Andy Mitten

Spanish football mourns Miki’s passing

Andy Mitten

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"Tremp is the rival," said Carles Puyol of the neighbouring town in the mountains. "That's the derby which matters where I live. My family and friends have played for La Pobla against Tremp. It's fun. One day I hope to play in the game. We beat them 4-0 recently. There was a big celebration in the town."

It's 2003 and my first interview with Barcelona's Puyol, who talks as much about his hometown as Barcelona. Barca's talismanic defender is from the Catalan Pyrenean town of La Pobla de Segur, a three-hour drive from Barcelona. La Pobla and neighbouring Tremp, six miles to the south at the other end of the lake on the dusty C-13, are friendly rivals.

Neither town is wealthy and their last period of relative prosperity came when Franco sent workers to build the reservoirs to hold the water which gushes from the mountains, before it was used for hydro-electric power and to irrigate the plains of Lleida.

Both towns are surrounded by red, grey and ochre cliffs which would suffice as an attraction if they weren't so close to the far more spectacular 10,000-foot peaks and limestone valleys of the nearby Pyrenees.

La Pobla became famous when its proudest son made Barca's first team and then the Spanish national side. Everyone there claims to know 'Carlito' - reverential shorthand for Barca's lion-hearted warrior - the son of the humble bread man.

In 2007, a local man Josep Borrell Fontelles became president of the European parliament, two big fish from a small pond of just 3,000 people.

Despite having twice the population, Tremp couldn't boast such big names, but it had a rising star, another footballer, another defender from the mountains called Miki Roque. Locals joked it was because his mother was from La Pobla.

Roque didn't join the local heroes Barcelona, but he did sign for the European champions Liverpool in 2005 after being scouted for Rafa Benitez in the youth sides of his nearest league club, second division Lleida.

Roque moved to Liverpool and lived briefly with Anfield's club chaplain Bill Bygroves. He remembers an "enthusiastic, talented and conscientious teenager who loved football and his PlayStation."

Roque then lodged with Geoff and Jean Park, the thinking being that Geoff, as a Spanish lecturer at Liverpool University, would be able to help a youngster who spoke Spanish and Catalan. It wasn't needed. Rafa Benitez said that Roque spoke better English than any Spanish player he's worked with.

Geoff travelled to Catalonia yesterday to make a journey he never thought he'd have to make.

Roque scored as Liverpool won the FA Youth Cup against Manchester City in 2006, the year he made his first-team debut as a substitute for Xabi Alonso in a Champions League game against Galatasaray aged just 18.

Tremp were proud of their local boy and expected a great future for Roque. He played for Spain's Under 19s when they were the champions of Europe, but his progress faltered. He was loaned to Oldham Athletic and then Spanish sides Cadiz, Cartagena and Real Betis, a move he made permanent in 2010.

He broke into the Betis first team and played in a side on its way to the Spanish second division title. Roque's career was taking off at last, but in March 2011 he went for a routine check up on a back problem. What he was told devastated him. Doctors found a tumour: he had pelvic cancer.

Roque was 22 years old. He wiped away the tears with his own grey scarf at a press conference as he explained the grade of cancer and said: "Goodbye to the rest of this season." He then had the malignant tumour removed on 24th May 2011.

Two days later, the man from the neighbouring town went to Wembley as the captain of the team which won the European Cup. Carles Puyol wore a shirt saying 'Anims Miki' ('Cheer up, Miki' in Catalan) inside Wembley and he spoke about Roque after the game. "He's strong and we're with him," said Puyol.

Betis fans raised money to help pay for Roque's treatment by selling wristbands with his name on. Puyol paid the rest, not that many outside Tremp knew.

For a while, Roque seemed to be improving. Puyol visited regularly and doctors discussed his recuperation in June 2011. He was invited to train (lightly) with Barca B as he sought to get fit and resume his career again. To Barca he was a Catalan footballer and they would do all they could to help, Puyol made sure of that.

In January 2012, Roque was a guest at Barca's game against Real Betis. His treatment continued in Barcelona, but his condition deteriorated in recent weeks.

When Carles Puyol was told that injury would keep him out of the Euros, he was floored, but it wasn't difficult for him to put it into perspective.

On Sunday, as Spain celebrated their Euro 2012 win against France and looked forward to a semi-final tie against their old rivals and neighbours Portugal, news filtered through that Roque had died at the Instituto Dexues, a hospital a mile from Camp Nou.

Many of Spain's players paid their respects using social media. Cesc Fabregas said they wanted to win Euro 2012 out of respect to Roque and Manuel Preciado, the former Sporting Gijon coach who died of a heart attack aged 54 recently, a day after taking over Villarreal.

Roque's former team-mate Xabi Alonso described his shock. This wasn't a mawkish grief-fest, the players were stunned to lose someone they knew at the age of 23. Too many of the Spanish team have got used to losing friends at their peak. Indeed, on Sunday, news broke that a street by Sevilla's stadium is to be named after Antonio Puerta, the Sevilla defender who died on the pitch five years ago. It's the street Puerta lived on with his parents.

In Seville, over 1,000 Betis fans paid homage outside their stadium and the club's most senior staff headed north to Catalonia. To Tremp. In Poland, the Spanish national side held a minute's silence.

Roque's body travelled from Barcelona to Tremp on Monday. Three hundred villagers greeted it as it arrived at the Basilica de Valldeflors, including many boys from the town who had grown up with him.

They wanted him to be remembered as a great person, not just as a footballer. They remembered him as a child and as an adult who handed out shirts from the clubs for which he played to kids. Those kids planned to wear or take those same shirts to his funeral yesterday, devastated boys wearing the owl of Oldham, the Liver bird of Liverpool, the castle of Cartagena and the crown of Betis.

Betis sent a full contingent on the journey of 700 miles. The president of their rivals Sevilla travelled too. Real Madrid were represented by club legend Emilio Butragueno, Geoff Park took a letter from Liverpool FC. And Barcelona's Carles Puyol quietly made the journey six miles south, back to the home of the old rivals.

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