Sergi Barjuan has been very impressed with Spain’s start to the World Cup and believes that this could be the country’s year to finally make their mark at the Finals.
The former FC Barcelona and Atlético de Madrid defender was a regular in the Spain team throughout the 1990’s and played in the 1994 and 1998 World Cup Finals.
After retiring from professional football last summer, Sergi is now a pundit on Spanish television, but he took time out from his busy schedule to speak to Goal.com about the World Cup.
How do you think Spain have performed in their opening matches?
“They have played some great football. It was important to win the first match and show what they can do, because then everything becomes easier. Also, there are players who are mentally very strong and they will be helping the team forward. Even when they go behind there are no nerves, like against Tunisia, and they continue to play football. With that mentality they can go a long way.”
What has been the key to the team’s good start? The midfield?
“I think so, yes. Spain’s midfield is different to other teams. There is a combination of technically gifted players who are complimented by others that, although technical as well, offer other things too, like Xabi Alonso. At Barcelona, we have enjoyed Xavi’s talent for many years, but now the world is seeing him. The same thing has happened to Cesc (Fábregas). He is from the same school as Xavi and (Andrés) Iniesta.”
Does Cesc have more to offer, because he defends more than Xavi and also attacks and provides incisive passes?
“As well as what he learned at Barcelona, Cesc has learned from his time in England and this has made him into the player that he is today, despite still being a very young man.”
Can Spain finally reach the semi finals this time?
“The best thing is to give them time, not to put lots of pressure on the squad. I have lived through it and the best thing is that squad does not feel any of that. They need to play, to enjoy it and to learn what it means to be involved in the World Cup. To play in a World Cup with a lot of pressure on you is awful. That is what happened to us in France. We lost the first game and from then on the pressure was intense.”
Can this team really achieve something great?
“This squad can certainly make an impact, although many things can have an influence ,like luck. If the team has to play against Brazil in the quarter finals and they beat them then they will have achieved something. Before thinking about Brazil though, Spain has to show what they are truly capable of.”
Can Spain beat Brazil?
“Spain can beat anyone, but they lack a very important thing sometimes, a winning mentality. Brazil go to the World Cup and see themselves as champions. Germany are also strong, along with Italy and Argentina. Spain have to reach the quarters and then to reach the semis they have to believe in themselves.”
Apart from Brazil, which other team do you see doing very well?
“We have already seen that Germany are looking good. The omens point towards a Brazil and Germany final, like in Korea. It will be revenge time!”
What is your best memory from the World Cup Finals in the United States in 1994?
“Just to be called up was unbelievable, because I made my Barcelona debut in November 1993. It all happened very quickly. In June 1994 I was called up to play in World Cup. I was new and did not know quite where I was and had to learn very quickly.”
In the United States, Spain suffered some bad luck against Italy?
“Yes, yes. We should have had a penalty when (Mauro) Tassotti broke Luis Enrique’s nose. Julio Salinas then hit a shot straight at the Italian goalkeeper and, in the last minute, Roberto Baggio scored against us.”
And in the World Cup Finals in France in 1998?
“Bad memories. We had a good team, very good in fact, but everything went wrong. It was like being in pole position in a motorbike race and then falling off at the first corner. It was like that. We went as one of the favourites and everyone was saying that we had a great team, but we did not go past the first round. All I have is bad memories.”
Was that also bad luck?
“It all started with the bad atmosphere between Javier Clemente and the press. It was always likely to explode and it did.”
“Was the preparation for the World Cup in 1994 different to that of 1998? Was it an advantage that the finals in ’98 were closer to home?
“There was more focus and concentration in 1994, more time, which we did not have in France. Many things were said about the build up and what it meant. Zubizarreta said during the World Cup in ’98 that he was retiring. Clemente had the problems with the press. We let in some incredible goals. They were goals that we should never have conceded, but did.”
What is the atmosphere like in the players’ hotel? There is a lot of time between games, can it be boring?
