro – and an alarming knowledge of every player everywhere, Morata soon stood out, scoring absurd amounts of goals. One season as a benjamín, an under-seven, he scored 120. “He could do things kids five years older couldn’t,” recalled one teacher.

Most years his school, El Prado in Mirasierra in the north of the capital, reached the Comunidad de Madrid regional finals held at Cotorruelo in the south. There, they would be the only school, facing Real Madrid, Atlético and Rayo Vallecano and stands full of scouts. They invariably lost but Morata got noticed. The first time Real came for him, his family would not let him go because his grades were not good and they thought it better just to enjoy playing. He joined Atlético, the club his grandfather Ignacio supports, but enjoyment ebbed away. It wasn’t for him. He left and played for Zona Norte, a local club, then Getafe, aged 14, then Real Madrid. This was more serious now, more professional.

By then he had shot up. He had always been a fast, scurrying striker, and tiny too. Somewhere, he still has a photo of him with Fernando Torres, barely reaching his waist. In the next picture he has of them together, while Morata was tour in Los Angeles with Real Madrid aged 17 and Torres was there with Chelsea, he is the taller of the two. It happened late, but it happened fast, and it set him back. As the growth spurt began at 14, his playing style was left behind: he still took small steps, as if his legs had not grown. So, work began lengthening his stride, rings laid on the floor, elastic cords tying him to the post, pushed all the way.

Goals continued, international football followed: he was champion and top scorer at the Euros at under-19 and under-21 level. “He’s always been a great player, with huge talent,” says Jonás Ramalho, a Spain team-mate then playing for Athletic Bilbao. “Well, he was at Madrid.” For development, there are few places better, but there are drawbacks too. Madrid meant progress and experience, especially with the now-disbanded C team which played in tercera, Spain’s fourth tier, and then Castilla, the B team of players with whom he won promotion to the second division. Naturally enough, it also meant barriers. The final step was the hardest. And for him to believe in himself, he needs others to believe in him.

José Mourinho took him on a pre-season tour to Los Angeles when he was 17 and there was a connection there, but he had the best players in the world standing before him. Seven years have passed since then and by last spring, he had grown a lot: he was older and Italy had been an education. But he did not hide that he had also grown frustrated, a little impatient at limited opportunities. He had fought, but come up against a ceiling.

Players are people too and for a time he had struggled in Italy. He talked with remarkable honesty about how Alice, whom he married this summer, had helped him come through that – how Buffon and his team-mates in Turin had done so too. But that did not resolve everything. He had also seen football from the inside and it was not always to his liking: there were elements that escaped him, the game was not just about the game, and he also talked about how players do not always control their own destiny. “Qué va!”, he said; hardly! Madrid had an option to buy him back, which they communicated to Juventus last year, midway through his second season, meaning that the Italians’ priorities lay elsewhere. Their hands were tied, which meant his were, too.

He did not know what plans Madrid had for him and the uncertainty affected him. Would they exercise the clause and then sell him? It would be their choice, not his. As it was, last summer they turned down a €60m bid from Chelsea and decided to keep him. Morata was told he would have opportunities, but they were fewer than he hoped. Madrid rotated and he was the team’s second top scorer with 20 last season, some of the goals hugely important. He had a better goals-per-minute ratio than everyone in Spain after Lionel Messi but when the big games came, he played little part: just 25 minutes from the quarter-final of the Champions League.

Asked if he is surprised that Morata has been handed the opportunity to go to the Premier League, a £65m signing, Mariño says: “No. What surprises me is that he didn’t play more at Madrid. He is a No9 who has it all. Even with what he has ahead of him – and it’s a lot – he could have played a much bigger role. They’re fantastic but every time he came on he produced. He has to play; every time he did, he proved himself.”

Morata had come to feel something similar. He felt there was a wall standing before him and he thought it was about to get higher: there would be further star signings. Rightly or wrongly, privately the suspicion grew that some decisions were not just about football. Status was not solely gained on the pitch. Publicly, he admitted that he needed more. Asked if he now believed that he was the player that Buffon had said he could be, he replied: “Yes, but I need games as a starter, continuity, and over the last three years I haven’t had that: at Juventus, for certain reasons, and at Madrid its difficult.”

He added: “I want to start more, then I think I can reach a much higher level. It’s difficult to play 10 minutes one game, then 20 another, then two weeks later play again. It’s a difficult situation you have to live with until, one day, it changes.” He was determined that it must. At 24, he has scored more than 100 goals and has won 14 titles, including two Doubles at Juventus and two Champions Leagues with Madrid, but it was not enough; he felt he still had to “take that step”, to be genuinely established. At 24, he was young; wait any longer, though, and he wouldn’t be. Just about to get married, the time was also right to start afresh somewhere else. “I have to play every Sunday,” he said. “But that doesn’t only depend on me.”

England is that opportunity he wanted. The Premier League should suit him perfectly, says Pacheco. “He is direct, quick, and that fits England,” Ramalho adds. Above all because he will get the chance, says Mariño. “At Real Madrid there are untouchable players and it was hard for him as he didn’t have that status,” he insists. “Now he will get opportunities and he has to prove he deserves it. He might not be the best striker in the world [yet], but he can be: he can’t sit on a bench. And as for being more of a bastard, maybe that will come out, but he’ll have the drive anyway: he’ll want to show people, prove himself.

“I admit I’m biased when it comes to Álvaro: I’ve always liked him, all the more so when I shared a dressing room with him, and I’m really pleased for him. English football should suit him because he is a No9 that does everything well, he can play in every style. He scores goals but it is not just that, it’s: combine, battle, associate, link up, good feet, good in the air, strong. I watch a lot of English football and you can see he’ll fit in. He adapted to Spain, to Italy, why shouldn’t he adapt to England?”

On the face of it, he should. Morata had been open about the attraction, convinced he would end up there one day.

At the start of the summer, he had expected to end up at Old Trafford with Mourinho, the man who had sent him a text message when he won the title with Juve saying it didn’t count until he had won it in three countries. But when that deal fell through – Manchester United and Real Madrid could not complete a deal, his fate out of his hands once more – it was natural that Chelsea should come in for him. Stamford Bridge, which he visited on his first morning in London, was where he had originally expected to end up.

“I’m sure sooner or later I’ll work with Conte,” Morata had said three months before. “He’s the manager who has most ‘bet on me’ without even ever having had me in his team. That’s something I’m very conscious of. I feel indebted to him because he is the coach that most trusted in me, that made me feel that I could perform at the highest level, to my very best, and yet I have never had the good fortune to actually work with him.” He is also the manager who promised Morata that he would make a beast of him.

The Guardian Sport

La Liga in Review: Real Madrid Crowned Champs, Numerous Managers Get the Axe

Liga

London – Luka Modric went to lift the trophy but there was nothing in his hands, just a look on his face that said it all. Beside him, Gareth Bale was giggling. Real Madrid won the league, shouting, embracing and leaping around the pitch at the Rosaleda where they had just defeated Málaga on the final day, but there was something missing. “What do you mean, no trophy?” the Croatian asked Madrid’s press officer. “They’ll hand it out at the start of next season,” came the reply. “So now we celebrate here, we go back to the dressing room, and that’s it.” That’s it?! Modric gave him a look; baffled, Bale did too. And off they ran to join the rest.

They had no idea. How could they? It happens every May, but this was the first time in five years that Madrid had won the league, only the second in eight years – a wait that was too long, which is why they had made it a public priority from the start, and when it finally came the sensation was that something had shifted in Spain; a fortnight later, that feeling deepened. First, rivals Barcelona won the Copa del Rey, Luis Enrique departing with just the one trophy and leaving Ernesto Valverde to step into his place, a big task ahead. In Cardiff, Madrid won again, becoming the first team to retain the Champions League.

It seems daft to suggest that this is the start of something for a team that had just won their third European Cup in four years – an end in itself, a run arguably unmatched since the 1970s – but that was how it felt, and it was the league title, perhaps the real measure of any team, that did it. Even at the club whose identity was built in Europe, the home front seemed to matter most in 2016-17. Put the two titles together and it was historic. Eight times Madrid had won the European Cup since 1958, but not once had it come with domestic success. Now, it did; now, they genuinely felt like the best team in Spain and beyond. The European Super Cup and Club World Cup were theirs too.

By the end of the campaign there was little argument, but it hadn’t always been like that. This was a curious season that often defied easy analysis. In the autumn, Zinedine Zidane had been asked if his team was in “crisis” and it wasn’t such a silly question. “No,” he had replied, “but we can’t carry on like this.” They hadn’t been beaten, and they wouldn’t be for months either, but while they went 40 games without defeat Madrid didn’t always convince. There was always something about them, though, an ability to find a way through.

Gerard Piqué saw something suspicious in it, insisting “we know now how this works” and later talking about how “strings” are pulled from the directors’ box at the Bernabéu. Ultimately, no team could match the variety Madrid had, nor the strength in depth. Atlético’s Filipe Luís said it best: “They have a really good squad: they adapt to every single game. They can build from the back, they can play long ball, they have good counterattacks, they have good set pieces, so it is really hard to play against them.”

Eventually, they had control too. Modric and Toni Kroos, aided by Isco, had not been at the forefront all the way through the year, but by the spring they certainly were. So, of course, was Cristiano Ronaldo – suddenly there in the decisive weeks, ending this season fitter, more important and just better than before.

