"Coutinho can have the same impact as Neymar at Barça"
An ambassador for Barcelona and a legend at Liverpool, Luis García sat down with AS to chat about both clubs - and his memories of the 2005 Champions League final.
If ever there was a self-made player, it was Luis García. Groomed in Barcelona's La Masia youth academy, he earned his football spurs first at Valladolid then Tenerife. He dazzled at Atlético de Madrid then formed part of Frank Rijkaard's Barça which conquered Europe. But where he really made a name for himself was with Liverpool. He's still a legend on Merseyside and even to this day fans sing the song they invented for him in 2005 (“Luis García, he drinks sangría…”). He has been acting as an ambassador for Barça on the tour of the United States but took a few moments out of his daily routine to sit down and talk football with AS at the Joule Hotel in Dallas.
How are you enjoying your role as ambassador for Barça?
It's great. It's not the first tour I've done, I did one with Liverpool two or three years ago and so I know what the job entails. It feels like coming home, representing my lifelong club, the club where I grew up. I had already worked in some club ambassadorial roles at sponsorship level in America and Asia. It's a job which allows me to meet people and enjoy these kinds of moments.
What did they ask you to do?
The job's very simple. The club has a set of values and a philosophy - both in terms in playing sport and on a personal level. When we organize football clinics for children in conjunction with the sponsors, it is important to present those values and show that Barça is a family club.
How do you get excited about a tour when all the star players are still on holiday?
It's not easy. But at the end of the day, when there is no Messi, Piqué, Suárez… you can only showcase the Barça image and brand and present the kind of club it is.
Barcelona have strengthened key areas
How are Barça looking to you?
Good. I think the team has done everything it needed to do. We've all seen how crazy the transfer market has been - it's madness. Every player is worth three times their initial value. I think Barça have decided not to get too carried away, the backbone of the team is there. They needed to bring in players in certain positions, which was clear from last season. They've brought in talented players for different positions and there are players in the reserves who can come into the side and help out. I think Barça have managed to get back that mix of world class players with players who have come through the youth system.
How important is it for the club to depend on the youth academy?
It's always been Barcelona's philosophy. The players who come from elsewhere are the ones who make a real difference and the rest come from the youth academy. I think Barça are heading back in that direction despite the B team's relegation last season. I was in a team that was relegated with Xavi, Puyol, Gabri and all three of them ended up playing for the first team while I went out on loan then later came back…
It seems that some of the younger players in La Masia are more restless than before to break into the first team and some of them end up leaving. Would you advise them to wait and be patient?
Yes. It's almost as though if you haven't made your first team debut by the time you are 18 or 19 then you are not good enough. In my case, I really wanted playing time, I had done two pre-seasons with Van Gaal but I wasn't playing. I went out on loan to Valladolid, then Tenerife with Rafa Benítez and we were promoted. Barça bought me back with the idea of sending me to Atlético but I was back at the club by the time I was 23.
You say the current transfer market has inflated prices so that players are going for three times what they are worth...
It's gone mental because England is the epicentre and because they have generated income from broadcasting rights, there is more money there. It's broken the market, like we saw with Neymar. The thing is, if a club pays x amount for a player it's because they are willing to do so. The difference with how it was in my day is that television rights were not what they are today - that has helped boost clubs' incomes and let them spend a lot more money.
Coutinho hammer blow
On the subject of multi-million deals. How did they take Coutinho's transfer over in Liverpool?
That was very tough, it was a big blow. He was an emblematic player for Liverpool. The people really love him a lot there. Fortunately though, it all calmed down because the team managed to have a great Champions League campaign. It's true that they had the forward line well covered with Mané, Salah and Firmino but it was still a big shock.
Coutinho's already achieved a lot in just over half a year. In terms of status, what do you think he can give to Barça?
A lot. We're really going to miss Iniesta because I don't think we will see a player as special as him for many years, but Coutinho is similar to Iniesta and he's also a goal scorer which you need from your midfielders. Sometimes I think we lack someone who can alleviate the pressure on Messi and Suárez and Phil can do that. We haven't been used to seeing players like Coutinho, who can break a deadlocked game with one shot on goal. He's vital to the team.
Do you see him having as big an impact as Neymar?
They're different. He could have a similar because he can score as many goals - or more. Neymar is a very visual player for what he does with the ball - he'll go on a 50-metre run. But in terms of effectiveness, they are similar. You have to see his free-kick taking - sensational. He was a little shy at first - in the first two games I don't think he even had a shot on goal. He started out looking a little lost but ended the season wanting the ball and conducting play. I think people are going to see the best of Coutinho. And when rivals come out to try and block him from having a shot, that opens up all kinds of possibilities for Luis Suárez.
Missing out on silverware
Your move to Liverpool turned out a dream, but were you ever a bit sorry not to have been part of that Barça side which won LaLiga in 2005 and the double in 2006?
Yes, very much. For me, I was leaving the place which had been my home - and it had taken a lot of effort for me to return to Barça. On top of which, Rijkaard didn't want me to go. Bit at least I managed to feel valued and that's very important for a player who has come through the youth ranks. I did the pre-season with Messi. I remember chatting to Eusebio [Sacristán], who had become assistant coach after Ten Cate left and he said to me: 'We've got a little lad here who's got the whole thing nailed - he gets the ball, then boom, he scores...'. He told me that he'd been in Asia with us and that was when the penny dropped and I realized who he was talking about. He was only a kid but I had a really good relationship with him and even tried to help him a bit.
First glimpses of teenage talent, Leo Messi
Could you see what Messi went on to do coming back then?
