It was an ordinary Monday morning in Luis Garcia’s Madrid home when he received a phone call from an unknown number. The Spaniard, perplexed, picked it up, and on the other end was someone from the opposite side of the world. “What do you think about playing in the A-League?” they proposed. Garcia’s befuddled reply summed it all up: “What?!” The next few days that followed proved to be some of the most hectic of the 37-year-old’s life, and by the end of the week he was a newly-minted Central Coast Mariners player – a whole year after he announced his retirement from football for a second time. But just what convinced him to lace up the boots and strap on the shin pads once again?
“It was the opportunity to play professional football again,” Garcia explains. “When you’re in that kind of set up your whole life you miss the training and the games and just being in a professional sporting environment.
“The Mariners came along with a short-term deal, [Gosford] is a beautiful city in a precious country, and I wanted to enjoy the culture and everything Australia has to offer with my family.
“Some people pay a lot of money to come on holiday in Australia, and I had the chance to come here to play football.”
But don’t think Garcia is here just for an extended holiday. The forward is one of the most committed and professional athletes you will ever come across, and that is exemplified by his physical condition despite his age and status. Since ending his playing days following a stint in the Indian Super League with Atletico Kolkata in 2014 – where he won the league in his one and only season at the club – Garcia has played a number of games around the world with the Liverpool Legends, including against a Socceroos Legends side in Sydney back in January. And that is where he caught the attention of the Mariners camp.
Garcia scored twice in a 4-0 win over a side full of former Australian internationals, including the likes of Brett Emerton, Vince Grella, Josip Skoko, Craig Foster and Robbie Slater. Meanwhile, Garcia was playing alongside Anfield icons such as Steven Gerrard, Jamie Carragher, Ian Rush and Robbie Fowler. And Garcia – who spent three years at Liverpool between 2004 and 2007 – looked incredibly sharp throughout the night to go with his two-goal haul, which left many pondering why he was without a club.
“I didn’t even want to listen to any offers,” he said. “I had some from Singapore and wherever else, but we did not even want to listen to any offers. When I got a call I would always direct it to my agent and we would say ‘thanks but no thanks’.”
However, something about the Mariners and the Central Coast of New South Wales immediately struck a cord with Garcia.
“I knew nothing about Gosford [before the call]. I had just been in Sydney with the Liverpool Legends, and I was also in Australia for Liverpool’s pre-season games in Adelaide and Brisbane, and they were amazing cities,” he explained. “I enjoyed my time in the country, especially with the phenomenal amount of Liverpool supporters there are in Australia. But I had to go on to Google and do some searching to find some pictures of Gosford. It all looked beautiful straight away; the Central Coast is a great area, and that contributed in my decision to sign for the club.”
Garcia has former Liverpool and current Mariners physio Andrew Nealon to thank for getting the ball rolling. Nealon was entrusted with getting in contact with Garcia, and, after touching base with Liverpool’s head of physiotherapy Chris Morgan, he had a direct line to the former Spain international. From there on things moved quickly.
“I got a call on the Monday, but I told him [Nealy] to talk to my agent because that’s a big decision that we all have to make,” Garcia said. “By the Friday I spoke with BeIN Sports, who I had a contract with as a pundit, because we had to move dates around and there were a lot of them. But they said it was okay and gave me the green light to sign for the Mariners.
“But during those few days I hardly slept because I was kept up trying to make a decision of whether or not to go. I was going back and forth with pros and cons, but in the end the club insisted a lot that I should sign and they made me feel very important, which is great for a player to feel.”
Fast forward to just under a week later and Garcia touched down in Australia to officially renege his playing career. There was no period of rest for the veteran, however, as he was rushed into the squad for their clash against the Western Sydney Wanderers. But things did not exactly go to plan. Garcia was only fit enough to start from the bench, but was brought on by Mariners coach Tony just before the hour-mark, with the side trailing 1-0.
