Andy Mitten chats to Fran Merida, the former Arsenal starlet who is happy playing football again after a troubled time since quitting the Gunners.
Fran Merida was on his first day at the Portuguese club Braga. A youthful star at Barcelona and Arsenal, he sat in his new dressing room, unable to understand what the coach was saying in Portuguese to the other players.
The Catalan, who still elicits words of praise from former team-mates David de Gea, Sergio Aguero, Diego Forlan and Juan Mata, had been in the first-team at Atletico Madrid – the club he’d supported as a kid - and playing well, before a change of manager saw him become more peripheral figure. He was loaned to Braga, but it was a disaster from that first day.
“Even though I couldn’t speak Portuguese, my new team-mate Hugo Viana, whom I played against at Newcastle, told me what the coach had said to the others,” sighs Merida. “The coach told them that I was a signing which had been forced on him, that it was not his decision. He said that in front of me and the rest of the players. If I’d known that at the time I would have reacted instantly.
“Imagine how I felt? I called my agent and said I wanted to leave Braga that day, but then I stayed for four months. I’d signed a contract.”
Talk about kicking a man while he’s down.
“My confidence was very, very low at that point and I really did begin to doubt myself and wonder if I had the level to be a footballer,” explains Merida, now 26. “It was the worst moment in my career. I felt that everyone was lying to me. I didn’t like football anymore.”
That was in 2010. Merida is now in a much better place. He’s still a professional footballer, enjoying life back in his native Spain. He’s seen plenty of former team-mates fall lower than he has, and plenty more soar to the top of the game he’s in love with again.
He recently watched Spain’s international games from the flat he shares with his girlfriend in Huesca, close to the Spanish Pyrenees. Merida saw his former international team-mates David de Gea, Juan Mata, Cesar Azpilicueta and Jordi Alba. Others like Ander Herrera and Dani Parejo are still in the international reckoning.
Merida, once described by Arsene Wenger as “an absolutely amazing player” after he’d signed him to a long-term deal, wasn’t envious or bitter. His football career has had many twists and turns, it has taken in clubs in four different countries, but he only wishes his former team-mates well.
“I’ll always support Spain and I’m really pleased the men I played with have achieved what they have,” he explains in perfect English learned during a three-year spell in north London.
“My own career could have gone better but I remain thankful that I make a living getting paid to play football and that I’m now enjoying playing again.”
Merida grew up in Barcelona, playing his youth football in the working class street of Hospitalet, an area which produced Jordi Alba and Victor Valdes and numerous other professionals.
“I played with a good team and won a youth tournament, beating Barça and Espanyol,” he explains. “Barça signed me soon after.”
Merida continued to progress as one of the best players in his age group.
“I’d played in a youth tournament – Bojan was my team-mate - in Holland and my father received a call a few days later. We landed at Barcelona airport and my father came to pick me up. He said: ‘I have to talk to you, Arsenal called. They want to sign you.’ I told Dad to stop joking. But then I met Cesc Fabregas, who had been in Barça’s Masia like me and an Arsenal scout. They told me about the club. I went to London to see the training ground and the city. Arsene Wenger told me he wanted me to be there. It was like a dream. My dad said ‘Whatever you decide, it’s your decision and we will support you’.”
Merida was only 15 and didn’t speak English.
“Barcelona is big, but it’s like a village compared to London,” he recalls. “It took 45 minutes to get from the airport to the centre.”
Merida made the decision to join the Gunners and the club moved him into digs with Cesc Fabregas.
“We lived with a lady called Noreen Davies, which Arsenal arranged in Barnet,” he explains. “I stayed there for all my time in London. I called her my English mum. She took so much care of me and Cesc. She helped us be happy in a new country. She’s a lovely women, I’m still in touch with her.”
Merida may have been content with his move; Barça were outraged.
“I was 15 and reading newspapers where they called me a traitor or said that I’d escaped,” he says. “It was horrible to read that about myself. I went to Arsenal to play football and because I felt I had a far better chance of reaching the first team than at Barça. Arsenal told me I’d play with the reserve team, train sometimes with the first and sign a professional contract as soon as I was old enough. That was a big jump from Barça. The academy at Barça was very good but there were a lot of foreign players and few players were getting into the first-team. Guardiola would change that.”