No! Nobody did. He was a little kid, 16 years old, really shy and quiet… Of course you could see the quality he had, he had a good left foot but a lot of things can happen when you are 16. In the pre-season, they'd take eight or nine youth team players and the number would gradually be reduced over the summer, maybe three would finish the pre-season. After what Eusebio had said to me about Messi, I started to take more notice of him. And just a few years later… the best player in history.
You once said Ronaldinho was the best player you've been in a team with?
The best I played alongside. I never got the chance to play with Messi, only against him, but for me, Ronaldinho was just unbelievable, something we'd never seen before. Strength, quality, this immense joy to play football and train… Everyone loved him because he gave off this air of happiness and that's very important.
Is Messi better than Ronaldinho?
When both are at their absolute best they are very close. The difference between them is minimal so you can compare them. But Messi's been doing it for 15 years straight - consistency is the main difference. Ronaldinho had more ups and downs after his best years were over. It's difficult to compare them because we are talking about two completely different eras.
Football in India
Your travels also took you to India. What was that like?
On a professional level, I retired in Mexico. I spent three years there and really enjoyed it because it's a very tough league, very difficult. The India thing came about when Atleti were going to open a franchise and I was three for three and a half months. I went there just to try something a little different and it really was because there is no football culture in India. And yes, it was definitely the strangest experience I've had. In our first game there were 80,000 spectators and in our second game, which was at home, when we scored the first goal they let off a load of fireworks! Then, when our opponents equalised they let off more fireworks… at home... The fans would be shouting - the same if you had scored a goal or not, and at the other teams. Every chance we created caused this great feeling of happiness in the stands. It was wonderful to have an experience like that. We even went to Bollywood by helicopter!
Tell me, how does a player from Badalona become a Liverpool legend?
They were three really good years. It's complicated. When you use the word legend, I think it takes people aback. In England there is a different kind of culture and it really means a lot for a player who has come from abroad to feel that kind of affection. In my first season we won the Champions League, I was in the shortlist of 25 nominated for the Ballon d'Or. For any player, that's incredible. We won the FA Cup, which is an important trophy in England. We won four trophies in all - I think also the key was that we really wanted to be integrated. We formed a group with Hyppia, Carragher, Gerrard and we wanted to talk in English and be spoken to in English right from the very start, eat fish and chips etc... All of that made the chemistry within the dressing room really good. We didn't have top level players, we weren't Madrid or Barça, we didn't have any star players but with 16 players of different nationalities, which is never easy, we managed to forge a great union.
Miracle in Istanbul
What's the trick behind bouncing back from 0-3 down in a Champions League final?
That's something I can't tell you… I have no idea. We've talked about it so many times. We've done motivational speeches in universities and colleges. A lot of things just came together. We got to the dressing room and we saw the coach very relaxed, he wasn't angry even though we were losing 0-3. He said to us: lads, let's sit down and talk about this. We're going to make a change. A player had gone into the showers because he thought he was going to be subbed and he had to get changed back into his kit. I don't know if you've heard about that?
Hamman started warming up because he was going to come on and Gerard would move into a deep-lying forward position. Traoré went off to get showered but in just five minutes, Finnan said he had twinges to his adductor and didn't think he could continue. So they went to the showers and told Traoré: Jimmy, come back. He thought it was a joke? He didn't have a great first half but his second half was spectacular. I was amazed at his mentality - that he could think it was all over, he was going off, the rest can carry on - and then after to completely change his mindset and get fired up to go out there again. Then there were some other little changes.
I was deployed wide on the wing and Gerrard was pushed forward into a central role in case he could get on the end of a loose ball; if we could make it 3-1 it wouldn't look so bad. Anyway, a few minutes into the second half, Gerrard, who had scored three headers in the whole of his career, made it 3-1. And then Smicer, who hadn't even been in the squad list for our last league game because he was going to be sold, came on for Kewell and scored an absolute beauty. These are small details which had an effect and showed that the coach had been thinking about it all.
What is the first thing that comes to mind whenever you hear the 'Luis García, he drinks sangría' song and how did you find out about it? The fans still sing it.
Xabi Alonso used to moan because they never invented a song for him… in England, they love making up songs. I remember during the 2005-06 pre-season, we were out on the pitch in Birmingham and the fans were singing. [John Arne]Riise called me over and said: that song they're singing - it's for you. I couldn't understand the words but after the game they gave me the lyrics. Even now, I keep receiving messages from people. When the travelling Kop go to away games, people still send me videos of fans singing that song in city squares or on the metro. So you think to yourself: I must have done something right. Liverpool fans were even singing it in the last final in Kiev.
Luis García on the 2018 Champions League final in Kiev
What did you think about that final…
It was a huge blow. Something you don't expect. The team was playing some amazing football up until Mo Salah's injury and as soon as he went off, it all just went out. The players couldn't take it in and the fans stopped singing. It was such a shame. Madrid played it to perfection because they rode out the early storm from Liverpool as though they knew what was going to happen. They were able to withstand the critical moments. The goalkeeper's mistakes didn't help either.
Have you been surprised by how Liverpool fans, who are known for their loyalty towards their own players, have turned on Karius?
It's been very tough and the mistakes he made at the start of the pre-season didn't help. Karius is a good goalkeeper, that's why Klopp brought him in and he'd had a good season. It wasn't easy for him to take over the first choice place from Mignolet and he did it very naturally. I think the club have made a good move by signing Alisson to take him out of the limelight a little so that he can focus on bouncing back.
Liverpool fans' Luis García song (Sung to the tune of 'You are my sunshine')
He drinks sangría
He comes from Barça
To bring us glory
He's five foot seven
He's football heaven
So please don't take our Luis away
(repeat to fade)
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