Pitchside Europe

Spanish players continue to long for a slice of life abroad


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Juan Mata and Pablo Hernandez during their days as Valencia team-mates

Another international weekend approaches, another weekend of travel for the assortment of foreign stars in the Premier League. Not all of them will be travelling to play matches. Some, like Chelsea's Juan Mata did not make the Spain squad, but others will use the rest period to make sojourns elsewhere.

Several players came to England in the summer and have not had a chance to go home yet. A good manager will encourage his players to get back to their families to countries like Spain — and a player will not need any encouragement to head south for the last of the summer weather.

Jordi Cruyff, son of Johan, used to be so desperate to get back from Manchester to his family in Barcelona, he would take a morning flight, spend four or five hours in Spain and then fly back to northern England.

Spanish players tend to adapt to new surroundings well. Over 170 of them are now playing around the world, making footballers one of Spain's most successful recent exports. Why? They are technically efficient and remain relatively cheap. A second tier player in Spain may earn €2,000 a week and there are always worries whether those wages would be paid on time. A second tier footballer in England will earn five times that where wages are paid on time. The economic crisis in Spain has only increased the numbers of players leaving the country.

Santi Cazorla, rated as the best player in Spain outside the big two of Barcelona and Real Madrid last season, already seems a bargain at £16 million since washing up at Arsenal. The Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson has continually said there is no value in the transfer market. There is in Spain outside the big two.

There are pockets of Spanish players in a worldwide diaspora, like the seven players in the city of Larnaka in Cyprus or the six at the top-flight Greek side Asteras Triplos. They tend to follow a Spanish manager. Their talents are also in demand, from Unai Emery coaching Spartak Moscow this weather to a former head of Barça's youth system who now works in the UAE.

There are 24 Spaniards in England ranging from Juan Mata, Fernando Torres, Oriol Romeu and Cesar Azpilicueta at Chelsea to Angel Rangel, Pablo Hernandez, Michu and Chicho Flores at Swansea City. Swansea have an excellent recent record of buying Spanish players and their Iberian links strengthened when Roberto Martinez was in charge from 2007-09. He encouraged players like Jordi Gomez and Andrea Orlandi to leave Barcelona for South Wales.

New Swansea coach Michael Laudrup's last job was in Spain, so he knew Spanish players better than any other. He managed Chico Flores at Mallorca last season and recognised the potential of Valencia's Pablo Hernandez, who became Swansea's £5.5 million record signing.

I went to see Hernandez in Valencia in December. He put a brave face on things, but his status in the squad had slipped from being a regular starter and man of the match against Manchester United a season earlier, to a regular substitute. He was ready to try the Premier League.

I also travelled to Swansea to watch Gomez and Orlandi when they first moved from Spain in 2008. They invited me out after a night game, but Orlandi and his girlfriend Laura were a bit embarrassed that nowhere was open in Wales' second city for a meal after 11pm. Most people in their home city go out at 11pm. So Laura made a meal for someone she had never met before.

Four years on, I called Orlandi, who scored the fastest goal in the Premier League last season after 25 seconds, as part of this article.

"I'm still with Laura and we're now parents," he said. "We lived in Swansea for five years. It was hard at first, adjusting to life away from Barcelona, the British weather and the different type of football. But we got used to it and we loved the warmth of the Welsh people. We met so many good people and Swansea was such a friendly club that even when things didn't go well for me on the pitch, we were always felt welcomed. I left for Brighton in the summer — a great move for me, but I'm not ashamed to say that I cried when I had to say goodbye to Swansea."

Orlandi, 28, is an Anglophile. "We're going to Barcelona this weekend and of course I miss the sun, my friends and family, but I want to spend the rest of my career playing in the English leagues and I think more Spanish players will come to England. I found the football really physical at first, but now I actually enjoy it. I love the fans, the full stadiums, the football culture." They are happy to raise their baby daughter in England.

Swansea more than replenished their stock of Spaniards this summer, signing three including Michu, the attacking midfielder who was a star for Rayo Vallecano in recent seasons, for just £2 million. Despite not being a striker, he scored 15 goals in the Primera Liga last season and made an incredible first impression in England, scoring twice and providing an assist as the Swans won their opening game 5-0 at QPR.

"He was the best player on the pitch," says former Ipswich Town and Leicester City striker James Scowcroft, who covered the game for BBC Radio London. "He had a habit of arriving late in the box, late but perfect for the balls which were played to him. English teams still struggle with players like that. His running from deep continually troubled QPR."

Scowcroft has watched many foreign players arrive here in his 18 years as a professional. "It will be good for them to get a break this weekend as gets harder as the weather closes in," he says. "It's a tough physical game in England and there's no mid season break like in Spain. I've seen new foreign signings look wonderful in August and half the player in December, but there's no doubting the quality of many Spanish players."

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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