On a cold, wet Sunday night in a valley some way up the Andorran Pyrenees, 18km beyond the Spanish border and somewhere above the clouds, the linesman turns towards the bench and delivers a warning. Behind him the manager of the home team is on his feet, pacing and shouting. “Eder,” the linesman says, correctly imagining a long evening already, “we haven’t even been playing six minutes.”
There is a smile then and again two hours later, sitting in aportable building at the south end of the pitch where coaching staff and sporting director dissect the match, magnetic players on the whiteboard, flipchart scrawled with the week’s objectives, laptop open. You haven’t changed, then? Eder Sarabia laughs. “Look,” he says, “I live this with passion. And since I came here people have said it’s nice to have someone natural, unafraid to express that, to be themselves.”
Not everyone has always felt the same way, Sarabia knows. Since January he has been coach of Andorra FC in Group 3, Subgroup A of the Segunda B, the labyrinthine, theoretically amateur, 120-team third tier of Spanish football, but you may remember him from the Barcelona bench. In Catalonia, they certainly do: the young, energetic, confident assistant to Quique Setién – over-confident, the accusation ran – Sarabia was very much on the frontline.
Caught on camera during the clásico in March 2020, shouting instructions and swearing as his players wasted opportunities and misplaced passes, Sarabia was at Barcelona for only eight months but they could hardly have been more eventful, arriving into crisis and departing after a historic, humiliating 8-2 defeat by Bayern Munich in Lisbon, although even before that game they knew it was over.
“It’s a very, very, very big scoreline and it will always be recalled, something we’ll always be linked to, our responsibility,” Sarabia admits. “But we know it’s not just us, and can’t linger on it. The team was cogido con pinzas, in a very delicate state. The situation was special: Leo [Messi]’s dissatisfaction, the board, everything going on. All of that affected us, not ideal conditions. I enjoyed Barcelona and I’m very grateful, even if there were things I would have liked to be different; 90% of the time I was myself.”
One accusation was that Setién and Sarabia didn’t connect with the dressing room, Messi especially. That they didn’t change the culture, nor take control, ultimately compromising the principles they held so dear; that Barcelona was too big, that they failed to connect with the squad as they had at Las Palmas and Real Betis.
Sarabia questions that, remaining remarkably positive about the experience, little sign of the damage it could have done him. He fondly recalls conversations, moments when connections were made, glimpses of what could have been. But he does concede: “They’re the best players in the world and it can be harder to convince them; with certain players it’s more difficult to take certain decisions. At the biggest clubs maybe you have to adapt more, a difference between what you want to do and what you can do.”
Even with team selection? It’s more nuanced than that, Sarabia says: “You put everything in a mixer, but it is true that from a perspective that’s only, only, only football, if you’re very, very, very faithful to what you feel tactically, you might have done some things differently. But in a given moment you evaluate other elements. There were games we played our way, although it’s true that towards the end it might have become a bit distorted.”
Many of the problems have been exaggerated, he insists. “At big clubs, people are looking for something to be wrong.” Take the clásico. One sequence had him exasperatedly complaining: “Antoine, Antoine, softly! Finish it, for fuck’s sake!” Against Celta, Messi and Luis Suárez were seen ignoring him. The talk was of fallout, a dressing room that rejected him. “Inside it was no problem,” he insists. “There was a meeting and Antoine [Griezmann] came out laughing: ‘Eder, softly, softly!’ That tells you. It was blown out of proportion. My relationship with some was great.
“The proof of that is that Gerard [Piqué] brought me here.”
And that’s the thing. This is not just: former-Barcelona-coach-goes-to-Andorra. Piqué is not just the Barcelona centre-back; he also became Andorra owner, his company Kosmos buying the club in December 2018. Andorra were in the Catalan regional league then but promotion to the Tercera followed and in July 2019 they won the bid for the open Segunda B slot vacated by ejected Reus, at a cost of €456,000. And that was where Sarabia came in, Piqué attracted to precisely the character and coaching he had seen at the Camp Nou.
Sarabia signed in January 2021, his first job as head coach, but the idea had been forming for a long time. Since their lowest moment, in fact. “The morning after Lisbon, Geri said: ‘Stay in touch; one day I want you to coach my beloved Andorra in the first division.’ That gives you strength but it wasn’t something I really thought about, until he called me in January. ‘I’m going to say this straight out: I want you to coach Andorra.’
“On Wednesday we spoke, on Thursday I was watching videos and on Friday Jaume [Nogués the sporting director] came to Bilbao. The next day he spoke to my sister [a lawyer] and on the Sunday I signed the contract. If it hadn’t been this project I would have said no but I saw a place that fit my idea, where I could help change things. Good people. At Barcelona, Geri would be on the physio’s couch watching Andorra on his mobile: ‘Bloody hell, come on!’ I’d seen what it meant to him.”
So here he is on Sunday night in the third tier as the rain hammers down. In the small stand behind, assistant Manu passes information across. Never still, in the linesman’s ear and his players’ too, Sarabia is drenched but doesn’t stop until the last minute, by which time most of the hundred or so fans have long gone. Others escape the rain under the scaffolding stand, frozen.
It’s 196km from Camp Nou, up winding mountain roads, and a different world too, but the philosophy doesn’t change – the commitment to the Cruyffist creed that attracted Barcelona to Setién in the first place. If there is a word his former assistant shouts often – apart from hostia, bloody hell – it is tranquilo. He demands they keep the ball, positioning and structure paramount: tactical rigour is everything and the players are receptive. “More docile,” he concedes.
In the office afterwards, where GPS monitors are lined up in a neat row and Sarabia’s bike leans against a wall, the analysis is long and detailed. It is still going back at the hotel a few kilometres down the mountain side, Springsteen playing en route. “I’ve never accepted that phrase: ‘You can’t play like that in Segunda B,’” he insists, pulling in. “Yes, you can.”
So far, they can. Although they are grateful to goalkeeper Nico Ratti, a 3-1 win moves Andorra closer to the play-offs for one of four places in the second division, beginning this Saturday against Real Sociedad’s youth team, coached by Xabi Alonso. Promotion would see them play at four levels in two years, which makes it sound easy but a glimpse at the ground, the reality, belies that. The budget is €1.9m, they have 400 members, and play on artificial turf, kick-off times conditioned by climate: sprinklers don’t reach one corner and the setting sun makes it impossible to see from the other side.
“People think ‘Piqué’ and reach the wrong conclusions,” Sarabia says. “This is no golden castle. Of the six in our [pre-play-off] group we’re fifth in budget. This is work, humility, limitations. There aren’t many of us, but we put in many hours. Jaume is the kind of person there are not enough of in football: up at 6am every day, not leaving until 9pm, heading back down the mountains. But there’s a chance to grow. There’s a small group of us laying a path and we have connected very well.”
Where will it lead? And what about the former player who’s now your boss? Does he interfere? “No,” Sarabia says, laughing. “But it’s true that indirectly it reaches you: ‘Bloody hell, why did this guy play?’ He’s very ambitious, enthusiastic, he has a lot bound up in this project, we all do. He also has the character and charisma to lead it, make demands, push for us to go up.”
On Saturday, FC Andorra play for promotion, another step. But even Piqué, who revolutionised the Davis Cup, built a business empire and plays for Barcelona, can’t expect the team from the tiny mountain principality with a population of 77,543 to reach the Champions League one day. Can he? Sarabia smiles. “If you tell him that, he’s not going to say it can’t be done, eh.”