Barcelona took the case to court. It took two years, but the court found in their favour and Merida was ordered to pay €3.2 million to his former club for ‘failing to meet the terms of a personal pre-contract’.
The decision was said to have serious implications for clubs in England, where players were allowed to sign professional contracts at 17, one year earlier than in Spain. Manchester United had taken advantage of the rule signing Gerard Pique, Arsenal Fabregas.
The Madrid-based lawyer Rodrigo Garcia said: “English teams will now think again before signing a young Spanish player. It’s an important ruling.”
“It was a really strange situation for me,” explains Merida. “I was a boy. The club paid some money, not me. I was kept away from it.”
Merida’s life had changed irrevocably.
“I went from going to school with my friends to playing with famous players in less than a year,“ he recalls. "I could see that every year I was getting closer to the first-team.”
Merida made his Arsenal first-team debut in a friendly in 2006 just after his 16th birthday. He signed professional at 17, the age he made his competitive debut as a substitute against Newcastle in the League Cup in September 2007.
“The highlight of my football life,” he says. “I only played for six minutes and only touched the ball once, but I ran around and around because I was so excited. I’ll never forget that moment walking onto the pitch at the Emirates.”
He played against Liverpool too in the Carling Cup, thundering in an 18-yard shot to put Arsenal ahead.
In January 2008, Merida was loaned to Real Sociedad for the remainder of the season. “I told Arsenal that I wanted to play competitive football and not be in the reserves,” he recalls. He went straight into the first team then returned to Arsenal the following season.
“I had some opportunities but the competition was high,” he recalls. “Arsenal bought Aaron Ramsey and Jack Wilshere into the first-team. Nasri, Fabregas, Rosicky and Denilson were also in my position. It was difficult for me.”
Merida played more games and Wenger said: "He has been doing very, very well. He looks really good in training and is getting stronger all the time.”
“I was impatient, I wanted to play more,” he explains. “Levante wanted me for one season and I was going to sign for them. I actually packed my clothes and went with Arsenal to play against Valencia. I was going to stay in the city and join Levante when Wenger called me and said: ‘Please stay, you will get more chances and if you do well you can break into the first-team. He changed my mind, I went back to London.”
It was Merida’s fourth season in London, a city he loved and where he “became a man”.
“The club told me I was going to be part of the first-team squad,” he explains. “I was delighted. I changed for the first-team dressing room. I played a few games in the Premier League and the League Cup. I was getting close. But at the end of the season I had an offer from Atletico Madrid. Even though I’m from Barcelona, I actually supported Atletico Madrid as a kid because I wanted to be different. That double winning team in 1996 was another reason. I thought hard about the offer. They offered me a four-year contract and I still felt that I wasn’t going to play every week at Arsenal. I said goodbye.”
Merida left England.
“It was a mistake, I wasn’t patient,” he explains. “I realise that now, but I’ve never been a patient person.”
Madrid initially worked out.
“We won the European Super Cup and I was playing regularly, I felt like an important player for a big club, the team I’d supported all my life,“ he remembers. "I played with Aguero, Forlan and De Gea under Quique Sanchez Flores.”
“Fran’s a good guy,” explains Forlan. “Talented player, fine at our level.”
“Great left foot,” adds Juan Mata
“I played with De Gea with the national team from 17 until 22,” adds Merida. “Everything was going well at Atletico, until three months from the end of the season I played less and less. I don’t know why. I would become invisible.”
There were changes behind the scenes, with new directors appointed. Coach Gregorio Manzano replaced Sanchez Flores. Then Diego Simeone replaced him.
“Simeone was professional with me and I respected that,” said Merida. “I knew I was leaving by the time he came in. It was others at the club who didn’t want me. I left Arsenal because I thought Atletico was going to be the best place for me, but that didn’t turn out to be true.”
That’s when Merida went to Braga.
