FOOTBALLIST By Han Joon
More and more players say that age is just a number. A good example is Korea’s Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors striker Lee Dong-gook. At 37, he is still the best striker in the K-League. Aritz Aduriz returned to the Spanish national team at the age of 35. Luis Garcia, a 38-year old Liverpool FC Legend, came to Korea last weekend. He still plays for a professional football team.
Garcia visited Korea last Saturday. He plays for the Central Coast Mariners in Australia’s A League and also serves as Liverpool FC’s ambassador. As Standard Chartered is Liverpool FC’s sponsor, his short visit was for Standard Chartered Bank Korea’s “2016 Standard Chartered Trophy Cup Road to Anfield,” which was a one-night/two-day stay in Korea for him. Garcia encouraged players who will play for the Korean team at the finals in Anfield in April and played football with them, gracing the occasion with his presence. Though it was short, he delivered Liverpool’s values to Korean fans.
The Spanish football player who returned to the football field after making two retirement announcements met “Footballist” at the Mayfield Hotel in Seoul and said, “I had to come back because of my love for football.” After a playing career in Mexico in 2013, he joined Atletico de Kolkata of the Indian Super League in 2014 and the Central Coast Mariners in 2016. He said, “I don’t eat carbs after 6 p.m. for my body.”
An older player has to be more disciplined to show performance. Although he has more gray hair now and looks older than what he looked like in his heyday, he is as athletic as before. I asked many questions including how he survived the English Premier League (EPL) as the first generation of Spanish football players in the EPL, how Liverpool FC claimed the trophy in the European Champions League, and what makes him continue playing football as a professional player. He provided answers in detail. This is the full transcript of the interview with him.
– Now, there are many Spanish players in the EPL. Weren’t there that many when you joined Liverpool FC? What was it like after you joined the club?
I was almost the first Spanish player who joined the EPL. But I was with other Spaniards. The manager and coaching staff were Spanish, and I was with Xabi Alonso, Josemi and Nunez. I was fortunate in that regard. We helped each other. I couldn’t get along with other teammates because of the language, but adapted to the new environment quickly because they were nice to me. As the team had plenty of players from many different countries back then, we had a good understanding of each other. We were all good to each other. Hyypia, Finnan, Kewell, Cisse, and Hamann were from other countries. But we united strongly and this helped a lot in adjusting to the new environment – in both life and football. We often had meals together and they were like another family for me. I think that was the driver of Liverpool’s success.
– What about performance?
Above all, a player’s capabilities matter in football. It is true that English football is more dynamic than Spanish football. It has more frequent transitions from offense to defense and players are better at physical contacts. Physically, it is stronger and faster. The good thing was that there were two other Spanish players. We helped among ourselves mentally and in thinking about playing. This helped me adapt to the environment faster. I analysed matches to find how to fit myself into it. It was something that I had done since I was young. I also did more exercise to increase my physical strength.
– The EPL style seems to have changed significantly compared to the past.
Right. It definitely has changed in the recent few years. After Benitez joined the EPL, Pellegrini also came and Pochettino is there, too. For the past few years, many foreign managers came to the EPL and brought a different football philosophy with them. Now, they are touching the ball more often and keeping the ball more. The English football used to resort to long ball tactics to strikers. It stressed physical strength and was mostly about kick and rush. Now, it is much more about technical and tactical football.
– You had your heyday with Rafael Benitez in Liverpool FC. What was the club’s strength back then?
It was a united team. It didn’t have high profile star players back then. Cisse was then the most expensive player in Liverpool FC’s history. The club didn’t spend much money on recruiting other players. Xabi Alonso wasn’t a big star player as he is today. Suarez and Torres were not there back then. But the players wanted to do their best and get united into one team. The team spirit was about fighting for teammates. I think that was the biggest strength.
– When you were in the team, Liverpool showed good performance and even won the trophy. Now, it’s struggling. What’s the difference between now and then?