“We’re not always going to win late in games,” Zidane had warned and he was right. Although they lost points late too, Madrid clinched points with goals in the final 10 minutes in a quarter of their matches, Sergio Ramos playing comic book hero with rare regularity. Yet as they entered the final weeks those late goals were replaced by early ones, a sense of assuredness previously absent.

Those final three matches in seven days were supposed to be hard but Sevilla, Celta and Málaga were all defeated. Ten goals, Madrid scored – then they got four against Juventus. They had scored in every game this season, via every route and almost every outfield player – only Fábio Coentrão didn’t score. This title was all of theirs, Zidane taking rotation to new levels. Twenty players went over 1,000 league minutes and it became normal to see eight or nine changes at a time. “It’s harder to beat Madrid’s B team than their A team,” Deportivo manager Pepe Mel said. Their squad was so strong there wasn’t even a place on the bench for James Rodríguez when they got to Cardiff.

“They deserve it,” Andrés Iniesta conceded, but Barcelona also knew they were complicit in handing over the league title. For all the brilliance of the front three, and a record 116 goals scored, they never rid themselves of that feeling of vulnerability. They won at Madrid, Atlético, Athletic, Valencia and Sevilla, but Alavés, Celta, Deportivo and Málaga defeated them. Even when they were winning, it didn’t feel quite right, so reliant were they on Lionel Messi. At times, the midfield that once defined them just wasn’t there. When they drew at Real Sociedad in November, they were overrun and grateful for the point. That was part of the portrait of their year, painfully revealed in Paris and Turin. “It will be hard to win the league like this,” Piqué said and so it proved.

Below them, Sevilla momentarily looked like they might compete for the league, their candidacy presented when they became the first team to defeat Madrid, but Leicester did them a lot of damage and they fell away, Samir Nasri disappearing having previously made a case to be the best player in Spain. As for Atlético, when they were held at Leganés in week two, Antoine Griezmann said they’d be “fighting relegation”. He was wrong of course, and they overtook Sevilla, but they didn’t fight for the title. Atlético did, though, fight for the Champions League, where they were knocked out by their city rivals for the fourth year in a row, the last European night at the Vicente Calderón a so very atlético way to bid farewell, singing on through the storm, glorious defeat visited upon them once more. They’ll miss heading down the aptly-named Melancholics’ Way to the place with a motorway under the stand, crumbling foundations shaken by the noise. Small wonder there were tears on the final day. Appropriately, there were also two goals from Fernando Torres.

Up at their new stadium, right out on the other side of the city, miles from their heartland and named after the club’s Chinese shareholding, Atlético will be back in the Champions League next season with Sevilla, while three others will grace the Europa League. Fran Escribá was in swimming trunks and on his way down to get an ice cream when Villarreal called him; the same time this year, he’ll be preparing for Europe. They’ll be joined by Real Sociedad, who became one of the country’s most attractive teams under Eusébio, and Athletic Bilbao in a competition out of Spanish hands for the first time in four years.

It was close, mind you. Alavés had to lose the Copa del Rey final for Athletic to get there. It was the second final in their entire history, led out by Manu García, the local boy whose name was on the shirt when they played their first ever final, against Liverpool 16 years ago. His was the kind of story that makes football worthwhile, but it wasn’t to be. Eibar missed out too, although the miracle was that there was even a chance that Ipurua might host teams that big. “No one talks about us,” striker Sergi Enrich said, but they should have done.

Espanyol briefly hovered there and at one point, Las Palmas thought they might just make it too – but then the collapse came. The relationship between coach and board broke down and so did the team. Las Palmas had been top in week three, playing the best football around, but won just three times in the second half of the season. “It’s incredible to have seen this team before and to see it now,” Quique Setién said.

At the bottom, Betis dangled as precariously as the scoreboard hanging over one end of the stadium, Málaga were falling apart until “The Cat” used up his seventh life – yes, in Spain it’s seven – and Míchel came to sort them out, while Deportivo were occasionally on edge too. They beat Barcelona, though, and Pepe Mel saw them clear. For a while, Valencia genuinely feared the drop. And as for first division debutants Leganés, they fought to the penultimate weekend, which was one week less than they had expected. They all struggled a little but they all had one thing going for them. Well, three things: Granada, Osasuna and Sporting. Between them, they went through eight managers, but it made no difference.

The bottom three were not alone in sacking managers: three men went over Christmas, season of goodwill and all that. Nor, in fact, were they the worst: Valencia went from Pako Ayesterán to Voro to Cesare Prandelli and back to Voro again – the temporary caretaker solution the club turned to for a fifth time and the man who soon had the best record in their history, better than all those actual managers. Valencia’s very own Winston Wolfe, Voro, he rescued them not once but twice and was then ushered off again.

The first man Voro replaced, Ayesterán, had gone so early it doesn’t feel like this season any more and he was swiftly followed by Paco Jémez at Granada: it was only week seven but he’d been complaining from the start, begging to be sacked. He was replaced by Lucas Alcaraz, Granada through and through, the manager with a gate named after him at the stadium, but he was saddled with a sorry side and didn’t see out it to the end. Nor did “revolutionary” Abelardo, who was Sporting Gijón. Enrique Martín Monreal, another coach who embodied his club, thought he might last the season but was sacked oh so sooner – sorry – and his replacement Joaquín Caparrós didn’t win a game. So they, like Granada, ended with three different coaches and relegation.

Tony Adams was of course the man who took over at Los Cármenes. He did so with seven games to go, put there by the owner, his boss at the Chinese company DDMC. He promised to kick his players “up the arse”, even though he knew it was a lost cause. Many laughed, and it was often funny, but Adams the manager blinded people to something more profound: Adams the sporting director seeking to restructure the whole club.

The Guardian Sport

Real Madrid’s Mixed Messages Put the Ball back in Cristiano Ronaldo’s Court

Ronaldo

London – “That’s not something I am contemplating.” The phrase was repeated often but that did not make it any more true. On Monday night Real Madrid’s president, Florentino Pérez, insisted he was not even thinking about a series of scenarios that he certainly is thinking about. He has to. As he said himself: “Things happen and you look for the best solution for everyone.” What happened was that the Portuguese daily A Bola broke the story that Cristiano Ronaldo wants to leave Spain; the question now is whether that solution actually involves him walking away, eight years after his arrival. And if so, who provides an escape route? Who gives him somewhere to go?

It is what he wants, the report said. Other reports followed, with none of them denied. A Bola is close to Ronaldo’s agent, Jorge Mendes, and Pérez gave them a certain credence; although there was the usual proviso applied to press reports, this was no flat dismissal of baseless rumors. The headline that started it all was stark: “Ronaldo wants to abandon Spain.” Here is the thing: depending how this is managed, it may not be such a bad thing for Madrid either. Their position is a strong one, if unexpected. Managing this is not just about getting what you really want or even what can be achieved in return; it also includes the apportioning of responsibility. “Abandon” is a word Madrid would have welcomed: if it happens, he did this.

Roughly translated, two more words were also significant: “right now”. It is only June. Pérez said he has not spoken to Ronaldo yet. He said he would do so when the Confederations Cup ends. Even after that, there may be a long way to go. At the very end of the interview with Onda Cero radio when, having said that he was “not contemplating” any changes in the squad, he was talking about potential signings, Pérez noted that he liked those that get done just as the window is swinging shut, late on August 31. “Let me rest a bit,” he said. “I pick up strength in August.” That is applicable to Ronaldo too, if need be. Time, he will feel, is on his side.

But first, way before that, comes the next step: let’s hear from Ronaldo. Your move. Pérez’s appearance was, in essence, a means of returning the ball, sending it back into Ronaldo’s court. If he started the game, he has to play it. Pérez talked about finding out through the media, about how the last time he had seen Ronaldo the Portuguese had been excited about the future, and about how this was all a bit “strange”. He said he knew only what he had seen in the papers. He claimed, less conclusively and less convincingly, not to have spoken to Mendes. Now he wanted to talk to Ronaldo, he said. A way out of this mess, a way back into Madrid, was offered – if not an easy one. Time was bought too, tranquility.

The A Bola story emerged because Ronaldo’s camp wanted it to; the lingering doubt is whether it really is an exit strategy or something else. Having taken that first step, Madrid had to act. Pérez chose to express his innocence, surprise and an image of serenity. In a sense, Pérez has called Ronaldo’s bluff. It is easy enough to hide behind the media – the story can always be denied if need be. The message was clear: if that’s what you want, say so publicly. Ronaldo was being forced to play his hand. It is some game now, with Mendes and Madrid on either side of the table.

Pérez noted that Ronaldo remained under contract, said that he was “a Madrid player” and, in an interview with Marca which appeared the next day, that he would “continue to be”. He said: “The best thing for him and Madrid is for him to stay.” He also said: “Right now, Cristiano is a Real Madrid player and something very strange would have to happen for him not to be, and I am not [even] contemplating that.”

All that is true, but there’s that “right now” again and he also said: “We’ll see what happens.” As for “something very strange”, this situation was already one he had described as strange. Pérez is more than capable of denying the truth but this was still not an absolutely unequivocal “not for sale”. Pérez didn’t even raise the buy-out clause of €1bn (£882m), although he did confirm it when it was mentioned. He said: “We’ll listen to Ronaldo.” He also said there had been no offers. Which is one way of inviting them, perhaps. The door was not closed on any eventuality.

There may never be a good time to lose Ronaldo, Madrid’s outstanding player as their most historic season reached its decisive chapter, but faced by his desire to leave – if that is really what it is – there may be ways of making this work. Madrid could see it as an opportunity, even if the timing is not perfect. At 32, he is still in remarkable shape, but they were going to have to face a post-Ronaldo future at some stage. If they can command a gigantic fee, that would enable them to do so with confidence, bringing the budget to sign others. Eden Hazard and Monaco’s Kylian Mbappé are players they have actively pursued, and the strength in depth this season allows for optimism, even in Ronaldo’s absence.

