Looking back at my career, I’m always very grateful for my experience with Barcelona and some of the players I played with. I grew up in Barcelona but my path to playing for the first team wasn’t as straightforward as many of the La Masia graduates they’ve had pass through the ranks.
When I joined, Ronaldinho was like a rock star: he was the best player in the world, on every advert and had fans queuing up for his autograph. His personality soon radiated around the club and in some ways, he changed the mentality of Barcelona.
Catalans can culturally have a negative outlook, especially when it comes to football – for example if Barcelona were winning comfortably but then conceded to make it 4-1, the fans would be more worried of a comeback than hopeful of scoring a fifth goal. Ronaldinho changed this forever with his smile and his dancing after goals; his presence was contagious and suddenly Barça became winners with him.
Ronny was pure magic! As a player he is the best I have ever seen. He had a brilliant first touch, his quality in the final third and his power running with the ball was jaw-dropping.
One of my favourite memories from my time at Barcelona involved an insane goal with Ronaldinho during training. I was the one that scored the goal, but I didn’t know too much about it.
We were on the same team in one of our frenetic five-a-side matches at the end of training. Ronaldinho had possession on the left facing away from goal and I was running through the centre towards the goal. Without looking, Ronaldinho flicked the ball up and with the outside of his boot he volleyed it across towards me.
The ball hit my chest and went into the goal. He scored using me, as if I was a backboard in basketball. Afterwards he just said: “Great goal Andrea!” with a smile on his face. I’ll never forget that moment, he was so skilful and had vision like I’d never seen before. He was the best player I’ve played with.
Despite being local to Barcelona, my path to playing for them was rockier than most. I spent a large portion of my youth career with Espanyol, but I was let go for being too small. After Espanyol I played for another local team in Barcelona where I quickly developed physically before being scouted by Alavés at 16.
The setup at Alavés was fantastic, they’d played in the UefaCup (Europa League) the season before and the club was very well run. After one season in the Under-18 team, I joined the first team, who’d just been relegated to LaLiga Santander. At 17, I made my debut and signed my first professional contract. Being released by Espanyol was hard but it turned out I’d taken one step back and two forwards.
After two seasons we were promoted back to LaLiga and I had some offers to leave permanently. The season before we’d had a new owner arrive at the club, but after he watched me in training he blocked any permanent transfers that were on the table.
By the end of the transfer window, he finally agreed to let me leave on loan but all the options I had at the start of the summer had now gone. Thankfully, it just so happened Barcelona needed a left-
footed attacking midfielder for their ‘B’ team, and once they were interested it was an easy decision to make.
Everyone remembers their first day training with a new club and for Barcelona it was memorable for two reasons: Firstly, I had to cut my hair, as I wasn’t allowed to wear a hair band. Secondly, the technical quality of all the players stood out: everyone was unreal, even the goalkeepers.
I largely put the high standard of technical quality down to Barcelona’s training methods from an early age. All their teams play the same from five years old to the first team, so the methodology is the same all the way through and only the coach changes.
Our training was all possession based. We would complete one lap of the pitch and then it was straight into Rondos, a possession-based game with a large circle of players keeping the ball away from two players in the middle.
Every day we’d spend 30-40 minutes training on Rondos and it was very intensive. If you lost the ball it was like hell because it was so difficult to get out of that circle. Everyone took it very seriously, and because of that you had to be focussed and never wanted to give the ball away.
During my career I played for Swansea, Brighton and Blackpool and we would use the Rondo drill, but it was never taken as seriously as they did at Barça; it was more of a warm-up drill.
But it is a very important technical exercise because it trains players on several important attributes such as their body position to receive the ball and the quality of the pass, and it becomes a tactical exercise for the two in the middle as they need to be organised to win it back.
Training at Barcelona was all about looking after the ball, taking care of it and never getting rid of it. That was forbidden. You must treat the ball well as it is your best friend.
This philosophy laid the foundations for the success that soon came. Frank Rijkaard was the first-team coach at the time, and he was laid-back but well respected by the players. He acted like a father-figure for some of the stars like Ronaldinho, Samuel Eto’o and Deco.
His era was extremely successful: Barcelona won the league and Champions League in my first season and, I have to say I won the league as well, as I played in the LaLiga in 2006!