Garcia’s entrance sparked a sense of urgency into the Mariners side, and within 10 minutes of coming on, Garcia had contributed towards Fabio Ferreira’s equalising goal. However, their momentum was crushed when Nick Montgomery was shown a straight red with just over 10 minutes to go. With a man less against their more fancied opponents, the Mariners struggled to hold on, and Wanderers’ super-sub Brendon Santalab popped up with a winning goal in the 88th minute of the match – a cruel end to Garcia’s start in Gosford.
“To have the jetlag and to have not even been here 48 hours I still enjoyed my first game in the A-League a lot,” he said. “I was tired and we had a man less, then we copped a second goal. So it was a shame for it to end like that. But I was really happy to have arrived and start my journey in Australia.”
Garcia arrived at the Mariners with the club sitting in bottom-place in the A-League table. Walmsley’s side had won just twice all season and were well on track to post their worst campaign record since the formation of the competition over a decade ago.
“I knew where I was going,” Garcia affirmed. “I knew the team was not doing well on the table, I knew there was a lot of young players in the team, and all of those things I took into consideration when I made my decision.
“The club is marvelous, too. It’s a small club with not much resources but it is incredibly well run and organized. Every person knows what they have to do, and they all help each other out along the way. And that is not an easy feat.”
Garcia admitted the prospect of being a “mentor” to the younger players at the club was another major selling point in his move to Australia, and the experience has been a warming one for the Spaniard so far.
“To work with the kids, to teach them, to share all the experiences I have had over the years with them was a big factor,” he said. “I like to talk to them, to explain to them how I would train at other clubs. You know, the mentality you have you have when you go onto the park. The mentality you have to have when you commit and error. The mentality you have to have whether you win or you lose.
“Those are important things that you should know when you are young. If they want to accept it or not, that’s up to them. But the relationships I’ve developed and the ability to have share my experience with the young players is something that I am enjoying a lot.”
As for life in Gosford, the pictures on Google images did not deceive Garcia at all.
“I’m not one to live in big cities,” he said. “Obviously I was living in Madrid, but I was on the outskirts of the city. I don’t like to live in the centre. When I saw [Gosford] was a small town that was very calm, they were all positives things for me to make my decision. And I have been blown away.”
Garcia is no stranger to living in small towns, having been born and raised in the eastern Catalonian city of Badalona, which sits on the outskirts of Barcelona and has a population of just over 200,000. It is here where he learned his trade, despite the city’s dominant sport being basketball. The local ‘Baloncesto’ side, Joventut Badalona, is a multi-time Spanish League winner, and were even crowned Euroleague winners in 1993-94.
He began his youth career with local side Badalona, before being advised to switch to San Gabriel, which is a subsidiary of FC Barcelona. The move gave him more opportunity to be seen, and at the age of 17 Garcia was invited to trial with Barcelona, before being signed to the club’s youth academy.
“Living in Barcelona, and being at a club that was affiliated with them, it was always my dream [to play at the Camp Nou],” Garcia said. “When I got to the youth academy it’s when I began to think that maybe my future would be as a footballer player. But with everything we had there, it all comes down to you if you want to succeed.
“I was lucky to be playing alongside players like Xavi Hernandez, Gabri and [Carles] Puyol who all went on to make it to La Liga. But a lot of us who were in that U18 side did not make it to the big leagues. So it depends a lot in what you have in your head to deal with the good and the bad moments.”
Out of those stars that came through the Barcelona youth ranks alongside Garcia, it was definitely Xavi that he believes showed the most potential as a youngster. And after a 17-year career with the Catalan club, Xavi more than exceeded those expectations.
“With Xavi we knew that there was something special there. Even playing in the youth ranks, before he was in the senior team, you could see there was something there. You did not know if they were going to make it at Barcelona, but it was obvious they would be playing in La Liga. We all knew Xavi was good, but we did not realise he was going to be that good, looking now at where he was able to reach in his career.”
While Garcia was finding plenty of goals for Barcelona B, the forward went on loan to Valladolid where he did not enjoy much success. However, after a brief spell at Toledo, his next loan deal to Tenerife – who was coached by Rafael Benitez at the time – would prove to be one of the most telling of his career.