If this situation can be resolved, with Ronaldo staying, then fine. If it cannot, they must make the best of it. His departure is an eventuality that must be allowed for, even if it is an uncomfortable one; it must be contemplated, even if they claim not to be contemplating it. The way it plays out matters, not just the way it ends – including how the fans respond. If he stays, that too must be managed and cannot come at any cost.

In the interview Pérez also offered up a defense of his player, who the following day was called before the judge to testify on July 31 charged with tax evasion, which he denies. The defense responded to the idea that Ronaldo has felt isolated, not protected by his club and criminalized by Spanish society. Yet if the threat of departure was designed to put pressure on the Spanish state, to encourage Madrid to intervene, or to engender sympathy from the public, it is not clear that it will work. Pérez’s defense, like the claim that he will stay, was not watertight, nor taken to extremes. Instead, the terms of any negotiation, to stay or to go, were already being hinted at.

Pérez’s defense of Ronaldo, “an honest man”, “not driven by money”, who “does a lot for others”, stopped short of Madrid taking responsibility for his tax problems and focused on his irritation with the media rather than the club. Pérez said at one point it was “nothing to do” with Madrid, and it would make no sense for the club to pay any fine. He insisted that Ronaldo “would not want that”, although that is something he reportedly does want. Some of those reports are said to come from sources close to the presidency.

Conversations with Mendes would clarify the veracity of those reports. They may already have done so. For now, Real Madrid’s president insisted, the next conversation will be with Ronaldo in 12 days’ time. We will listen, Pérez said. They will watch, too. It is Ronaldo’s move.

The Guardian Sport

Mauricio Pellegrino, the Complete Coach who Hates Losing and Frets when he Wins

Pellegrino

London – There were around 40 people on the coaching course Mauricio Pellegrino took when he was a player at Valencia in 1999 and he wanted to know what it was that moved them to be there, so he did something he has done ever since football took him from his home in the Argentinean pampas: he asked and he listened. There were all sorts of reasons but surprisingly few matched his. For some, it was just something to do. For others, it was about money, just a job. Not for Pellegrino. He asked a friend there whether he would take it if a tiny third division club came for him. “No,” he said. “Coaching’s not your vocation, then,” Pellegrino replied.

It is Pellegrino’s. “Had it not been for football I would never have left home,” he once said. He was a little introverted, at least to start with, and one former team-mate says football is his life while he told a player who worked under him that through football he found a way to express himself. Especially through coaching, his calling. He has emerged and evolved over the years but even as a player he was a manager. Louis van Gaal once said: “He’ll make a great coach.” Although Pellegrino was not pleased, joking that meant the Dutchman did not think he was much of a center-back, Van Gaal is not a man given to handing out compliments and he knew he was right.

Pellegrino did not always think he was much of a player, either: he was too tall, too skinny, too clumsy, he had problems with his back. But there was something about him that team-mates and coaches appreciated that took him to Barcelona, Valencia and Liverpool, and a coaching career that now brings him to Southampton via Spain and Argentina. “He makes you think,” his former centre-back partner Roberto Ayala says. He makes himself think, too, particularly about others.

The goalkeeper Santi Cañizares, a team-mate at Valencia, says: “He shared his experience with everyone: he listened and advised, analyzed, put himself into people’s skin: he was practically a psychologist. He was not our best center-back but he was the center-back the coach most valued. He always had a positive attitude, he had no jealousy at all, no anger, it was always, always about the team. He understood tactically, he was obsessed with the team, he took responsibility: too much. He was ashamed by defeat. I’ve known very few players like that. He has three things: incredible humility, complete professionalism and he never celebrated victory.”

Pellegrino once admitted: “Football was my school of life but I had a big deficit as a player: I didn’t enjoy it.” Now he believes he can help players do so and he has changed a little but that idea played a part in shaping him. “In Argentina football is cultural,” he explained to El País. “Losing is a drama; winning is only good because it means not losing. The social rejection you feel when you lose makes us very competitive.” Winning, by contrast, blunts your edge and avoiding that is something that preoccupies him. “Obsesses him,” according to one friend.

Cañizares shared that attitude and laments its loss in the game but laughs when he recalls Pellegrino asking before the 2001 Champions League final: “What if we win? How will we get our humility back?” “Bloody hell, Flaco,” he replied. “Let’s just win first, yeah?”

They called Pellegrino Flaco, the Skinny One, everywhere except at Barcelona, whom he had joined in 1998; Johan Cruyff was the only Flaco there. Pellegrino never worked under Cruyff but he did work with Van Gaal, who swiftly saw something in him.

At Valencia, Claudio Ranieri saw it too, as did Héctor Cúper. Under him they did not win that Champions League final, and Pellegrino missed the decisive penalty in the shootout, but Cañizares insists: “To win, you have to lose first.” Two consecutive European Cup final defeats were followed by two league titles in three years, Valencia overcoming the galácticos, and the manager who led that historic side certainly saw something in him. Rafael Benítez took Pellegrino to Liverpool with him in 2005 – as much for what he could do for the team as what he could do in it.

He stayed only a season but returned as Benítez’s assistant in 2008, although one former player says he was still a peripheral figure, occupying a backseat. He watched and listened, as he always had: as a player, Pellegrino would question every decision – not because he was accusing his coaches but because he was analyzing them. Never standing still, never satisfied that he had found a definitive answer.

He has said he learned organization from Marcelo Bielsa, space from Van Gaal. With Benítez, he saw the obsession with tactics, and England from the inside, how it is played and lived, what it means culturally. The feel for the game and for his players, though, is his own – and there’s a moral element to it. “People have less religious belief and less belief in politicians: the only thing we have left to identify with is the shirt,” he has said. “That’s for life: grandad, dad, grandson united by a color. I’m not against business, but I don’t want that cultural part to be lost.”

Players confirm Pellegrino, the son of farmers, repeatedly tells them that sport challenges the values of society, where individualism prevails. Society, he says, demands that you win, that you have the best car, the most money; football demands that you help your team-mate, even if that means not scoring, not playing, not being in the spotlight. If the team are better, you are better. Yet achieving that means engaging with individuals, understanding. “When I grew up coaches never asked: ‘How do you feel?’ But if I don’t ask a player, how am I going to know his dreams?” he has asked.

At Alavés last season, that dream was a Copa del Rey final – only the second cup final, after the 2001 Uefa Cup which they lost to Liverpool, in the 96-year history of the club from Vitoria in the Basque Country. “He transmits to the players what the club and the city mean: he has built a side the fans identify with,” says the captain, Manu García, born in Vitoria and a lifelong member at Mendizorroza. “He’s a very complete coach; not many have the tactical awareness of the game and also so much talent for group management. He and his staff have a lot of ‘left hand’; they have the whole team plugged in, they avoid conflict, everyone gets an opportunity.”

Pellegrino has two assistant coaches, Carlos Campagnucci and Xavi Tamarit, author of a book on the theory of periodisation fathered by Vítor Frade and followed by José Mourinho, among others. His fitness coach, David Rodríguez, and the goalkeeper coach, Javier López Vallejo, complete the team who have had a huge impact in Vitoria.

As García talks enthusiastically through Pellegrino’s tactical variations, his model as it shifts from 4-4-2 into 4-3-3, the multiple functions of the full-backs, the two central midfielders becoming one, the striker dropping in, the search for numerical superiority, you get a feel for the depth of understanding, the way it is mechanised, pieces interlocking, every element interdependent. “I’m 31, and of course I’ve learned a lot from all my coaches, but in just one year he has taught me to understand the game so much better than I did before – and that’s not such an easy thing to do,” García says.

“He sees the game very well. He is a strategist, he analyses opponents closely and he believes in juego posicional [a positional game]. He has a lot of faith in that approach, in defense but also in attack: respect the positions, a well-ordered team, everything under control. He likes his team to express the way he is: intelligent, understanding, ordered. He works hard during the week and the things he plans for usually happen at the weekend.”

Not that there is any guarantee, Pellegrino knows: the opposition play, too, and defeat awaits. He spent his playing career desperate to avoid it but he has come to accept it and learn from it, too; it made him who he is. He also knows that it has an impact on the way he is seen, even if he does not change. He knows there is no single answer and that virtues can soon be seen as vices.

“Football is like two people dancing: if the other person treads on your toes, you can’t lift your heels,” he says. “It’s 22, not 11. There is what you want to do and what you can do. Experience shows that good results and bad results are part of the same packet. If you’re calm and you win people say: ‘The team is doing well because he’s calm.’ If you lose, they say: ‘He’s so calm he can’t get the team going.’ You can see a prince or a frog in every player, every coach, and everyone.”

The Guardian Sport

Prince Boateng: ‘Mandela Shook My Hand & Said: My Daughter Wants To Marry You’

sport

London- I was so nervous. I was sweating. My legs were trembling.” Kevin-Prince Boateng was a long way from the Berlin streets where he grew up; a long way from the football pitch too, although it was a game that brought him to the United Nations in Geneva. It was March 2013. It was also, he says, “the craziest moment of my life” – and his is some life. There’s a lot to discuss as he eases into a yellow chair: from the eight clubs in four countries to playing his brother at the World Cup and meeting Nelson Mandela. Who, incidentally, tried to marry him to his daughter. But first, this.

