The Barcelona youth product has endured a torrid past two years with injuries and bad luck. He tells Andy Mitten how he is prepared to wait for his opportunity to make his name at Barcelona
Sergi Samper interview: Barcelona's unlucky midfielder prepared to suffer to fulfil boyhood dream
The Barcelona pages in the annual Marca guide to Spanish football lists players by positions. Downwards on the right of page 66, facing Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi, there’s Andres Iniesta, Ivan Rakitic, Sergi Roberto, Gerard Deulofeu – and Sergi Samper.
Samper, 23, is used to being in esteemed company. He has trained and played with the best players in the world, been coached by Pep Guardiola, Luis Enrique and Tito Vilanova. A defensive midfielder in the style of Sergio Busquets, he was long considered a future Barcelona first-team player. A lifelong fan from a family of season ticket holders in El Putxet, a middle class barrio of apartments in the Catalan capital.
But football doesn’t do predictions. For all the glory, football generally does misery and disappointment – and Samper has had plenty of both over the past two years, mainly due to bad luck and injuries.
So it’s good to see him smiling as he walks into a Barcelona restaurant.
“It’s my first day without crutches,” he explains as he sits down for our interview. “I’m in rehab almost every day.”
Samper began this season starting for Barcelona against Juventus in New York and featured in the Miami clasico against Real Madrid on the club’s North American pre-season tour.
“I was at a high level all pre-season and happy,” he says. “Though Barca are so big in the US that you can’t leave the hotels.
“The new coach Ernesto Valverde has changed the style a little and made the team more compact and perhaps not as spectacular as before, but the team also defends well and doesn’t concede many goals. Valverde has done very well.”
Samper first went to Camp Nou age five.
“There was an advert for a Barcelona football school with a telephone number,” he says. “My grandfather called the following week and I went to the school – it was one you paid for. At eight I had trials to join the youth system proper. I was delighted – I was a big Barca fan and my idol was Xavi.”
Samper trained with Barca four times a week after school, from 7pm until 9pm. His grandfather would take him most of the time and he always played as a central midfielder. Hector Bellerin and Jon Toral were his contemporaries.
“At 16, all three of us received offers to join Arsenal,” he says. “We won the Nike Premier Cup at Old Trafford and the offers came after that. Hector and Jon accepted and moved to England. I also had an offer from Chelsea. The money was far more than at Barca but my dream was to play for Barca.”
Samper’s progress continued through the youth teams and three seasons with the B team. His studies also continued as he specialised in journalism, but his full time vocation was as a professional footballer.
“I was asked to train with the first team at 16 under Pep Guardiola,” he recalls. “It was incredible, the ball moves around so quickly. Pep explained everything in so much detail and why each action led to the next. Training with him was short and intense.
“I was convinced Xavi had eyes in the back of his head. He’d see everything first and rob the ball from others if they weren’t quick enough. They say don’t meet your heroes – I’m glad I met mine. He was a great help to me.
“Xavi, I’m pretty sure, was human. Messi is not; he’s from another planet. His will to win is clear in training. He hates to lose, that’s a key to his success. His friend Luis Suarez is equally as competitive. They have an amazing rivalry in training, they’re both driven to win.
“Andres Iniesta was as good as you would expect, but I was most surprised by Sergio Busquets. He’s serious, professional, tactically faultless, but it was the way he uses his legs so that you can’t get past him, closing the space around him.”
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Training with the big boys was a taster, an incentive. Samper’s progress continued. At 18, he played 40 games for the Barca B team which finished third in Spain’s second tier in 2013/14.
“An incredible year under Eusebio [now Real Sociedad manager],” he says. “My first game was against Real Madrid. I was playing the first teams of Sporting Gijon or Deportivo La Coruna in front of 20,000, playing against experienced professionals. You notice a huge step up after only playing with people from the same age group.”
A regular in every Spain team from under 15 to under 21, he was made B team captain the following season, but still trained with the first team, which he had started doing regularly under Vilanova.
“It was tragic when Tito died,” Samper says. “We knew he was ill but he could appear normal in the training in the morning. It was like football was an escape from his illness. Yet later on the same day he’d be much weaker and clearly poorly. His funeral was very, tough. I know his son Adria, who was a young player at Barca and is now at Hercules.”
Barca B struggled in 2014/15 and were relegated.
“We’d play at places like Cornella [a working class barrio with a pitch adjacent to rivals’ Espanyol’s stadium] and lost,” he recalls. “They were desperate to beat us because we were Barca.”
Yet that season was an important one for Samper.
“Luis Enrique was newly in charge and I was called up to the first team in pre-season. I played friendly games with them in Nice and Naples. He gave me my debut in an official game – in the Champions League against Apoel Nicosia. I didn't know I was going to start until one hour before; I’d never even been in the match day squad. I thought I might be a substitute and get 10 minutes.”
Samper’s family were watching in the stands.