A 22-year-old Garcia would go on to score 16 league goals that season as Tenerife earned promotion to La Liga from the Segunda Division, and making a lasting impression on Benitez. Garcia returned to Barcelona, sent out for another loan spell to Valladolid, before he was picked up by Atletico Madrid for the 2002-03 season.
His form at the Vicente Calderon saw Barcelona buy him back, but even though he had his dream move and was finally playing first-team football for the club, an opportunity came up the following season that was too good to pass up.
“My dream was to go back to Barcelona [from Atletico]. It was the team that I had wanted to play for as a kid, and I had already spent three pre-seasons there as a youngster and I hadn’t played for the first team,” he said. “When I re-signed with the club I signed for five years and my idea was to stay there for as long as possible. I was at home, with my family, with my friends, at one of the biggest clubs and I was playing. It was not in my mind to leave.
“Then I got a call from Benitez [at Liverpool], and that really made me think everything over. Do I go for this move, or do I stay at the club where I had worked so hard to get to? A move wasn’t on my mind.
“But Benitez taught me how to think a different way on the pitch, to approach things differently and play in a variety of positions. He did not only put me upfront but he put my on the wing and that opened up heaps of opportunities for me in the future.
“He called me and he said I had a big job to do at Liverpool. He had even called me the year before to get me to go to Valencia. And that’s important for a player, to see how much the manager wants you. It gives you confidence. Playing in England with one of the best teams and one of the best leagues in the world as well as the Champions League was too attractive to pass up.
“However, if I knew what the city was like before I signed I definitely would have taken more time to think it over,” he joked.
Garcia joined fellow Spaniards Xabi Alonso, Josemi, Antonio Núñez in a £6million move in the summer of 2004. The next three years proved to be the most fruitful of his career, helping the club to a UEFA Champions League title, a UEFA Super Cup, an FA Cup and a Community Shield.
He played the whole 120 minutes of Liverpool’s famous triumph over AC Milan in Istanbul, where the side claimed the Champions League trophy after overturning a 3-0 deficit at half-time. It ranks as one of the greatest wins in Liverpool history, and one of the best comebacks in modern football.
Garcia became a cult hero at Anfield, but a serious injury cut his time on Merseyside short. The five-foot seven man from football heaven returned to Spain with Atletico Madrid, where he spent two seasons with the club. A stint at Racing Santander followed, before playing a season in Greece with Super League outfit Panathinaikos.
At age 33, Garcia’s time at the pinnacle of European football was all but over, and the Spaniard accepted an offer from Mexican side Puebla. He enjoyed his best goal-scoring form since his time at Tenerife – scoring 13 goals in just over 30 appearances for the season. That prompted interest from Puebla’s Ligx MX counterparts Pumas UNAM, with Garcia joining the club for the next two seasons.
“I started to enjoy my football again in Mexico,” he said. “The competition is fantastic with players who have a lot of quality and can play a dynamic style of football. I scored 13 goals [at Puebla] and I felt important on the pitch once again. Things went well and I signed on with Pumas for two years. I loved the country.
“After that I had offers from other Mexican clubs and a few in the MLS, but I was away from my family for a lot, so I went back to Madrid. I spoke to Valladolid, but decided to retire.”
However, his ‘retirement’ lasted less than half a year before he accepted an offer from newly-formed Indian Super League side Atletico Kolkata.
“Atletico Madrid called me and told me there was an opportunity in India,” he said. “It was a three-month deal because we did a pre-season in Madrid. It was a different tournament and it was fun because I was playing with some ex-team-mates. I had missed playing football.”
After winning the league alongside former Reds team-mate Josemi, Garcia decided it was time to call it a day, despite numerous offers from clubs in Asia.
As has been the case for a number of retired professional footballers, Garcia fell into a trap after his initial retirement from football, and was on the verge of depression before motivating himself to move into punditry work.
