Harsh realities of life after Messi and Barcelona
It is a Sunday afternoon, and a group of youngsters recognise the driver in an Audi people carrier with blacked out windows on Rambla Catalunya in central Barcelona.
Lionel Messi lowers the window and signs autographs until the traffic lights change colour and he zooms off. Messi does not spot the pedestrian walking past holding a kitbag and wearing the red and black tracksuit of CD Manacor, a Spanish third division team.
That man is Arnau Riera, who was Messi’s captain for Barcelona’s B team in the Argentine’s first season as a professional footballer at the club. The contrast in fortunes between the two former teammates could not be greater.
Messi, the world’s greatest footballer, scored a hat-trick in 29 minutes against Mallorca the night before. Arnau had just played his second game in three years away at UE Lleida in front of 2,000. A forgotten man, even the match programme spelt his name wrong.
Arnau’s Manacor teammates had returned to Mallorca where they are based, but he wanted to spend a night in Barcelona, the city he called home for six years.
Barca signed Arnau, a central midfielder, in 2000 when he was 19. He played for Barca B, anchoring a midfield with Andres Iniesta just in front of him for two seasons. The pair both took the decision to continues their studies in case they didn’t make it as footballers, Arnau in social work, Iniesta in sports marketing. They would carry their work files to training.
“Andres never made mistakes,” Arnau says. “And he’s deceivingly quick over three or four metres. Everybody knows about his awareness, passing and movement, but they don’t see his burst of pace.”
Iniesta moved up to the first team in 2002/03. Arnau did not, but he was promoted to B team captain. He played alongside Thiago Motta, Joan Verdu, Fernando Navarro, Luis Garcia and Oleguer Presas. All made it at the top level.
In 2004, the Catalan daily Mundo Deportivo held a poll among fans to gauge who would be Barca’s next breakthrough star. Arnau finished top, but frustratingly, his chance never came.
“I played with the first team in friendlies against the Chinese national team, Marseille and St Etienne,” Arnau says. “And I did a full pre-season training with them in 2004. The speed in which they passed the ball was frightening, but I noticed how all those players were at a top level physically, mentally and psychologically.
“They knew they couldn’t afford to make mistakes so they didn’t make them. They thought they were the best because they were the best. They were not arrogant, but they all had an inner confidence and steel.”
Messi was introduced to his new captain in 2003.
“He was very quiet, very polite,” Arnau recalls. “I tackled him very hard in his first training session so that he knew how tough it would be. He flew up in the air like a fly, landed and then dusted himself down. He didn’t complain.”
“Messi was the most talented player there, but I would never have said that he would go on to be the greatest player of all time, which he already is.”
Messi moved up to the first team. With a who’s who of world-class midfielders ahead of him, Arnau didn’t.
“I wanted to make it at Barca and stayed as long as I could,” he says. “They offered me a new contract but I wanted first team football and fancied England.”
An English agent was appointed and three British clubs immediately showed interest: Southampton, Sunderland and Heart of Midlothian in Scotland.
“I went to Sunderland on trial and new Sunderland manager/chairman Niall Quinn offered me a three-year contract after three days.”
The contract was £3,000 (Dh17,550) per week, with £1,000 extra for each appearance and then win bonuses on top. He celebrated by buying a Mini Cooper.
“I was advised to buy a BMW or something, but I didn’t want to drive around Sunderland in a car which attracted attention.”
The day after signing he sat in the stands among the Sunderland fans as they played Wolverhampton Wanderers. “I wanted to see what the club meant to those people,” he says.
After the game he went into a working men’s club in Roker by Sunderland’s old home ground. He heard people on the next table talking excitedly about their new Spanish player from Barcelona. The would know who he was the next day when his photo was published in the local newspaper.
Arnau made his debut a week later against Southend United away. Despite coming on at half-time, he won the man of the match award.
“I could not believe how many Sunderland fans there were,” he says. “They travelled so far and sang their songs. I’d never seen anything like it in Spain. At the end of the game which we lost, one of my team mates told me that I had to clap because they were singing my name. I went towards them and the applause got louder and louder. I threw my shirt into them. I loved those people that day.”
The champagne for man of the match stayed in his apartment overlooking Sunderland’s harbour for the next year. Arnau was not a drinker. Quinn started Arnau in Sunderland’s next game, a League Cup match against Bury. “I was so desperate to succeed that I was too nervous,” he recalls. “I raised my elbow and the player went down behind me. Straight red.”