When I joined Liverpool, it wasn’t winning after securing a Cup treble. Fortunately, I won in four football competitions and could play in six final matches. Liverpool recovered its capability to compete in important matches globally. For the last few years, it has not been in the upper ranks in important football matches such as the Champions League and the EPL. It isn’t getting to the place where a large club like Liverpool needs to be. But I think it is changing this year. It has a new manager and the philosophy is changing. Its rank keeps going up in the Europa League and it’s gradually narrowing the gap with upper rank teams in the league. If it is lucky this summer and adds good players, I believe it could compete for victory next season.
– Benitez is struggling recently. What was he like as a manager?
For me, he is the best manager in the world. Personally, he was a mentor to me. I got to know him in Tenerife and helped me adapt to the Primera Liga. After playing for Valladolid, Atletico Madrid and Barcelona, I met him again in Liverpool. When we were there, Liverpool won large football competitions. Though he didn’t show good results in Real Madrid, this could happen in football. Real Madrid is a special and different team. It seems that his philosophy, particularly about players, didn’t work. Real Madrid is in a position to compete against Barcelona, which can’t get better any more, and Atletico Mardrid, which reached the current level after years of tremendous efforts. There is a minor gap between the club and the competitors, and we need to see how it narrows the gap. Benitez will be given another opportunity. He is in New Castle now. I hope that he could have good results. I will root for him wherever he goes.
– You are a graduate from the Barcelona youth academy and you were there before Lionel Messi. What makes La Masia special?
The club has a very long philosophy. Ever since Johan Cruyff created the club, it has been teaching the club’s values to young players. Coaches give clear messages to young players and foster them. They stress: take good care of the ball; be professional; Barca isn’t just a football club but a club that delivers values beyond that; and the club helps them grow into not just football players but good people beyond football and develop their talent. After focusing on such philosophy for a long time, it produced good players like Iniesta, Xavi and Busquets every year. Sergi Roberto recently joined the Spanish national team. It is important that it maintains the philosophy for a very long period. The club has got such results because it was not shilly-shally but consistent about its philosophy.
– You were both in Barca and Atletico. Is it true that the teams are close?
It’s true. When the two teams play, their fans are nice to each other. When the two teams meet in a match, they play a nice game and produce many goals and nice plays. The teams’ fans like each other and often get together. I think it is a very beautiful scene in football. When Barca fans go to Vicente Calderon and Atletico fans go to Camp Nou, they make beautiful scenes. It is more beautiful in that both teams are strong and compete for a trophy in the La Liga and the Champions League. Such relationship exists between Atletico and Liverpool. Of course, matches between Barca and Atletico will be very tricky to each other.
– I assume the two teams have a different feeling about Real Madrid.
Very different. There is a big sense of rivalry. They are rivals. For Barca, Real Madrid has always been its rival. It has no other rival. For Atletico, it’s Derbi. As they are based in the same city, they have a very strong sense of rivalry. Now, it has grown even stronger. A few years ago, Real Madrid won mostly in Derbi. There was a big gap between the two teams. Now, Atletico has become very strong and is well prepared. It has become a tricky competitor that Real can’t easily handle with. For such reason, Derbi has become fiercer. If I have to pick one most important match in Spain, I would say the upcoming match between Barca and Real Madrid.
– You also played for the Spanish national team. You were with Luis Aragones in the first competition. Did you expect the victory at Euro 2008?
The members of the team for the 2006 World Cup in Germany were very good. We had very high expectations. We won the first match with Ukraine after scoring four goals and had a winning streak in the tournament. But we were dropped out after losing to France. It resulted in a small change. Aragones chose younger players, which made a change, and it became a very strong team. As younger players like Fabregas, Villa, Torres, and Iniesta joined the team, it has become very strong. It particularly had many talented players. The players helped the team claim the long-awaited Euro 2008 trophy eventually. This made the team’s players have confidence and it could remain the world’s best national team for eight years. Now, the team is undergoing a generational change. Players like Villa, Torres and Alonso left the team. If the team gets united again with new players, I expect it to get a good result in Euro 2016.