“I was pretty down for two weeks. I finished playing and I knew I wanted to move into punditry, and I knew I would be doing things but in those two weeks I did not know what was happening. I was taking the kids to school, to do gymnastics, to see their friends…and those days were just repeating and repeating.
“I ended up stopping taking the kids to school, not going to the gym, waking up at midday and just waiting around. It got to two weeks and I could not take it anymore. So I started working for Sky Sports in England and then BeIN Sports called me to do some stuff too. Then it turned out to be that I was doing too much and had to say no to things! But that’s the way I like it. I want to be busy.”
Before signing with the Mariners he was struggling to keep up with his appearances, signed on for a number of punditry gigs, playing games around the world for the Liverpool Legends and holding ambassador roles with the Reds as well as UEFA.
Garcia admits he is unsure if he will push on for one more season next year, with his increasingly busy schedule getting in the way of signing a longer-term deal. But if his body holds up and the Mariners are getting their money’s worth, there no reason why the club should not pursue the option of keeping him around next season onwards.
“For now I have not thought about it at all [playing on next season]. Here I have a contract until the 15th, and on the 23rd I already have TV appearances lined up with BeIN Sports,” he said. “The Euro’s are in June and I will be covering that with them. My intention is to enjoy these months as much as I can and put myself into a good physical shape. I want to feel good to help the team.
“I don’t have the intention of being a manager just yet. I don’t have my coaching badges yet, but it’s something I am looking to take out in the future, for sure.
“Right now, I am still thinking like a player. In two or three years, if I go down that path, then that’s where I go…”
Enjoy him while you can, Mariners and A-League fans. Because a player like Luis Garcia does not come around very often.
Despite his icon status at Anfield and having played for the likes of Barcelona and Atletico Madrid throughout his storied career, Luis Garcia is not even the biggest name in Spanish football to grace the A-League.
A newly-branded Melbourne City secured David Villa on a guest stint in the 2014-15 season before the forward linked up with New York City for their inaugural campaign in the MLS.
While he only played a handful of games, having a player of Villa’s stature in the competition opened it up to the world of football, following stints from Dwight Yorke in the early days of the A-League at Sydney FC and later on with Alessandro Del Piero at the same club.
Garcia admits he knew very little about the league before his arrival, but those names instantly stood out when he heard of the Mariners’ interest, and he does not see why the A-League can’t continue to attract big names down under.
“We’ve seen important players come to the A-League. We’ve seen players like David Villa, Del Piero and Dwight Yorke play. That just shows you that the A-League has a big attraction, and any player would be tempted by an offer here,” he said. “These things help light up the league.
“The intention is good, and clubs are trying to bring in players that are at a right age – like between 28-32 – to help bring the league. That’s the mentality that clubs have and hopefully it continues that way. I believe it will keep growing.
Four out of the 10 A-League clubs have a Spaniard in their ranks this season, with the likes of Diego Castro and Corona lighting up the league, and Garcia is hoping that his arrival has paved the way for even more players to make the big switch across to the other side of the planet.
“Hopefully with my arrival here in Australia it can mean even more Spanish players to come to the A-League. Obviously there are already a few players here, and that has opened up the eyes of a lot more players who are keen to move here,” he said. “However, being in Spain.. Australia is very, very far away and it scares you a little bit. But I have been campaigning to show that the A-League is a league that is constantly growing, there is a great way of life here.”
Could it mean we see the likes of Fernando Torres, Andres Iniesta or Sergio Ramos gracing the hollowed turfs of Hindmarsh, nib and Etihad Stadium?
“Anything is possible!”
Between 2008 and 2012 Spain were the most dominant force in world football, winning two European Championships either side of their first ever World Cup triumph. However, despite being a key figure for the national team, Luis Garcia just missed out on tasting any success with his nation. And to this day it is something he looks back upon with sadness.
Garcia made his debut for Spain in 2005 following some impressive form for Liverpool in the season they were crowned Champions League winners. He made his debut in a 3-0 friendly win against China, while he was a part of Spain’s qualifiers for the 2006 World Cup.