It’s some time before Boateng heads out past the technicians laying cables and across the grass at the Estadio Gran Canaria where he plays for Las Palmas on the island that’s become home. “You know, I’m always honest,” he says, getting up. That much has become clear over an hour spent talking with sincerity and humour: good times and too-good times; things people don’t see, like loneliness, and things they do; talent and personality, confrontations and convictions, always willing to make a stand. “I’ve never lacked guts, for good or bad.” That much is clear too.

That day in Geneva, even he wasn’t sure. Intelligent, articulate, multilingual, a man who embraces the “beauty” of language and who his older brother describes as a chameleon, adapting to any environment, he had prepared for this – “almost 24 hours a day for five days” – but still: delivering a speech alongside Navi Pillay, the United Nations high commissioner for human rights. “She tapped my leg under the table: ‘Don’t worry, you’ll be fine.’ ‘No, I won’t.’ I saw 60 cameras, red lights, recording. ‘Oh my God’. At first, I stuttered ‘Urrgh’, then got in the flow. When I finished, everyone stood and applauded. They said no one ever got that.”

“It was very emotional but I can’t tell you it was only beautiful. Personally, it was unbelievable to get the chance to say what I feel, what I’d seen, what I’d experienced in my life. But I was there for a very, very negative thing, so I was torn. It was difficult to go and speak.”

There had been no guidance on what to say or how but Boateng, the son of a Ghanaian father and German mother, had been invited to the UN after he walked off during a friendly between Milan and Pro Patria in January 2013 when he, Urby Emanuelson, M’Baye Niang and Sulley Muntari were racially abused. The message was powerful; it may not have been intended, but he had started something.

“It was an automatic reaction,” he says. “Thinking about it, maybe I wouldn’t do it again. Maybe I’d speak to the referee or get the stadium announcer to say something. Walking isn’t always the best response: we have a responsibility. But I couldn’t take it anymore, couldn’t keep my emotions inside. I thought: ‘Why do we still have to go through this?’”

Sadly, “still” is the word, four years on. A fortnight ago, Balotelli was subjected to monkey chants in France. “Speaking to the UN, you reach the whole world, but it’s one day; the next it’s forgotten,” Boateng says. His speech drew parallels between racism and Malaria, likening it to a “dangerous and contagious virus” to be confronted and eradicated and warning it would not just go away. It has not – despite Fifa disbanding their anti-racism taskforce in September, declaring the mission accomplished.

Boateng was the taskforce’s first ambassador, preparing a report, helping draw up action plans, but there was no call, no message, not a word. The work is done. “For them, maybe the work’s done but this work can’t be done,” he says. “We’ve seen it with Balotelli at Bastia. He’s a close friend; he said it’s incredible. He doesn’t know what to do. ‘What can I do? Put something on Instagram, Twitter?’ There’s nothing else. He can’t fight racism alone.”

“We should fight harder, stronger. We can’t say the work is done. Sepp Blatter and Fifa wanted to change something. Pep Guardiola, Rio Ferdinand, Ronaldo, everybody got involved; they all got my back. We had to do something. Racism goes beyond football, but football gives you the platform [but] then they close [the taskforce] for I-don’t-know-what reason. All I know is I read it one day and I was shocked.”

“‘We achieved what we wanted to achieve,’” Boateng scoffs. “I don’t know what that is, but we definitely didn’t fight racism the way I thought. We had lots of ideas but it didn’t change nothing. Just saying no to racism on a commercial doesn’t do it: it’s nice, but you only see it during the Champions League …”

There is a rueful smile. “And now they took me out. I suppose because I’m at Las Palmas now, not playing the Champions League, but this is a message about racism, not the Champions League. Of course you get big players like Ibrahimović, Neymar, Messi, Ronaldo because they have visibility but what did they do against racism? It’s funny – the only player to give a speech at the UN and they take me out.”
‘If you don’t die, I die’

Boateng was raised in Wedding, a “rough” neighbourhood of high unemployment and high immigration where he says “people were shot and police didn’t even enter”, where he recalls Koloniestrasse, the street next to his, being in the “top 10” most dangerous, and where the “rules” were “if you don’t die, I die”. It was the kind of place that shaped you, he says. “We didn’t have much money but that was my life. I didn’t know better so it was OK – and the things you learn and see on the street make you who you are.”

It was also the kind of place you leave, he admits. He says his “brain” and his football talent, his ability to channel that “anger and aggression”, were his way out. Growing up, he knew he had a gift, an ability to see what was next, and he first joined Hertha Berlin at seven. In 2007 Tottenham Hotspur signed him for £5.4m: the “big move”, he says, but the wrong move. Left out, he wasn’t ready for London, and it could have ruined him. One morning, about a year later, he woke up, stood before the mirror, and the realisation hit him.

“I looked old,” Boateng says. He was 20.

“Every night I was out until six. I was like 95 kilos, swollen from the drinking and bad food. I said: ‘This can’t be me, I don’t want to be that guy. I have something inside: I’m a football player.’ I called my friends, two real friends, and they came. Together, we cleaned out my fridge and the house. That day, I said: ‘No, stop it.’ I didn’t drink. I didn’t go out. I started cooking; I wanted to eat healthily. From one day to the next.” Boateng clicks his fingers. “If I did it slowly, maybe I wouldn’t do it. I needed a clean break.”

How had it come to that? “Martin Jol told me he didn’t want me after a month. So, it became me against the world. You know when you shut off? That was me. ‘You don’t want me? I’ll enjoy life.’ I realise now how bad it was: six days a week nightclubbing, drinking for almost a year. But I was only 20. You don’t think things are going wrong. You see money coming in. ‘OK, I get my fun somewhere else.’ Girls, nightclubs, friends … Fake friends.”

The correction jars. There was an emptiness to life. “I left my home, family, all my friends, then my ex-wife left me and I was totally alone. I had friends but not real friends who’ll tell you: ‘What are you doing? Go and train.’ No. It’s: ‘Let’s go out.’” And at the time, [I thought] I needed that. The release, someone to talk to.

“Fans don’t care what’s in your private life, what happened in your past, where you come from. If you don’t perform they judge. I was the same, a fan judging Hertha Berlin players. That will never change. You’re a number in this system. You cost money, if you don’t work, they change the number. I had to learn to understand that; when I was 20 I didn’t.”

It is not just the fans. “In the team, everyone does their own thing; in the end, they don’t really care how you feel, why you’re sad or not training well,” he says.

Spurs’ former sporting director Damien Comolli once said Boateng was the one player he regretted signing, admitting he failed to spot a kid unprepared for the change or do enough to help. “It was probably our failure more than his,” he said. Boateng appreciates the sentiment now, saying it lifts a weight off; back then, he missed it. “No one came to ask: ‘How are you?’ No one. ‘How are you?’ Just one simple question: ‘How are you?’ No one, no one.”

Had they done, he might just have replied: “Fine,” not really aware of the damage being done, that things were even going wrong. “I was spending serious amounts: nightclubs, clothes, cars.” Three in one day, the story goes. “True,” he says. “Because you try to buy happiness. I couldn’t play football so I buy a Lamborghini. Wow, you’re happy for a week. After that you don’t even use it. Who drives around Loughton in a Lamborghini? I still have a picture: three cars, big house, I’m standing there like I’m 50 Cent. I look at it sometimes and say: ‘Look how stupid you were.’ But that made me who I am and I can look back and see it. I’ve learned. I grew up.”

“I woke up one morning, looked in the mirror and thought: ‘No, that’s not me, I don’t want to be that. I’m a footballer.’”
‘Klopp is the best coach in the world’

But footballers have to play and opportunities remained limited until Dortmund took Boateng on loan for six months in January 2009, the eve of their explosion. The manager was Jürgen Klopp and the mention of his name excites. “Yes!” Boateng says. “I could see it immediately. He’s the best coach in the whole world. He knows when to push you and when to comfort you. He knows when you need a drink, when you need water. He has this …” His voice trails off. “He has everything. Ask the players and they’ll say: ‘He’s the best, I’d die for him.’

“He knows exactly what every player needs and gives them time. There were players at Dortmund who played five minutes in six months but they were happy: happy to come to training, happy to work, because he made you feel important. Not necessarily as a player – maybe he doesn’t need you – but as a person. That’s why he’s successful everywhere. And Liverpool’s perfect; just watching his presentation you see it. ‘The normal one’: people there love that. If he’d gone to Paris, it would have been best suit, [different message]. He knows how to grab people.”

Moments, chance, decisions; they can change a career, a life. There must be times when Boateng thinks: “If I’d stayed at Dortmund with Klopp …” The response is immediate. “I’d have played a Champions League final, won the league, the cup. But: ‘if’, ‘when’ … I don’t know. I’ve had a career many dream of. I’m happy, but I know I could have done better; if I’d focused more, worked harder earlier. I’m happy to have met Klopp, to have worked with him, even if it was only six months.”

Dortmund wanted to keep him but not enough to match Spurs’ £4.5m asking price. Portsmouth came, with their invisible owner and impending crisis: a backwards step but a necessary one. “For almost three years, I hardly played; that was all I wanted. They said the stadium is small: ‘I don’t care.’ The pitch is bad: ‘I don’t care.’ They have no money: ‘I don’t care.’ The contract is this: ‘OK, I sign it. Just give me the ball, let me play.’ Portsmouth was small but real. It was crazy, beautiful. I loved playing there.”