“Everything changed after Atletico,” he recalls. “My confidence went. I was 22 years old and felt I could improve at Atletico, but they didn’t want me.”
Merida lasted four months in Braga, then joined Hercules of Alicante in Spain’s second division on a four-year contract.
“It sounded good, but I wasn’t the same person that I’d been,” he explains. “Low confidence made me a worse player. One of the worst things in football is waking up and not looking forward to training. I played all the games, but I wasn’t happy. The team didn’t work well, the local media was very critical, there were internal issues between directors at the club. I was at fault too; I wasn’t the best I could be. I became cynical about football, I thought agents were only interested in money, not the humans. We are numbers and there’s a part to football which people don’t see which is horrible.”
Merida still had over a year of his contract to run when he received an offer from Brazilian top-flight side Atletico Parenese in Curitiba, the wealthiest and most European of Brazil’s cities. He accepted.
“I wanted to get away from everything and the offer was a good one, a two-year deal with a lot more money. I thought ‘Why not?’,” he says.
After waiting three months to sort out a work visa, Merida began to play with his new team.
“I missed the first ten games of the season because of the work permit and it was difficult to get in the team, but I broke in and played in some great stadiums like the Maracana. We finished third in the league; we reached the Brazilian Cup final. We qualified for the Libertadores the following season, but when we were knocked out the chairman said that he wanted to change a lot of things. He decided not to continue with me…”
Merida returned to Spain in July 2014.
“I thought I could get into a second division team but it didn’t happen,“ he recalls. "I had offers from Greece and Cyprus, but I wanted to stay in Spain.”
Merida was unemployed.
“I spoke to my father and said: ‘Look, Dad. I believe in myself but I need to start again. I need to forget the past. But my mood didn’t improve when I waited another four months for the transfer window to open (in January 2015).”
This interview took a long time to set up. It came about by a chance conversation in January 2015 with Manolo Marquez, then coach of AE Prat in Spain’s regional third division.
“I have a player training with us who has a very interesting story,” explained Marquez. “You should speak to him.”
Marquez passed on the message to Merida, who handed over his phone number, but he was in no rush to speak. He’d been stung by journalists before and could see little advantage of speaking to them. He wasn’t in a rush to tell his story while unemployed.
“There were times when I was training with Prat there and I wondered whether I should change my life and stop football,” he explains. “I told my father this and he said: ‘You’re crazy. Don’t. You have a god-given talent to play football. You have to fight to be a footballer.’ I appreciated those words. And I did fight.”
Prat helped, too.
“The people at Prat were so supportive and helped me stay fit for the window to open,” he says. “Everyone wants to be your friend when you’re at the top, the people at Prat had time for me when I was at the bottom.”
Prat coach Manolo Marquez wanted Merida to get a professional club, but he would have also been delighted to have him playing if he didn’t.
“Fran played in one friendly game for us and scored four goals in a 5-0 win,” explained Marquez. “My president said: ‘If we can sign him we’ll win the league.’”
Merida needed full-time, not semi-professional, football. The chance of that came when he received an offer from Huesca, a third division team from a town of 50,000 an hour north of Zaragoza by car.
“Huesca was the best place for me,” explained Merida. “I wasn’t looking for money. I’m not a guy who spends a lot. I bought a car in 2009 and I still have the same car. I bought a flat near Barcelona too, but I’m not a guy who goes to Las Vegas or Miami. I just wanted to play a good level of football every week with a friendly club. I wanted to focus on football and family and when you do that things improve. At Huesca, I played in a winning team which won promotion to the second division.”
As he did, friends made at Prat continued to watch him.
“He was technically the best player there,” said Marquez, “excellent when attacking. We were delighted for him when he won promotion.”
Now Merida is settled in Huesca, “a small town where people look but don’t bother you. It’s a good place and I’m very happy here.” His contract runs until the end of this season, but Merida is optimistic.
He said: “The coach Luis Tevenet, who played for Sevilla and Atletico Madrid, gives me confidence. I’m only two hours away from home. I’m enjoying training every day, I want to do the best I can here and keep improving.”