Pitchside Europe

From Messi’s team-mate to political candidate


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Lionel Messi scored his 300th and 301st professional career goals at the weekend as Barca hammered Rayo Vallecano 5-0 away. The goals have come in just 419 matches, 270 of them for Barca, the rest for Argentina. Messi has scored 73 goals in 2012 alone. It's news when he doesn't score in a match.

Andres Iniesta celebrated a decade since he broke into the Barcelona first team. The pair have both risen to the very top and stayed there. Many would argue that they've been the first and second best players in world football in 2012, though Cristiano Ronaldo would mount a strong challenge to that. All three were named in the 23-man shortlist for the Ballon d'Or on Monday.

A former team-mate of both cannot say the same. The vast majority of youth players fail to make the professional grade, yet Oleguer Presas did. The 32-year-old Catalan from the same town as Sergio Busquets and the neighbouring town as Xavi played 127 times for Barcelona's first XI. He started in the final of the 2006 Champions League against Arsenal in Paris.

It wasn't his best game and his lack of pace was exposed before he was substituted and Barca improved to win the match, but it showed how highly he was rated. You don't start in a European Cup final without being excellent. Messi, for one, would have loved to have started in that game, so would Xavi and Iniesta.

The Catalan Presas was even made club captain during the pre-season games for the following term, when he signed a contract which would keep him at Camp Nou until 2010. Yet the arrival of Lillian Thuram and Gianluca Zambrotta saw him start more on the bench.

In 2006, Oleguer was awarded the President Companys award for promoting Catalan sports at an international level. In the same year he published a book called The Road to Ithaca which covered subjects such as anti-fascism and criticized the Spanish government for their involvement in the Gulf Wars. It likened Barca's 2005 title winners to Catalan fighters in the Spanish Civil War.

Not your normal footballer fare, then. But then Oleguer wasn't your normal footballer, an economics graduate who had missed training to finish his exams.

The politically minded Presas strongly advocated Catalan independence and when Barca won the league in 2006, he wrapped himself in the Catalan independent flag. He wasn't afraid to speak his mind, but his links with Catalanism would sit uneasily with some. He was a frequent participant on Catalan independence marches, when such marches were far from the mainstream activities that they have become this year.

Oleguer became as known for his political views as his football. He was asked by Subcomandante Marcos of the Zapatistas movement in Chiapas, Mexico, to play in a charity match and accepted.
In 2007, he wrote a letter to the Basque language newspaper Berria criticising the Spanish state and defending Inaki de Juana Chaos of the Basque nationalist organisation ETA, who was accused of murdering 25 people by the Spanish government. Oleguer demanded his release from prison for health reasons.

Spaniards were outraged and the article cost him his boot sponsorship and saw him booed in stadiums outside Catalonia and the Basque Country, where he was declared a hero by some. He was criticised not just by the Madrid-based media, but was rebuked for his comments by Barca coach Frank Rijkaard and club president and fellow Catalan Joan Laporta.

It was surprising then, that Oleguer had accepted an invitation to train with the Spain national team, especially as he'd regularly said that he didn't feel Spanish.

Hardline Barca fans loved him for his stance and chanted his name - "U, U, Ulague!" - as fervently as Messi's or Xavi's, yet while the team thrived on the pitch, Oleguer's Barcelona career was beginning to stall through injury and a lack of appearances. He'd punched well above his talent by playing so many games for a top side and he was seen as one of the weaker players in Rijkaard's fading team. There was consequently no place for him when Pep Guardiola took charge in 2008.

Oleguer moved to Ajax on a three-year deal for a fee of 3 million euros. Coach Marco van Basten said: "I am happy that we have acquired Oleguer. His qualities fit exactly with what Ajax needs. We are all convinced of that. He has a good age, experience at a high level and is a real defender."

Van Basten's words made sense, yet while Oleguer played 37 games in his first season for Ajax, the number dwindled to 13 in 2010-11 and just seven in 2010-11. He'd played in a very good side featuring players like Stam, Davids and Hunteleaar, but he became a fringe player without ever doing anything wrong. Ajax didn't renew his contract and he moved back to Catalonia.

He was linked to smaller teams but never played again, before announcing his retirement a year ago, aged just 31. Like Eric Cantona he wasn't injured, unlike Cantona he was short of offers, blaming his political views for his lack of opportunities in football.

Little more was heard of Oleguer until last week, when he announced that he was standing as a candidate for the ultra left-wing CUP party ahead of elections in Barcelona on November 25. It's doubtful that any of his former team-mates will hit the campaign trail with him, not that he will care much for endorsements from what he views as the shallow world of football.

He's a hero to some who share his beliefs - but to others he should have waited and begun his political career after his football one.

Andy Mitten will be blogging for us on all matters in La Liga throughout the season. He contributes to FourFourTwo, the Manchester Evening News and GQ magazine amongst other publications.

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