His last season in England ended, perhaps inevitably, with relegation, and also an FA Cup final defeat against Chelsea, but he played and even got a semi-final goal at Wembley against Spurs – “a little payback to show them that I made mistakes but they made mistakes too,” he says. It is said without bitterness; that is just how it is. “You didn’t work, they send you away. But when you score against your old team after they didn’t treat you how you wanted, it’s an amazing feeling.”

“I played well at Portsmouth so knew I couldn’t stay,” he continues. What he did not know was where he was going but the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, where he faced his brother Jérôme against Germany, the country he represented at under-21 level, and reached the quarter-final with Ghana, whose passport he had acquired in May, meant he had a market. He was in demand again, a star. Even Mandela wanted him, he discovered.

“There were three people I always wanted to meet: Michael Jackson, Muhammad Ali and Nelson Mandela,” he says. “I only met one, and it’s hard to describe. It’s just joy. Mandela was in prison for 27 years just because he stood up for his rights and he sits there and has no anger inside. He should be angry with the whole world, but he wasn’t. He’s calm, just there in his little seat saying hello to everybody. He makes you feel calm. He was shining. It’s like a movie. It’s like an angel sitting there.”

And what did you say to him? Did you know what to say?

“Nooo! Luckily he broke the ice, because you just stand there. It was the World Cup, people were calling me ‘David Black-ham’, going crazy for me. I was kind of like a star. We go into the room: ‘Hello … hello … hello.’ He shook my hand, pulled me towards him and said: ‘My daughter wants to marry you.’ I said: ‘Sorry I already have a girlfriend.’ He said: ‘No, no but I have others, more beautiful.’ Everyone was laughing. The pity is we couldn’t take pictures because the flash hurt his eyes so I only have one.”

Prince stops for a second then laughs. “And it doesn’t even look like me…”
‘They were all there: Ibrahimovic, Seedorf, Pirlo, Ronaldinho …’

Soon after the World Cup, Boateng was on holiday when his agent phoned. He thought a deal had been done with Genoa – it had – but his agent asked if he fancied Milan. “I said: ‘Come on, are you kidding? Seriously? I’d love to,’” he recalls. “I went out partying. Next morning, he calls at eight. I was still tired. He said: ‘Get in the car, we have to meet.’ ‘Where?’ ‘Milan.’ He said: ‘You have trained, right?’ I said: ‘Of course,’ but it was a lie: I wasn’t training; I was enjoying my holiday. ‘Perfect, because I told them you’re an animal.’ ‘Yeah, yeah.’ Oh my God.”

“They were all there. I signed the day after Ibrahimovic; Robinho signed too. There was Seedorf, Pirlo, Ambrosini, Gattuso, Ronaldinho, Thiago Silva, Jankulovski, name it. My first day, I was there early doing the tests and saw the names. ‘This is a dream, this is a joke.’ I called my older brother: ‘I’m sitting next to Pirlo.’ ‘Take a picture, take a picture!’ ‘I’ve got David Beckham’s old locker.’ He’s like: ‘You’re lying’. I said: ‘I’ll send a picture.’”

Zlatan was the most imposing. “You think he’s this arrogant, big fucker and completely not a nice guy but he’s the opposite: laughing all the time, cracking jokes. On the pitch, he’s very serious, very professional. But off it, the funniest guy ever.” So his persona is a facade? “Yeah of course because he doesn’t want to talk to you,” Boateng laughs. “So he puts that face on so you don’t even ask him a question.”

Do you see yourself in him?

“Not any more.”

Did you?

“Yeah, yeah. Because I was the same; I didn’t want to talk to people. I didn’t want to show them I had emotions. I [built] this big wall. But you grow up, you’re happier with life, you think: ‘Why not?’ Why not let people talk to you? Help them? Give them a smile?”

Speaking of smiles, Boateng rates Ronaldinho highest of all, his tone hushed. No facade here. “It’s genuine: he’s exactly how he looks. Laughing, smiling, all the time. Never, never, never serious. Impossible. He’s always happy. You win, he’s happy. You lose, he’s happy. He scores three own goals, he’s happy. He just wants the ball. Give him it. That’s why he was the best; he feels no pressure. And by then he had nothing to prove.”

It was no surprise to Boateng that Milan won the league; the surprise was that he was in the team that did it. “They had a superstar in every position but the crazy thing was I was playing. I started on the bench but fought my way in. Talent, technique – everybody there has that. Maybe the only one with less technique was Gattuso, but he ran 120 minutes like a psycho. I had to bring something different so I brought fighting spirit. Running, kicking, to the point where people said: ‘He’s the new Gattuso, the new Gladiator.’”

The Guardian Sport

Joan Laporta: ‘Barcelona Has Been Kidnapped. It’s Hostage to Lies’

sport

London – There is a story Joan Laporta tells of the day he called Pep Guardiola to his office and told him he was going to be the new manager of Barcelona, to which Guardiola replied: “You haven’t got the balls.” If there is one thing Barça’s former president never lacked it is balls and yet he does not see it like that, even though José Mourinho wanted the job. Nine years on, it looks the obvious decision; back then, he claims it was obvious too – and he insists Guardiola is also right for Manchester City. “It wasn’t bravery, it was logic,” he says. “And if City back him as he deserves he’ll succeed. He’s an optimist, a winner and he’s brave: he won’t hide.”

Laporta sits in his sixth-floor office on Diagonal, the wide, 11km-long avenue that cuts through Barcelona, the day after an event with the Johan Cruyff foundation. “I miss him so much,” he says, “but it’s strange: we all said it’s as if he hasn’t gone.” When Laporta was growing up, he cut his hair like Cruyff, his idol as a player and later a coach. Eventually, they became close. In the presidency and beyond, the Dutchman became his adviser. Cruyff was an ideologue, almost a spiritual guide. Not only to Laporta but to many, especially those at the gathering, Guardiola and City’s director of football, Txiki Begiristain, among them.

“Pep looked very well,” Laporta says. “He was here for a few days, so we met up and he was very upbeat. He’s happy at City, optimistic he can build something. The way they plan to go about strengthening the team, I think they’re going to be extremely strong. The fans will be very excited.”

There is a pause and a cheeky grin, which there is often with Laporta, always famously good company, and he adds: “I don’t know what they’re going to do, eh!” He continues: “What I do know, and very well, is Pep and Txiki and that they’re capable of building a team that will enthuse people.”

At Barcelona, Begiristain was Laporta’s sporting director, Guardiola his coach. “Pep was the perfect fit,” he says. “He knew the club, the style, we’d seen how hard he worked with the B team, he’d played at every level, been at Wembley [in 1992]. I’ve never thought what could have been with Mourinho: it was always Pep I wanted. We’re all sons of the Dream Team. 1973 was glorious: I was 11 and this Dutchman turned up and revolutionised Barça, revolutionised a country. Then he returned as coach. We inherited that. There are other ways to play but we have our way – and it’s Cruyff’s and Guardiola’s and Txiki’s …

“Becoming coach was [just] the next step for someone capable of anything, because he has so much charisma and extraordinary intelligence. It was a good decision, we were sure, but he achieved beyond our expectations. We thought Pep would win something; he won everything.”

Guardiola’s first league game was a defeat at tiny Numancia in 2008. “Hostia,” Laporta whispers: bloody hell. “There was a lot of pressure and that day united everyone against us. They said: ‘You haven’t learned anything, you’re just a bunch of teenagers.”

By the end of the season, though, Barcelona had won the treble beating Real Madrid on route. “On the day of the Comunidad de Madrid, 2 May,” Laporta recalls, grinning again. Sitting in the directors’ box, he contained himself but he was fit to burst. “The regional president was there, dressed in white; the president of the government; the ex-president … and you win 6-2 and Puyol kisses the Catalan flag on the captain’s armband. Imagine it!” You can imagine Laporta in a suit but with Catalan boxer shorts hidden below. “The estelada [independence flag],” he jokes, pointing out the window to one hanging across the Diagonal.

“People say don’t mix sport and politics but they’re already mixed. Those who say they don’t mix politics and football, do. A club needs soul; winning makes you proud and if that pride is for a city or country it’s greater. You’re not just playing to win. The ends don’t justify the means. One of the things I was most proud of was putting Unicef on the shirt. It gave the club soul; it engaged us with society, especially the vulnerable. You play for something else. And if a team shares the values of its place, that’s the most romantic ideal. Pep fielded 11 homegrown players one day and six of ours won the World Cup [for Spain] in South Africa. They’ll never recognise that. Maybe that’s why they don’t want to give us our referendum [on independence].”

Laporta is laughing again. “Shit, maybe that’s it.”

The problem is that when it comes to City, none of that context applies; the conditions Guardiola faces are different on almost every level. Is the model really for export? Can the identity be the same, not least as City are a private business with Middle Eastern ownership? Do they need an English core, just as Barcelona had Catalans? Build an identity, seek a “soul”, sure, but how? “Do you want me to tell them? I do consultation,” Laporta says, laughing.

There is a moment, before talk turns specifically to City, when Laporta notes some clubs “don’t have a single player from their own country”, describing that as “risky, because you can lose your identity”, but now he adds: “We’ve always said anyone who lives in Catalonia is Catalan and you can apply that to Manchester. City have players from round the world but they’re still citizens. The key is to make them proud of that; ultimately the soul of the club is in its feelings, which are transmitted to the players.

“It’s not about players being English, necessarily, more about connecting with fans. We worked hard on the youth system, developing players at home, who give you that identity, and that’s an idea Pep, Txiki and Ferran [Soriano, City’s CEO] share.