It was in their World Cup play-off against Slovakia when Garcia scored his first international goal, before adding two other in a 5-1 rout. The second leg finished 1-1, meaning Spain advanced 6-2 on aggregate, with Garcia the hero.
That feat saw him included as part of Spain’s squad for the tournament in Germany, making three appearances as the nation bowed out at the last-16 stage following a 3-1 loss to France.
Garcia stayed on in the national team beyond the World Cup, and made a number of appearances in the qualifiers for Euro 2008. However, Garcia never truly recovered from the injury that ended his time at Liverpool, and he is still saddened to have missed out on being part of Spain’s dominant reign.
“The injury hurt me, a lot,” he said. “I was in good form and everything was going great. I missed out on the Champions League final in Athens in 2007 against Milan again and that moment was difficult for me.
“I played some of the qualifiers but that’s when the injury properly hurt me. I went back to Atletico Madrid and the national team coach [Luis Aragones] told me if I keep playing games I would continue to have chances to play for Spain. But another injury stopped me, and the quality in the team at that time was too hard to get in front of.
“I could not get back to the physical level that the national team demanded from me and it did not get me to the Euro’s. I watched it on the TV, but I was still able to enjoy our success like a Spaniard.”
Garcia believes Spain winning that tournament was the success they needed to finally break the barrier and be able to prove themselves as a dominant nation in European and world football.
“Ever since the 2002 World Cup in South Korea and Japan Spain had showed that they were on the cusp of finally winning things. But before 2008 there was this click and even the supporters started to believe we could win something. It happened, and from Spain had the continuity and consistency within the squad to go on to greater things. And they did, and I really wish I could have been a part of it.”
Liverpool’s famous victory over AC Milan in the 2004-05 UEFA Champions League final ranks as one of, if not the greatest in the club’s history. And Luis Garcia believes an achievement like that will never be repeated.
Rafael Benitez’s side found themselves 3-0 down at half-time against one of the strongest Milan line-ups you can ever imagine. Paolo Maldini scored within the opening minute, before Hernan Crespo added two more just before the break. Things were grim for Liverpool, and not even the biggest die-hard supporters could imagine they would turn the game around. But that’s exactly what happened.
Inspirational captain Steven Gerrard got things rolling with one of the best header’s he will ever score in his career, before Vladimir Smicer and Xabi Alonso pegged it back to 3-3 in a crazy six minutes of football.
Liverpool had somehow managed to take the game into extra-time, and then a penalty shoot-out, where Jerzy Dudek saved Andriy Shevchenko’s spot-kick to complete the remarkable turnaround and hand Liverpool their fifth Champions League crown.
“It’s so hard. I don’t think we will see it happen again,” Garcia admitted. “We saw how Bayern lost the final in 1999 with two goals to Manchester United in the last minutes at the Camp Nou, and even something like that is almost impossible to repeat.
“Coming back from a 3-0 deficit is something that will have to take many, many years for us to see something close to it again. In a final, especially.”
Not many players realise what they have achieved in the moment, but it took a lot longer than a few days for the extent of what Liverpool had just achieved to sink in for Garcia.
“In the moment you don’t really understand and properly enjoy what you have achieved. In the coming days your attention already turns to other things and you don’t really have time to contemplate it,” he said. “But later on you start to realise that there are only very few teams that can win a Champions League.
“Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Real Madrid… there are only a few teams that can keep on winning the tournament. I think within the history of the Champions League only 500 players have won it. In the history, only 500 have won it.
“Milan have won a lot, Liverpool have won a lot, Real Madrid have won a lot. It always repeats. There are some exceptions, of course, but across history it has been a lot of the same players. When you start to think about that, you then start to realise how important it is to win one.
“Liverpool had gone twenty years without any Champions League success. They won the UEFA Cup in 2001, but even in terms of domestic success they had won nothing in many years.
“We weren’t a team that people thought could ever win the Champions League.”