x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Edson Puch is at home in Dubai but needs to refuel

The Chilean, left out in the cold by Al Wasl, is happy in the UAE, but he cannot survive without football, writes John McAuley .

Edson Puch, right, was signed by Al Wasl before former coach Diego Maradona joined the club, and found himself on the fringes for most of last season.  Mike Young / The National
Edson Puch, right, was signed by Al Wasl before former coach Diego Maradona joined the club, and found himself on the fringes for most of last season. Mike Young / The National

Edson Puch sits alone on a Wednesday evening in the cafeteria at Zabeel Stadium. Outside, Al Nasr have borrowed the pitch for an Etisalat Cup match against Al Wahda.

Puch, currently on the books of residents Al Wasl, listens to the sounds of the crowd, but cannot bring himself to watch the action.

He feels rejected by Wasl, the club who last season took him from his native Chile; rejected by football, the very game that gives the midfielder, according to his closest confidants, "the fuel for his life".

Life in Dubai could be complete. Without his fuel, it simply is not.

"Not playing football is like cutting off my legs," Puch says, one month later, in a building alongside the stadium.

The South American speaks through an interpreter, his softly spoken Spanish belying the boxer's build - his grandfather, a champion pugilist in Chile, introduced his young grandson to the sport - and the heavy artwork that adorns his body.

The tattoos are not just some footballers' fad. They confirm what is most important in Puch's life: family (parents, Raul and Blanca, are referenced as is his daughter, Noemi); music (his forearm sports a vintage microphone); and football (a sky blue crest of his beloved Deportes Iquique shields his heart).

The 26 year old signed for Wasl on a four-year contract shortly before Diego Maradona arrived, yet struggled to feature regularly and spent the beginning of the year back in Chile on loan at Deportes.

He returned this summer with fresh hope, yet Bruno Metsu, Maradona's replacement, filled his foreign quota with Shikabala, Lucas Neill and Emiliano Alfaro.

The midfielder Mariano Donda was retained, leaving Puch, once again, on the fringes. He now seeks temporary refuge in training with Deportes, aiming to impress a collection of Chilean clubs who still value his obvious talent. The winter transfer window will decide whether he leaves Wasl permanently.

"It's tough not playing," he says. "Football is my life. The first week this season was so difficult, but now I'm more at peace.

"I still believe in my ability; I know I'm a good player. But I can't keep looking over my shoulder. I must look forward."

The recent past, though, is far removed, almost alien, from his formative years in Chile.

Born in Iquique, a port city on the Pacific coast, he was soon saturated in football thanks to his father, uncle and grandfather carving successful careers. His mother was a keen sportswoman, too, specialising in basketball.

Family obviously helped cast him. His grandfather built a home to shelter four separate Puch families and, while football would always charge the house, music soothed it.

"We were all in this big house and enjoyed being together," Puch says. "My grandfather was a musician who played in a group, as did my father and uncle. And my mother was a singer.

"So I grew up with music all around, just like football. To this day, the basement is full of instruments."

Puch, shy by his own admission, sought sanctuary in music's calming embrace, especially when he entered the clamorous environs of professional football.

He has released a variety of songs, many on YouTube, that relay his thoughts on the world, including an ode to his hometown, Mi Iquique.

"I sing about what's happening in my life," he says, describing his house in Dubai with its studio, mixing desk, keyboard and guitar. "It is an opportunity to throw out what I have inside.

"Because of my personality, I don't like to talk about my feelings. I don't often open my heart so that's why I use music: to express myself."

A track dedicated to Dubai - "in the future, maybe" - would not necessarily represent a sombre tune. Despite his problems on the pitch, off it Puch quickly fell under the city's thrall.

"My wife and daughter love Dubai and don't want to leave," Puch says. "We enjoy a quiet life here, whereas in Chile the life of a footballer is very tough.

"After three games if you don't perform people kill you, criticise and judge you. You're under constant attention, which is difficult."

Professional life began in 2005 when Puch graduated from the CD Huachipato youth team to Deportes. A prolific 2009 saw him included in Marcelo Bielsa's national squad, and prompted Universidad de Chile to tempt him from his boyhood club.

Puch was part of the 2011 Primera Division title-winning side with them before Wasl made a move. The following month, their world was turned upside down when Maradona became the coach.

Puch was not a regular starter, and an episode where he skipped training did not sit well with his manager, but perhaps that he was never Maradona's choice ensured his marginalisation.

Puch, however, has no regrets - few of those who have been touched by the mercurial Maradona do. He recalls fondly the Argentine marching him to the Road and Transport Authority to "fast-track" his application for a driving licence, while he remembers his coach lightening the mood in a hotel by effortlessly performing keepy-uppy with an apple.

"I can do it, but it is always impressive seeing Maradona doing it," Puch says. "When he was in a good mood he was a really joyful person, likes to have fun and make others laugh.

"But I'm really pleased to have gained this experience. I discovered a new culture, a new people, another team and a different football.

"I came here to show my best and did not have the opportunity to, but it's nothing to regret. Returning this season, I had the will to show what I'm capable of, and I still want to do that. I'm ready to come back and do everything to illustrate who I am."

The words of his grandfather - "whatever you do in life make sure you do it to be the best" - still drive him. Puch, happiest back in Chile, has set sights on the 2014 World Cup, after the coach Claudio Borghi recalled the player for the June qualifier with Venezuela.

The future beyond that? "I just want to play football," Puch says with one last smile. "And be happy."

Without one, it seems he cannot have the other.