“Pep’s record speaks for itself,” Laporta continues. “Everywhere has its idiosyncrasies. He knew Barcelona as a kid but was successful at Bayern and I’m convinced he will be at City. He’s lucky to work with Txiki and Ferran, who trust him. That’s peace of mind. When I saw Pep he was animated, enthusiastic, excited for the future. He’s smart, has emotional intelligence, an ability to convince. It’s not easy: the Premier League’s a challenge and there are two great teams in the city but he’s the world’s best coach and could’ve gone anywhere. He chose City because they’d have the faith, letting him build the project he has in mind.

“He’ll make his mark. If you watch City last season they passed the ball well but it doesn’t happen overnight. You need the right players. They’ll bring in players who suit the system he wants, which doesn’t have to be identical to Barça. He’s intelligent, he’ll adapt. He’ll create an identity, a connection. The philosophy will be controlling possession, the first defender being the striker, pressing. When they came here , yes, they lost but had it not been for some mistakes … they made life difficult for us. Very. He’s only just arrived: now, let his imagination run, let things flow, and City fans are going to enjoy their football.”

But it is not only context; it is content too. The other thing Guardiola does not have, of course, is the player he most needs: Lionel Messi. “Don’t give him ideas,” Laporta jokes but he has no doubts over the Argentinian’s future with a contract renewal imminent. As president, there was only one moment he feared Messi departing and that has long gone.

“It was 2006 when Inter made an offer,” he explains. “They were prepared to pay the €150m buyout clause, which is why we [later] raised it to €250m, but I always felt reassured by my relationship with his dad, Jorge.

“I told him: ‘They’ll have to pay the clause because I won’t sell. He’ll be happy here, he’ll get glory. There, he’ll only win financially. Your son’s destined to be the greatest in history and here he’ll have a team to help get there. He’ll enjoy it.’

“I’m very Cruyffista,” Laporta continues, “but what Leo does – and I talked about this a lot with Johan – makes him the best in history. Johan said so too. Messi’s football is beautiful and effective. For me the best ever are Cruyff, Maradona and Messi. Leo’s a mix of Cruyff and Maradona but he is Leo Messi.

“Of course he could do it in England. He has a gift. He could do it covered in mud in the pouring rain. He has done it. He’s played in England and been spectacular, he adapts to any circumstance, any conditions. And I love the fact he enjoys himself and never complains, never dives. Yet he has character, eh: it’s a mistake for opponents to forget that. It happened at the Bernabéu: the moment they hit him [Marcelo split Messi’s lip], that was it. Grrr and off he went.

“He’ll stay,” Laporta laughs again. “So, the big challenge Pep has is to achieve the same as he did here … only without Messi.

“Leo is just fine where he is at Barça and Pep will triumph with City. For sure. And he’ll deserve even more credit, because if you have a player like Leo success comes more easily. Pep says it too: forget all the stories, ‘this’ or ‘that’, if Leo’s right then, relax, everything’s in hand, we’ll win. He is a destroyer of tactics and does it beautifully.”

So, that is Messi’s future sorted. What about Laporta’s? It is two years since he stood for election, losing out to Josep Maria Bartomeu. The divisions remain unhealed – in fact they have deepened – and much has happened. There is the sponsorship from Qatar, declining fortunes and a club Laporta believes is losing its identity. The former president Sandro Rosell, who gave way to Bartomeu, his vice-president, is in jail accused of money-laundering; Messi has been convicted of tax evasion; and the Neymar signing has brought them to court.

Laporta has been in court too, where he was exonerated. The current board pursued him, seeking to hold him personally responsible for alleged losses during his mandate but the ruling favoured him.

“I can’t forget that those who followed me tried to destroy me,” he says. “We left them the greatest Barça in the club’s history and they spent their time destroying it. Pep had the rare courage to publicly defend us.

“Barcelona has been kidnapped. It’s hostage to the intoxication, manipulation and lies [of this board], and it’s sad. I’m demanding they resign. What they did to us was shameful; they accused us of mismanagement, brought an action against us and tried to force us pay €79m for ‘losses’. Now it’s been proven, seven years later, that they were wrong. It’s a scandal. If they had any shame they’d resign; if they had any shame, they’d have gone when they did a deal with the public prosecutor to make the club, not them, liable in the Neymar case.

“If they resigned now, I’d definitely stand [for election],” Laporta says. He would have to go without Guardiola. “And without Cruyff,” he adds, swiftly. “He was a great source of advice for me, so if I did go back I’m sure I’d suffer a kind of vertigo not having him alongside me. We’d feel like something was missing. But we’ve learned so much from him that deep down he’d still be guiding us.

“The problem is [the current board’s mandate] ends in 2021. If they went now, I’d stand. But if they continue for three, four years, I don’t think so. We all have our moment. Right now, it’s still fresh to me, but if it goes on longer, I’d like a candidate I can look at and think: ‘Yes, this is the one’. Renewal’s always necessary. I’d like someone with clear ideas, a model I can share, a person I can trust.”

Someone such as Gerard Piqué, say, the defender who has publicly expressed his ambitions for the presidency. “If he learns about running a club, he has more than enough ability and charisma and I’d vote for him for sure,” Laporta says. “Or maybe the future of Barcelona one day is Pep as president and Xavi as coach. Why not?”

The Guardian Sport

Ernesto Valverde Ready to Be the Resurrection at Barcelona

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London – The day Ernesto Valverde left Olympiakos, bringing his second brief but successful spell to a close in 2012, Pep Guardiola was asked what he made of his departure. “Greece has lost a great coach,” he said, “and we’ve got a great photographer back.” Valverde’s work had certainly left an impression in Athens, hung on the walls of the Ileana Tounta centre for contemporary art and displayed in the trophy cabinets of the Giorgios Karaiskaskis Stadium, Piraeus – where, according to his fellow Spaniard Michel González, who eventually took over as manager nine months later, he was a “deity”.

Deity is not a word he would welcome, one former player insisting “he evades compliments and prefers the focus to be on his players”, but he is certainly different. The man who led Olympiakos to three leagues and two cups, took Athletic Bilbao to their first title in 31 years and today became Barcelona coach began studying at the Institut d’Estudis Fotogràfics de Catalunya when he arrived in 1986 to play for Espanyol. In 2012 he published a collection of black‑and‑white images described by the Basque poet and writer Bernardo Atxaga as “at once delicate and tough, as if produced by two different hands”. The proceeds went to social projects in Athens.

Atxaga is Valverde’s friend. The story goes that one day Miguel Pardeza, the former Madrid player with a PhD and literary pretensions, heard that so struck up conversation on the pitch. He is also close to screenwriter David Trueba and Basque folk-rock singer Ruper Ordorika. His brother Mikel is a cartoonist. His father was an immigrant from Extremadura to the Basque Country, a worker in a tyre factory who spent six months on strike in Vitoria the 1960s – tough, convulsive days during the dictatorship. And his wife, Monica, is a biologist.

A Stone Roses fan who likened his Athletic return to The Godfather Part II, a sequel that was actually quite good, Valverde too studied biology at university but only for a year while at Sestao River, aged 20. He was a 5ft 5in forward who considered becoming a photographer after retirement and planned to at least dedicate it time, always fascinated by what the snappers at pitchside were doing. But he said “football absorbs your brain” and he became a manager. Now he is manager of Barcelona.

He was always likely to be. Nicknamed “Txingurri”, the Ant, by Javier Clemente, Valverde played for Espanyol for two years, then for Barcelona before joining Athletic. At Barcelona, his spell was brief but he worked under Johan Cruyff, who he said “made an impact on us all”. In 1994, eight years before he even began coaching Athletic’s B team, Cruyff wrote of him: “He was intelligent and always expressed his interest to learn. As a coach he’ll be one of the most promising.” This is not the first time Barcelona have called, nor are they the only ones. Two summers ago Real Madrid wanted him: he was their first choice, ahead of Rafa Benítez.

Valverde said no, which says something about him. When Guardiola left Barcelona, he made two recommendations to succeed him: Valverde and his assistant Tito Vilanova. It was Vilanova they chose, seeking continuity, but two more offers followed swiftly. The next year Barcelona discreetly mentioned the job to him as they sought potential solutions to a delicate problem posed by Vilanova’s deteriorating health. Vilanova wanted to continue, so Barcelona respected that and Valverde agreed to return to Athletic. By the time doctors recommended that Vilanova did not continue, it was too late. Valverde had made a promise and he kept his word.

Tata Martino took over at the Camp Nou then but walked a year later. Again Barcelona offered Valverde the job; again he said he could not leave. When Madrid came, the response was the same. Barcelona accepted and signed Luis Enrique, but advised Valverde they would return. The change of sporting director did not change that intention and this summer, his contract up, European football secure for a fourth season, he and Athletic agreed it was time, no recriminations, no regrets.

As the former Athletic midfielder Javi González says: “Everything came together. He leaves through the front door, the right way. Everyone wishes him the best and hopefully one day he can come back. At Athletic there’s a ‘Before’ and ‘After’ Valverde.”

González played under Valverde during his first spell at San Mamés and speaks fondly of him. It is hard to find someone who does not. He is engaging company, generous and open, intelligent, genuine, often funny, and universally respected, rising above the rubbish surrounding the game here – although at Barça, with its politics and press, its relentless repercussion and the rivalry with Madrid, that resolve will be tested. As one former player of his puts it: “He doesn’t want to be the star and isn’t interested in the controversies.”

“I’m like every manager; if it’s in their area I think it’s a penalty; if it’s in ours, I don’t,” Valverde says. Yet few will so openly admit a decision they got was wrong as he does often and he insists that it is not right to “try to condition referees”. Fewer cut through the bullshit with such ease, and do so with naturalness instead of affected anger.