Arnau had an automatic three-game ban. “I sat at home alone the next day seeing my name again and again on Sky Sports for being sent off. It was horrible.”
It would get worse. Two days after the sending off, Sunderland appointed Roy Keane as manager. Arnau was not even available for selection for his new boss.
“Keane never gave me a chance,” he says. “He told me that I wasn’t in his plans and then never spoke to me again. My confidence drained away. I was living by myself in a foreign country and unhappy at the situation. I was angry, but Keane also got the team promoted that season after taking over when they were bottom.”
Sunderland were changing and began paying Premier League-style wages. “I was in the jacuzzi once after training and Dwight Yorke started talking about wages,” he says. “I had to get out, the figures were making me dizzy.”
Arnau was loaned to Southend and then Falkirk in the Scottish Premier League, where he stayed for two seasons. Arnau’s masterful strike against Rangers at Ibrox in August 2007 was voted Falkirk’s goal of the season.
“I loved living in Edinburgh and became fluent in English,” he says. “I met some good mates and enjoyed my time there. Falkirk reached the Scottish Cup final, we stayed up. I loved the British black humour. We played a crossbar challenge in training. The last player to strike the crossbar from the halfway line had to take all his clothes off and jump in the mud in the middle of winter. Defenders were always last because they couldn’t shoot.”
With an eye on the future he also spent his free days off working with autistic children in the local department of social services. When Barca played against Rangers and Celtic in the Champions League, Iniesta would get in touch with tickets.
Falkirk wanted him to stay. “I should have stayed and they offered me a new contract but …”
His voice trails off. Bad decisions cost him. A relationship with a girl in Portugal meant he wanted to return to Iberia. Blackpool wanted him, he turned them down, which rightly infuriated his agent. Blackpool were promoted to the Premier League.
“I was confused and not thinking straight,” he says. His contract up at Sunderland, he returned to his parents in Mallorca without a club and with an agent who didn’t have as many contacts in Spain.
“When the money stops you have to make big cut backs,” he says. “And I’ve always lived sensibly and Mallorcan people are very conservative. But you can’t be getting €300 monthly bills on your mobile.”
He joined Mallorca’s second biggest club Atletico Baleares on €1,000 a week. After 10 games he ruptured his cruciate ligament. He was alone and without a club when Sunderland offered to help out.
“Niall Quinn invited me to train for free and use their facilities for as long as I needed. He’s a special person, a gentleman. Some people said he felt guilty because he’d signed me and wasn’t manager a week later, but my opinion of him could not be higher.”
Julio Arca, the Argentine former Sunderland midfielder long since moved to Middlesbrough, let him stay at his house for free. His agent remained in constant contact too. He didn’t drop him. “Football is full of passing friendships but Julio is a close mate,” Arnau says.
Arnau worked his way back to full fitness at Sunderland by January 2011. Then, agonisingly, he ruptured the cruciate ligament in his other knee in training. “I couldn’t believe it,” he says. “I knew it was serious straight away. That pain when your cruciate goes is like no other. I thought, ‘Why me again? Why me? Why me?’.”
Aged 29, he took a decision in the weeks after his second cruciate operation. Football would no longer be his priority and he would complete his studies in social work.
“I never retired from football,” he says. “But I did wonder if I would ever enjoy playing football again like I had done when I was a child.”
His luck would finally turn. CD Manacor, his local team from a town of 40,000 which gave the world Rafa Nadal and Albert Riera, the former Liverpool and Espanyol midfielder, were promoted to the third division for the first time since 1994 in June 2011.
They wanted Arnau, 30, to play at the higher level alongside boys he had grown up with. They would pay him €9,000 a year, the minimum contract for a professional footballer in Spain.
Manacor are one of the few semi-professional teams in the league and have one of the lowest budgets, but they are holding their own. Arnau made his comeback on October 23 in an away victory in Valencia and he is back in the cycle of hotels, flights and coach journeys, the staple of any footballer.
“I want to enjoy playing football again,” he says. “My biggest mistake was always that I was too nervous in games. I didn’t relax because I wanted to do better. I would have been a better player if I relaxed. And maybe I would have enjoyed playing too.”
Updated: November 16, 2011 04:00 AM