“They’re at every game and turned up as normal – they didn’t expect to see me. I couldn’t tell them that I was playing, so they found out when the team was announced.
“I was nervous but we won 1-0. It wasn’t the best game for the team, but I was fine. I’d never played in Camp Nou before, the B team play in the Mini Estadi. I knew exactly where my family sit but didn’t want to look up, but to concentrate on my game. I played with Xavi, with Neymar, Sergi Roberto and Pedro. Luis Enrique congratulated me after the game.”
Samper, then 19, met up with his family afterwards.
“My mother and grandparents were crying,” he says of a proud family moment, where he was conscious of the other players looking at his tearful relatives. Samper was suddenly being talked about: Barca’s next homegrown talent.
“I was in the newspapers and more people would recognise me in the street, but nothing changed in my life,” he says. “My family keep me very grounded. I trained with the first team in the week and played with the B team at the weekend. I played in three cup games for the first team, but I always knew that my situation would be difficult because Sergio Busquets plays in my position.”
Samper played five first team games in 2015/16 as well as for the B team, then in Spain’s third tier, but he needed to be playing a higher level more regularly.
“I went to Granada on loan for 2016/17,” he says. “I had various offers from other teams in the Primera [Liga] – Betis and Valencia, but Valencia were in in an unstable period. Paco Jemez, who’d just got the Granada job after doing well at Rayo [Vallecano], called me every day. He told me I’d be an important part of his team and I admired his style of football. I did a full pre-season with Barca and joined Granada after the third week of the season and started well. In the sixth week, Paco lost his job.
“It wasn’t ideal for me because I’d only gone there because of him. The next trainer [Lucas Alcaraz] who came in was very defensive, preferring a very physical type of football. It was a bad year. I played in a 6-0 defeat at Real Madrid.”
Granada, with another on loan player Andreas Pereira, were fighting relegation. Their solution was to bring in Englishman Tony Adams with seven games remaining.
“Adams was friendly and transmitted his enthusiasm,” Samper recalls. “But he had little experience as a trainer and didn’t speak any Spanish. There were 16 different nationalities in the side, only three Spaniards. It was hard for him to turn around a struggling team. He said he was give us a kick up the bum when he arrived if we didn’t run and said it needed leadership, but it was almost impossible for him.”
Samper went back to Barcelona, did the pre-season and enjoyed working with Valverde, but all those new players left the Catalans with a big squad.
“Only 25 players were to be named in the squad and the manager thought it was best I went on loan again to get more minutes,” he says.
That was normal for a player who needs to be playing and the Catalan coach Manolo Marquez, appointed Las Palmas manager for the start of this season, had long been an admirer of Samper.
“Las Palmas were respected for their football last season and I was happy to go there to play more minutes in the Primera,” he says.
Samper would encounter more bad luck.
“The same thing happened as in the previous season and the coach who’d taken me lost his job after a few games. I’d not even played one match because I was injured in my first training session on the beach, a calf muscle injury. I couldn’t believe it.”
Samper returned in October under another new manager who hadn’t brought him, Pako Ayestaran.
“But then, in December, Paco Jemez [who’d taken him to Granada] was appointed at Las Palmas. I thought – at last! – my luck has turned. I played against Valencia in the cup in January and did well in a 1-1 draw. Then I played against Eibar and we were leading. In the 70th minute I went to a ball and went over on my ankle. I knew I’d broken it straight away, I heard it. I couldn’t believe my luck.”
Samper returned to Barcelona for treatment on a broken ankle, splitting his time between Barca, hospital and a private physio. Some days are better than others.
“It’s all day every day and it has been tough,” he says, “I just want a fair chance. I joined two clubs and the coaches were dismissed within a month. And I had serious injuries.”
He is back at home with his mum, dad and brother Jordi, 27, a professional tennis player ranked as high as 179 in August 2016.
“We have the same bedrooms as when we were kids,” he said, “I like tennis a lot, we were all very proud to see him play at Roland Garros [French Open]. I speak to him about my situation and he thinks that tennis is much tougher than football – you travel alone, for example, without that team spirit. And he says that in football, if you have a bad a day, you can still be on the winning side.
“And I’ll say to him, ‘Yes, but it’s all down to you in tennis. In football if you give a bad performance you can be out of the side for a month. In tennis, you can win the next game.”
Samper hopes to be back training before the end of the season. He knows full well the difficulties which face him when he recovers.
“Barca is the best club in the world for me and I realised a dream playing for the team I’ve always supported, but it’s not going to be easy in my position. If I have to go and search for other opportunities, then that’s what I’ll have to do.
“I’ve seen other players suffer, too. My close friend Sergi Roberto had many years without playing and he had offers to leave. He didn’t start to play very regularly until he was 23, 24, but Luis Enrique liked him and then he had more chances after Dani Alves left. It can be done.”
Samper has a contract at Barcelona until 2019, with a €50 million (Dh225m) release clause, though it is implausible that anyone would need to pay that given his lack of games. What he needs now most of all is some far better luck.