More importantly, few reach their players like he does. “His greatest strength is his management of the dressing room,” says the Manchester United midfielder Ander Herrera. “He’s a top coach in that sense: honest, direct, transparent. It’s not easy to find a situation where starters and subs are both with the manager to the death.”

González says: “He’s very good psychologically and emotionally, a good motivator. He knows when to push, when to ease off. All coaches have ideas, badges, models, but ultimately that treatment, the dialogue and feedback with players, is vital. That’s his secret.”

Valverde admits that the Athletic dressing room is easy – a relatively humble, largely homogenous group, 25 men all from the same small area with similar ideas and aspirations – but González does not think that means he will struggle at Barcelona or that he will lack the necessary authority. Nor should the infamous “entorno”, the swirl of politics, press and pressure, affect him unduly. When he left Bilbao, having just held a goodbye dinner for over 200 people, he insisted he wanted to go somewhere “difficult”. The challenge suits him; he won’t shirk it.

One example comes from his handling of an infamous affair when he took Fran Yeste and Asier Del Horno out of the squad for indiscipline. As for pressure: in Greece, it was intense – all the more so in the midst of the crisis. Olympiakos were obliged to win the league and Valverde saw passion and protests first hand, trouble on the terraces, tension on the streets, and members of his staff living in blocks with electricity periodically cut. Someone who knows him well scoffs: “Pressure? He doesn’t care. It won’t bother him: if he has to sit Neymar down, say, he will.”

González agrees. “‘Txingu’ knows that dressing room is full of stars and you can think: ‘What are you going to say to Messi?’ But he will know; he’s ready,” he says. “If he has to raise his voice, he will. Most people haven’t seen that character but behind closed doors it’s there. He’ll call a player out for the good of the team, in front of everyone, even if it is a star. He knows how to impose himself. He’s calm at difficult moments and doesn’t let the euphoria affect him in good times: in that he’s a genius. He’s calm when others lose the plot, which players welcome. But while ‘Txingu’ has this tranquil image – and that is him – he also has personality.”

He has conviction, too. After his first game in charge of Athletic, a defeat by Frank Rijkaard’s Barcelona, Valverde insisted he would not do anything he did not believe in. When he was at Espanyol, Cruyff said: “It’s a pleasure to watch Espanyol play; I am happy there are people like Ernesto who play that way and want people to enjoy it, because that’s what football is for.” One friend calls him a “son of Cruyff”, his fitness coach José Antonio Pozanco was raised at La Masia and later worked with Rijkaard; Xavi Hernández, that most determined defender of the Barcelona faith, insisted in 2007: “Valverde’s teams play good football: they like to have the ball, they don’t just boot it.”

But while that connection matters in Catalonia, it does not mean rigidity, nor make Valverde a philosopher. “Light matters, goals matter more. In photos and in football, you seek balance,” he said when his exhibition opened in Athens. “Both depend on the elements you have available to you.”

“There’s variety in his system, his methods. He knows how to train: he makes it fun, a lot of the ball, technical work. He’s not repetitive and players love it – every day is different. He’s not overly obsessed with tiny tactical details, not least because the ideas, the philosophy, is so ingrained at both Athletic and Barcelona,” González says. “Besides I see some similarities between the two clubs. Lots of the concepts he had at Athletic fit Barcelona too.”

“One of his strengths is that he adapts,” Herrera says. “In Bilbao, with Raúl García and Aritz Aduriz, two great finishers in the air, he played in a way that aimed to get the ball into them as soon as possible, particularly from wide positions; in Barcelona, I’m sure he’ll adapt to fit the qualities of the players. These days managing dressing room egos is fundamental and Ernesto is fantastic at that. We all know what the challenge is: at Barcelona, the obligation is to win every game. But I’m sure he’ll be a success.”

The Guardian Sport

Zinédine Zidane the Manager is Already Outperforming Zidane the Player

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London – On his 20th Champions League night, Zinédine Zidane left with his second European Cup – as many as Pep Guardiola, José Mourinho or Sir Alex Ferguson. It was way after midnight by the time Sergio Ramos carried it out of Cardiff and Zidane had already departed, slipping away quietly, pausing only to embrace the Juventus manager, Massimiliano Allegri, as he went. As the Real Madrid players paraded the trophy around the pitch Zidane had stood aside with his wife, watching them, a fond look on his face. “The key is that they get on bloody brilliantly,” he insisted. Cristiano Ronaldo said: “He believes in us.”

Zidane had believed himself, too, quietly. Now everyone does. It has all happened so fast, history made swiftly. At the side of the pitch he was asked if he was the best manager in the world. Once that question might have been laughed at but in Cardiff it was legitimate. It will be asked again, too, even as there are those who resist, clinging to his own line that it is all about the players. “No,” Zidane said here. “Not that, no.”

Yet look what he and his team had just done, the men he had matched. His Madrid had become the first team since Arrigo Sacchi’s Milan, 27 years earlier to defend the European Cup.

No one had done it in the Champions League era. Zidane had done it in a season and a half. Ramos had called it a “date with history”, which it was, even for the biggest, most successful club of all. The next step is to mark a generation. It might sound strange to talk about this as the start of something when Madrid have won three European Cups in four years – Gareth Bale admitting “we’re getting used to this” – but that is how it felt. Perhaps because their manager is only just starting out. But what a start.

When he was presented, hastily pushed on to the stage in January 2016 as Rafa Benítez was dragged off it never to be spoken about again, Zidane was asked what constituted success. “Winning everything,” he replied. In less than two seasons he has won two European Cups, the European Super Cup, the Club World Cup and the league title – Madrid’s first in five years. They had waited 59 years to win a league and European Cup double. No one expected this, not even Zidane, the man who says he has a “star” somewhere, guiding him.

Even if the promise had been made a long time before, this was not the way he anticipated it. In the buildup to the final, the sports newspaper Marca recovered an old interview with Zidane, tagging it The Prophecy. Conducted in 2002, just after his wonderful volley in Glasgow had given Madrid their ninth European Cup, Zidane said he wanted to win their 10th, 11th and 12th as well. Eventually he has done so: it has taken 15 years, 17 months of them as manager.

A player in Glasgow, in Lisbon in 2014 he was Carlo Ancelotti’s assistant, while he led the team in Milan in 2016 and Cardiff this year. Zidane the manager has been more successful even than Zidane the player. Quietly does it. That has always been his way.

A former team-mate barely remembers him saying a word, describing him as shy, which is just one of the reasons why his success is unexpected. Even as assistant players did not see it, one member of the side who won in Lisbon admits. Yet the shyness was superficial and tranquillity has proven part of his success.

He might not say much but when Zidane does, people listen – perhaps precisely because he does not say much. It was always his personality, although get him alone and he is unexpectedly engaging, and now as a manager it is a conscious policy too: don’t complicate it, don’t overload. A member of the coaching staff says messages expressed to footballers should be limited to two clear concepts; beyond that you lose them. And as for long video sessions, forget it.

Zidane is familiar with footballers, attuned to their attitudes and concerns, especially at this elite level. He has made it about them, always; he wants them to be themselves, to feel important, but he has to guide them.

This is especially so when it comes to Ronaldo. No one has connected with him quite like this or convinced him to take a step back like this before, preparing and protecting him like this. Asked who would be the star if he had played with Ronaldo, Zidane replied: “I could play quite well but him for sure. He scores goals and that’s the hardest thing of all.” In Cardiff, Ronaldo scored two, as he has often of late. “The manager has been intelligent,” the forward said.

Zidane has empathised and encouraged rather than imposed. Benítez tried to stop Luka Modric playing those passes with the outside of the foot; Zidane offered up his admiration instead. But he has adjusted, too. Modric said after the final: “He tells us what we need to do in the defensive part and in the game to express ourselves, to keep the ball, to play for the team and to try to do our best. If he can see something that we can do on the pitch, he tells us.” He also explained how, at half-time, Zidane told his team to push higher up the pitch, demanding they be more aggressive. “[The turnaround] was definitely the mister,” Modric added.

That aggression is part of it, part of Zidane. There was always a presence about him, a quiet authority. It came with the player he was but also the man he is and the coach he wanted to be. The apparent timidity hid a toughness to which others testify, a competitiveness. A sense of honour, too – this is a man who publicly spoke out against Marine Le Pen, whom Jacques Chirac called a man of “heart and conviction”. As a footballer people said he was effortless but that was not a description he shared or welcomed. He saw himself as a competitor. “I’m not there to perform, I’m there to win,” he said.

After his retirement as a player, Zidane remained connected to Madrid. For everything he symbolised – the club’s president, Florentino Pérez, described him as the most emblematic signing he had ever made – he was useful to have around. However he was given roles that were largely empty and did not fulfil him – so he went his own way. He wanted to do something “real”. His word. He wanted to win.

The Guardian Sport

Lauren: How I Rose from Humble Beginnings to an Arsenal ‘Invincible’

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London – He’ll make a good quiz question one day: which Spaniard won the Africa Cup of Nations, an Olympic Gold and the Premier League? Need a clue? He was at the same club as Diego Maradona; shared a room with Samuel Eto’o, the only team-mate he could talk to; and his World Cup debut ended with him sent off six minutes after he came on.