– The Spanish national team has selected Aritz Aduriz, 35. You are also playing for a professional football team at 38. Now, players can maintain their good physical conditions for a longer period of time.
Only fifteen years ago, most players retired when they turned 35. Now, players have stronger professionalism. They eat better food and have better training methods. Progress has been made in many areas for physical management. Athletic performance improved and progress was made in the technologies for physical management. This allowed players to have a longer playing career. A good example is Aduriz. He has been a good player and is now at his peak. He scores many goals in the La Liga and the Europa League. He showed that he can progress further regardless of age. Vincent del Bosque also made a fantastic decision. He proved that a player can join the national team regardless of his age as long as he can show good performance.
– You have been a professional football player for a very long time. Isn’t it hard to maintain strict professionalism psychologically, not to mention physically?
No, it isn’t the case for me because I love football. For me, football is my tireless passion in my life. I like training, locker rooms and playing football – all of them. I am very competitive and like to be on a competitive stage. A few years ago, I had decided to retire to spend time with my family. After retirement, I really missed the time when I played football. After a few months, I made up my mind to play football a little more. As playing football is my favorite thing, I really enjoy it. My body does not recover as fast as it used to and I keep this in mind.
– You played in Mexico and India and are now in Australia. I’m sure you have many experiences in many countries.
I don’t fear challenges in a new environment. I have always played football in other countries. I had a good time in England and did well in Panathinaikos in Greece. Then, I went to Mexico. It is a very very competitive place. It is very tough. India was different. It was culturally different in many ways. So is Australia. It is a completely different country. It is also far away from home. It is a place where football is growing. I’m a player but at the same time I’m a mentor to younger players. I don’t fear such adventures. As I love football, I go wherever there is an opportunity.
– Do you have any plan to play football in Korea?
Honestly, I don’t think I can say no. I never thought that I would play in Mexico and Australia. I had planned retirement and then ended up playing in India. I had tried to retire again but I got to play in Australia. I’ll retire someday but I can say that I don’t know what will happen in the future. Now, I’m enjoying playing football in Australia.
– Sisi played in Korea last year and Jaime Gavilan is here now. Spanish players began to come to Korea.
Right. I know this. I know him well. In the past, Spanish players feared going to other countries. Now, football has become more global. It isn’t something they need to fear. Australia has eight Spanish players. Spanish players are reaching out to many Asian leagues including Korea, China and Thailand, which is good news. Spanish players can play an important role in football in these countries. They have played football on the street and at schools since they were five. They have something special about football. Other sports like cricket and American football are also popular in India and Australia. Football is one of them. I think Spanish players who are born with soccer can contribute to the development of football.
– It would be special for you that you are treated as a legend of Liverpool, a non-Spanish club. You’re participating in the club’s many events as Liverpool’s ambassador.
Very good. Though not in the club now, I have never thought that I parted from Liverpool. I keep watching Liverpool matches and visit the club. It is the most important club in my life. I really enjoy doing many things as an ambassador. Last summer, I went to Thailand, Australia and Singapore with Liverpool for a pre-season tour for the first time. It was a very nice experience. On top of that, I participate in events hosted by many Liverpool sponsors. I came to Korea for a futsal event of Standard Chartered this time. I’m happy and it’s a good thing. It’s about talking about football and Liverpool. Football will always tag me along throughout my life. I keep enjoying it.
– What do you think about a futsal tournament with the general public like this?
It’s unbelievably fun and cool. When you look at the participants and children, you can see on their face that they are overwhelmingly joyful. It is a great prize for them that they can play a match in Anfield. It is a rare opportunity to have a chance to play in a stadium like Anfield. It is a big thing for those who like football, if not Liverpool fans. My message to them is that the Korean players who will play in Anfield should enjoy it. Anfield is a stadium that contains a special spirit. I hope that they can focus on the point that they will stand in a place where everybody dreams and enjoy the experience. It is important to relish the experience that will remain in your memories for your entire life.
Photos = Footballist, Getty Images Korea and Standard Chartered Bank Korea