x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Spain's stars are leaving the sunshine behind

While in the past, a Spaniard playing abroad was a rare sight, the path to Europe and beyond is now a well-trodden trail.

David Silva took some time to settle after his move from Valencia, but has evolved into a key performer for Manchester City.
David Silva took some time to settle after his move from Valencia, but has evolved into a key performer for Manchester City.

The Spanish international sipping mineral water in a restaurant on Manchester's Deansgate explained his reasons for joining Manchester City.

"The English Premier League is very attractive to every footballer in the world," said Albert Riera, who enjoyed going virtually unrecognised in one of the busiest places in the city.

"The clubs are very professional, too. There are some in Spain where you don't get paid on time. Here, that's never an issue. The clubs also help you adapt. I'm learning England and enjoying my career which has taken me to a new country."

Riera moved on to Liverpool and he now plays in Athens for Olympiakos, a new breed of nomadic Spanish footballer who earns his living far from his homeland.

Spanish footballers have not always travelled well. The experience of Fernando Morientes in Liverpool after signing from Real Madrid was a chastening one, while the sojourns of internationals Asier del Horno at Chelsea and Javier de Pedro at Blackburn in the middle of the last decade were brief and unsuccessful.

Cultural differences were often blamed. In 1996, Jordi Cruyff, the Dutch winger who grew up in Catalonia, left Barcelona for Manchester United.

"I didn't like the food, the weather or the city," he said. "And why do English clubs move 21-year-old players into big houses 20 kilometres from the city itself?"

More recently, Gerard Pique was asked if missed Manchester. His reply was simple: "No."

The situation is changing. While the English weather can never match sunnier Spanish climes, British cities have improved and become more international in the past 15 years, and the boom in flights means home is only two hours away. The way of living has also altered, players now occupying smart city-centre apartments. The Spaniard Rafa Benitez will be spending this Christmas in the house he calls home - in Liverpool.

Victory in the World Cup boosted the stock of Spanish football immeasurably, and 139 Spaniards now make their living around the world.

England boasts 25 of them, from Cesc Fabregas at Arsenal or Fernando Torres at Liverpool to Pablo Counago at Ipswich or the five Spaniards helping Swansea City push for promotion to the Premier League. Newcastle United's Jose Enrique is set to start today at St James' Park against David Silva of Manchester City.

Spain remains well short of the 3,000 Brazilians playing globally, but the number of Spaniards playing abroad has doubled in two years, their diaspora now stretching from Argentina to Japan, Russia to the United Arab Emirates (Francisco Yeste) and Qatar (Gabri).

There are other big-name Spanish players in surprising locations, like Guti at Besiktas in Turkey, Raul at Schalke 04 in Germany and Mista at Canada's Toronto FC. These are high-profile former internationals in the final chapters of their careers, looking for a new, well-remunerated experience.

Two other types leave Spain for pastures where the grass is greener, financially. Those in England's second tier earn from £3,000 to £10,000 a week (Dh17,400-58,000) - three times what they would expect to earn in the Spanish equivalent. They often find that they are technically superior to their English counterparts and that they excel. More familiar are the top-level stars who make the attention grabbing, big-money moves.

Players with Barcelona or Real Madrid on their CV have always been in demand. One reason why Manchester City rewarded Yaya Toure so well is that he was a proven first-teamer with Barcelona.

Toure's move was understood in Spain. Sergio Busquets, the Catalan, rather than Toure, an Ivorian, was the future defensive midfielder for Barca. The chance for Toure to join his brother was another attraction as were the wages and City's ambitious project to challenge for trophies. His formidable physical presence was also suited to English football; he has been one of City's best players in recent weeks.

Silva's move from Valencia to City was more surprising. Valencia fans knew he was leaving, the club needing the cash to help pay off their debts. They were happy that he would not come back to haunt them playing for Barca or Madrid, but surprised, too.

Silva is slight, homely and quiet, not characteristics you would associate with being desirable qualities for English football.

Yet the 24-year-old winger has adapted to life in England's north and become one of City's key performers, winning the club's player of the month awards for October and November. And unlike the former Spanish winger Riera who played the same position for City, World Cup-winner Silva is readily recognised, proof that both his and City's profile is in the ascendancy.

sports@thenational.ae

7pm, Abu Dhabi Sports 3