The team he beat on penalties to take that gold boasted Xavi Hernández, Carles Puyol and Carlos Marchena, among his closest friends, and he scored in the shootout, just as he scored a 90th-minute winner in the semi. Still not got it? He’s been named the ACN’s best player, played in a Cup Winners’ Cup final at Villa Park and won an FA Cup at Wembley, his club’s first for 69 years.

Oh, and he won the Premier League without losing a match.

The answer is Laureano Bisan Etamé-Mayer, but you’ll know him better as just Lauren. The 21st child of Valentín Bisan-Etamé. Born in Kribi, Cameroon; raised in Seville, Spain; became Invincible in Highbury, England: a story that began in Equatorial Guinea with the Francisco Macías Nguema regime which ruled from independence in 1968 until a coup d’état led by his nephew Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo in August 1979. Obiang still rules now; Macías was executed that September. Others got out then; with repression under Macías brutal and political purges increasing, thousands had gone long before. Some figures estimate more than half the population had fled by 1978 – Valentín and family among them.

“My father was a politician in the Macías era, director general of the post office,” Lauren explains. “My uncle, who was in the military, warned [him] that he should escape. He found out about an order to arrest him: they were going to execute him. The escape was a miracle, [although] it was never something we talked about. They went to Cameroon, where I was born in January 1977. I was there three years but I don’t have any memories of it. My first real memory is of the Plaza de España in Seville.”

They lived in Montequito, the only black people in a neighbourhood where Lauren says they felt loved, welcomed. His father got a job as a functionary at the local government. The salary was just enough to make ends meet.

“There are 22 siblings; I’m the penultimate. It wasn’t polygamy and wasn’t religious either – we were Catholics – but my father had different wives. Having lots of children was synonymous with wealth, seen positively, and he could look after us: he had the means. In Seville, we lived in two flats, flat B and flat C. There weren’t 22 of us then [but] there were about 15.” Lauren smiles. “A lot of bunk beds.”

There was also a lot of football. At 11, having scored 56 goals in a season for his local team, Lauren was signed by Sevilla. Soon, so was Maradona. “I must have been 13,” he says. “It wasn’t the best time for the club but having him there was incredible. We’d stay behind to watch him scoring one, two, three, four free-kicks, one after the other. I remember a game where Sevilla were playing badly, there was a corner and someone threw a ball of tin-foil at him. He controlled it, juggled it and volleyed it back. He completely changed the crowd’s mood: from ‘son of a bitch!’ to Olé!’ in a fraction of a second.”

Lauren progressed as a quick, goalscoring No10, but never made the first team. He moved to Levante and later Mallorca. Among those impressed was Tommy N’Kono, the former Cameroon goalkeeper. Lauren had a Spanish passport and considered himself sevillano – he still does – but N’Kono found out about his place of birth and invited him to join the national team; a second division player who never expected to make it with Spain, he accepted. “I’m black, with African blood, but I didn’t know Africa at all: it was a shock at first,” he admits. “I went there knowing nothing of Cameroon and not knowing the language.

He shared a room with a 17-year-old striker. Lauren describes Eto’o as “a great man, very generous; he’s always direct and speaks his mind”. He also spoke Spanish, guiding Lauren. “When you go to Africa from Europe, lots of things don’t feel normal, but it worked out,” he says. “We had a great team.” One that would be crowned champions of Africa in 2000 and again in 2002, and Olympic champions in Sydney, defeating Spain in a game he admits felt “strange”; he says he “didn’t like” playing against “my people”. He collected his gold wearing Marchena’s shirt.

By then, Lauren had made his debut for Arsenal, having joined that summer for £7m. He had already scored his first goal too, against Liverpool two days later. His conversion to full-back contributed to there being only 10 more goals but also to there being 240 more games for the club. “I could have said: ‘No, míster, I want to play in my position’. But then he says: ‘OK, you play in your position – like four or five others.’ If you complain, you’ll be doing it from the bench or sitting at home. You have to be intelligent. I wanted to play.

“Pat Rice taught me: he was the one shouting orders. It wasn’t easy. There was a transition from George Graham, moving away from his very defensive style. Arsène Wenger kept that defensive solidity and added speed, possession and a great capacity to counterattack. We stepped higher up, the back four almost in midfield, where your weaknesses get easily exposed. You couldn’t play for Wenger without being quick. But he wanted midfielders at the back to bring the ball out.

“Wenger supported you and wanted you to play. For him, the most important thing was choosing the right pass. The full-back needs one, two, three, four possibilities to select the best. If you want attractive, quick football you have to have the right players.”

Arsenal had them. They also had something else that drove them that unbeaten 2003-04, Lauren says; something less tangible. “The passion we played with was incredible. Thierry Henry was our best player: so talented and he wanted to win everything, [even] playing cards on the bus. Yet I’d choose Patrick Vieira. You’d see him training and think he wasn’t at his best but in games he was, week after week. Patrick was incredible, exactly what a captain should be. He stood up to everything but with ‘good manners’; aggressive but there was a classiness to it. If I could choose someone to play for Arsenal now, it would be him.

“But it was everyone,” Lauren continues, thumping his fist Martin Keown-style. “Martin hated losing. I wasn’t a big talker but when I had to say something, people listened. Campbell, the same. And Lehmann: don’t get me started. Lehmann could look in the mirror and have an argument. Incredible, strong characters. Ashley Cole wasn’t one to talk much but had that character. So did Freddie. Dennis was quiet. He seemed cold because he didn’t show emotion but it was there inside him. The same with Kanu. They wanted to win, they had focus too.

“When we finally lost [the following season after a total of 49 games] at Old Trafford, they fouled us so much. The referee was horrendous. Everything seemed to be in United’s favour, including a penalty for a Campbell ‘foul’ on Rooney that didn’t exist. It hurt, but that record was incredible. And a lot of it is down to the fact we never thought about it; it never weighed on our minds. The only one noting it down was Wenger. We had good footballers and they all had tremendous character.”

Asked if he thinks that any of Arsenal’s current side could have played for the Invincibles, Lauren’s response is swift. “Alexis [Sánchez] would fit perfectly. Because of his talent but also his mentality.” They shouldn’t let him go then? “The club have reached the point where they should keep their best players to aspire to more. It’s been a club that sells its best for years [and] there were economic needs, but not any more.”

Some supporters believe that progress requires Wenger to step down. “Fans always have the right to be heard,” Lauren says. “But you have to consider Wenger’s legacy over 20 years. He brought Arsenal into the modern era: the stadium, the training ground. It’s one of the biggest clubs in the world with a distinct style of play, an identity. That comes from Wenger. His achievements are beyond criticism. If you changed that model – spend £200m every summer, buy a world star, fight for the Champions League – it wouldn’t be the Arsenal way.”

But is it the right way? Legacy is one thing; what about the future? The present? “The squad is better every year; I don’t remember one this strong for a long time. In defence, we’ve signed well with Mustafi; in attack with Lucas, in midfield with Xhaka. I look now and it’s not just the XI; players can come on and make an impact. Iwobi, Lucas Pérez, [who] I like a lot, Oxlade. Walcott’s showing more. Bellerín is very, very good. He’s good with the ball at his feet, reads the game, gets beyond defences, crosses well, plays between the lines. And he’s so young – if he stays injury-free he’ll surpass me, Lee Dixon, Pat Rice, everyone who’s played there.”

Or he’ll join Barcelona. Lauren smiles: “He’s just extended his contract. I’m seeing good things this season,” he continues. “Swansea away: two years ago, we’d have lost. And you have to win those games. Or the resistance against Bournemouth in the 3-3: a draw’s not the best result, but we wouldn’t have come back from 3-0 before. Alexis is the leader. He was crucial. His attitude is contagious. And if you have three or four like that, it makes you win. Arsenal can still win the league.”

If they do, it would be the first time since the Invincibles. They never repeated that success, while for Lauren there were fewer chances to try than expected. He believes he could have “easily played three or four more years”, but insists Wenger was at least straight with him. He might have been right, too. Lauren left for Portsmouth, where they won the 2008 FA Cup, but he did not play in the final and he admits that nothing was quite the same. Especially him.

“I didn’t go there in my best moment mentally: you don’t consciously drop your level, but …” he says. “I’d always been determined, wanting to play every game, to the extent that team-mates said ‘Lauren, you should rest’ but I never did. But, then, going from the Champions League with Arsenal to Portsmouth was hard mentally. When you’re older and you lose that drive, you’re not the same player. I still suffer the effects: I play for half an hour and my knee swells up,” Lauren continues, opening his hands wide. “But it was worth it. I always tell the kids I meet in Africa: if you make it, you’re one of the privileged few. So, give everything. And keep giving it. It’s only 10,15 years. When you get there, remember you still haven’t achieved anything. Kids arrive and think: ‘I’ve made it’. You haven’t. The media’s partly to blame for that.”

Conversation, like Lauren, returns to Africa. Being an ambassador for Arsenal recently took him to Kenya, he’s been in Rwanda, and he is spending this month commentating on the Africa Cup of Nations for Eurosport on Spanish TV – a competition marked in part by absentees. “Africa’s given football great players: Weah, N’Kono, Kanu, Drogba, Eto’o … me,” he says, cracking a big smile. “But the football federations need to be properly committed. Players don’t go because they’re not paid or facilities are poor. Funds are misspent. If that doesn’t improve, Africa will always be behind.”

Nor is Lauren entirely convinced that Fifa’s plans for an expanded World Cup will help. “That will benefit African football insofar as it increases participation, but to really have an effect the revenue must be fairly distributed,” he says. And will it? “I don’t believe it will. It’s a nice idea, but behind the slogan, sadly, I don’t think so.

The Guardian Sport