“From my experience, you have a lot of freedom. You can go to the town you are staying in or for a walk in the countryside. Also, you have to train in the morning and the afternoon. In my time we used to make bets on the games we watched on television because this was another way of bringing all the players closer together. The atmosphere was good. In the hotel we had everything to make life as enjoyable as possible.”
It sounds a bit like a mini-holiday.
“No, no. You do a lot of things to stop yourself thinking about the game. If you are in your room, in bed, and all you think about is the game, which could be days away, it becomes a long haul.”
In the players’ hotel, is the pressure from the media obvious?
“The players that go to World Cups are used to the pressure from the media. If in Spain we could stop looking too far ahead, like the quarter finals and a possible game against Brazil, then that would be better. You have to take each game as it comes. If you look too much into the future, you forget about the present.”
Reflecting on Spain’s past problems at the World Cup, could it be that the fact that the Spanish league is so strong means that the players are tired by the time the World Cup comes around?
“No, because Ronaldinho, Ronaldo, (David) Beckham and other great players play in Spain.”
And what about having so many foreign players in the Spanish league?
“In 1994 at Barcelona, for example, nearly all the players were Spanish, but in the end it is the same. It is used as an excuse. Brazil have all their best players playing abroad. Xavi is not tired, (Michel) Salgado and Raúl are not tired, because they have not played every game this season.”
One factor in Spain’s favour is that there are a lot of young players like Pepe Reina, Luis García and Cesc Fábregas and they have played a lot in strong teams in England, when perhaps in Spain they would not have had that chance. They have a lot of experience because they have been given a lot of responsibility in the Premiership.
“That could be true. Spain have players playing abroad and that has made them more professional. That can only be good. It is positive that Spain has a young squad and that the players want to win things. That is very important.”
In Catalunya, there not many people that want Spain to win, but there are players like Carles Puyol, Xavi, Cesc and Andrés Iniesta who all came up through the youth ranks at Barcelona.
“That is more on a political level than a sporting one. There are very few Catalan players that do not want to play for Spain. The ultimate thing for a player is to go to the World Cup. What happens in politics is completely different. Catalunya cannot play on its own in a World Cup. Nor could Andalucia either. All we are doing is debilitating the country and there are already enough hurdles.”
You last team, Atlético de Madrid have signed Mariano Pernía and now have both of Spain’s left backs, along with Antonio López.
“All the better. When Antonio López and I played together and he played further forward and I stayed back, in the same position (Martin) Petrov does now. It gives the coach more options which is great. Then they only had Antonio López and if he picked up an injury then they had to use (José) Molimero there and he is a right-back.”
You know Fernando Torres well, is the leader of the team at Atlético?
“Atlético de Madrid is not just about one player. Atlético has to play as a team. It has to be that everyone works together. Petrov has to work, Maxi has to work, Torres has to work and everyone must understand each other. That way Fernando Torres can shine. Now Torres feels alone up front. He wants to win things, but things have worked against him.”
Does Torres have too much pressure at Atlético?
“It is difficult for a young player to carry a team. If, as has been the case, things do not go well then it makes life very hard for him. A season is very long and he cannot always be at 100 per cent.”
Can he become a real star?
“I believe so, yes. I know him and would like him to. He has to know when is the time to take on three players and when is the time to pass to a team-mate. If does that then he will become a great all-round player.”
You have just finished a coaching course for your badges. How are things going?
“I have just finished the practical course in Madrid. Now I have to spend a year with a team. We shall see what happens next. I want to take it slowly. I would not want to take over at Barceona, or anything like that, because that could go wrong.”
At Barcelona now they like to use players from the Dream Team in coaching roles. Is that one of your targets?
“Well, it is a question of receiving an offer and hearing what they say. I have a good relationship with Txiki (Begiristain, the Barça technical secretary), (Guillermo) Amor and Alexanco (the head of youth development at Barça). It a question of waiting for the right time when there is a vacancy and they think that it could be you. If there is not job, then they are not going to remove anyone if they are doing their job well. If it happens, then so be it.”
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