Fall 2012, Volume 13

Nonfiction by Jeffrey Herlihy-Mera

Leaving Barcelona

There are no tryouts for professional soccer teams in Spain. That American ritual of seeing a notice in the paper or online and showing up at a date and time with a few dozen others, all scrubbed and expectant, wearing a practice jersey from some college or MAPLE team, doesn’t exist. It doesn’t matter where you played last or your place in the hierarchy of footballers, the process is the same: a short conversation with the coach. He looks you up and down and might touch your shoulder. If you look the part he’ll say they don’t need anyone right now but someone didn’t turn up for training that day. There is no supervision or guidance from there. You walk out onto the field and remain there until someone better goes through the same process. You’re sipping coffee outside the stadium one minute and running through the midfield at full speed with little if any transition.

When I came to that role at 21, there were some factors to reduce: born on Cape Cod, childhood spent amidst Portuguese and OFD Boston-Irish and a spattering of summer kids, a messy jumble of cultures. I grew up in a place people think is Gatsby and West Egg but is more like Jack Kerouac’s Lowell. Soccer put all of that in order. I spoke English and Spanish and heard Portuguese and had pictures of Tab Ramos on my bedroom wall. One poster read: “He has his head on the ground and his feet in the clouds.” He was the first American to play pro in Spain and had his head smashed by an elbow against Brazil during the ’94 World Cup quarterfinals. I knew I was going to Spain even before I saw that on my TV. I believed in all of it. Train stations and huge blue cloudless skies and fútbol. All of it was a way out of there.

Years later Sants Estació (Barcelona’s main train hub) became a kind of gateway to the city. It was where I—like many other foreign residents—changed trains on my way to work. Our journeys would start in crowded trains that came down from the north through the mountain pass at Tibidabo or up from the floodplain south of the city. The destination of all the trains is Sants. That transfer station from commuter–train to subway was some kind of innocuous point between worlds.

To me the phrase “playing professional soccer in Barcelona” is vague—I write it down not quite knowing what it means. Are you playing when you first get on the field? Does it matter if it is a practice field? What if your contract pays only when you play in games—and you don’t play in games? I have struggled with questions since I was first “playing” professional soccer in Spain. To me the decisive moment was not on a field: it happened on the platform at Sants when a player called me over and shook my hand. Right then I was one among them. Players in the lower leagues live outside the city and most have other jobs. They cannot afford the urban districts like Gracia or L’Eiximple or Les Corts and live in Hospitalet or Badalona, and some as far out as Terrassa and Vilafranca. So almost everyone starts and ends their days not in metro stations but on suburban train platforms. People in those places do not say they live “en” Barcelona but “por” —these are tiny words but they have enormous significance. The use of language hints at envy and describes a burdened relationship with the city. The inhabitants of the cities’ leafy neighborhoods think of townships like Sant Boi and Sabadell like they think of the end of a joke.   

“Beautiful” play in Spain is associated with technical proficiency. Working the ball from the air (that is, with your head) for some reason is a skill that is not developed in Spain as it is in other soccer cultures. (You’ll see that because of this many Liga teams do not have Spaniards in the center of their defense.) Those who play defense and are good in the air are considered goons. No Spaniards want to be known for goonishness: when you ask one of the young, up and coming 15–20 year–olds where they play, the standard response is “delantero, pero ahora…” Strikers are beautiful and Center Backs are not.

In high school I ran the 100 meters in 10–point–something and once high jumped 6’2. I tried my best to make that clear when I first spoke with the coach but what I could or couldn’t say didn’t matter. What mattered when I came through the stadium gates was that I was “184” and could play in the air.  

On the field there was a simple trajectory: I walked out of the tunnel to a spot as outside midfielder and was moved around to other stations on the pitch that afternoon based on my play. The transition to center defense did not occur with my first club. There was a Scotsman named Gary playing at Center Back; he was 6’2 (“186” as they say) and talented in the air and on the ground. Before his football career he was contender for the Scottish national boxing championship. He told me that his title bout was going well until the third round. Then he woke up in the training room. That was his last fight—and a few months later, like me, he was in Barcelona looking for a spot on a Spanish team.   

I found that compared to back home, where bodies regularly slam into one–another at great speeds, establishing position and heading the ball in Spain was relatively easy. Gary said the same and we quickly became friends. After a few weeks with that club I eventually moved to what we call in America Defensive Midfield, right in front of Gary. He and I destroyed everyone in the air during the games and a lot of beer afterward.

Through some misguided ambition, after about a year I moved on to another club in a different league. The atmosphere there was always conflicted and the social interactions complex. Almost all of the lower teams have ties to upper–tier (second or third division) clubs. They are the farm system, so there is an interesting hodgepodge of people and players. There are men in their mid to late 30s who have played at the top and are trying to make it back. They move with an ease and smoothness of some other reality. Beside them you are a harried and uncoordinated mass. There is the striker down temporarily due to an injury or too many yellow cards. He walks around like a peacock and speaks only to God. And there are the skinny and nervous 17–20 year olds who ooze skill and might someday blossom into greatness. They are fast and able but so slight that they can be moved off the ball by a breath of wind. The goalkeepers are like the society’s intellectual elders. Their voices command attention and silence from everyone, even the coaches. Once I became a starter at Center Back for my second club, that they were my superiors was never in question.

Eventually I moved again to a third team where I had the potential to strike a professional contract. At that club my role changed drastically. As a defender you cannot screw up. There is nothing magical about it: I usually followed around the other team’s best player. I’d push him to his weak side, stand goalside of him on direct and corner kicks. When the ball was between us, I’d use speed and a stiff–arm to get at it. That’s about it. Defenders are there to disrupt, not create. But you need the coach’s confidence to do those things because if you screw up, he has screwed up.

After a few months there I had formed a pretty solid niche. I remember I would see the midfielders on my train every morning and sometimes at night. The goalkeepers invited me out for beers one time and asked about my ancestors immigrating to Boston. It was still light out after lunch (lunch is late in Spain) so we went to see a movie in the Olympic Village. There is nothing like drinking beers during the day while dehydrated after soccer practice and then going to a movie. Those are the memories that stick most. But I never once saw the field in a game.

One afternoon a guy I’d never seen before strutted out onto the field. I didn’t expect the change to occur like that. But there I was, walking toward the metrotunnel trying to keep everything from my footlocker from falling out of my arms.   

For me the decision to leave Barcelona came gradually and then very suddenly. I wasn’t aware of its process. After 18 months I knew football was not working and I enrolled in college classes. After the “professional” rejection I kept playing in lower levels for six years, hoping something might change. The expatriate twist was that I just needed more time. Eventually I accumulated enough experience to realize that Barcelona was not part of my future. And it happened just like that. After eight years of up and down football, a few stints back home, there I was: 30 years old sitting at a café behind a coffee cup, looking down into it. I just couldn’t understand why I wasn’t happier than I was.




BIO:   I am professor at University of Puerto Rico and Fulbright Scholar at Universidad del Azuay. My first book, In Paris or Paname: Hemingway’s Expatriate Nationalism, went to print in 2011. My scholarly work has appeared in The Barcelona Review, Hemingway Review, European Journal of American Studies, among others.

I moved from Massachusetts to Spain in 1999 to pursue a career as a soccer player. When it was clear that my dream was not working, I enrolled in a university and nine years later earned a PhD in "Art, Literature, and Thought" from the Universidad Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona.