“I know someone who knows him,” said the Catalan football journalist. “I’ll get his contact details but he won’t do it.” I was attempting to contact and interview Luis Enrique, the former Barcelona and Real Madrid player who is now a coach. It was April of this year and he was out of work. I sent him an email in Spanish, explaining that I wanted to speak to him for FourFourTwo magazine.
Enrique replied two days later in English, explaining that he knew the magazine and would be up for an interview. Within a week I was knocking on his gate at his house near the beach south of Barcelona. He suggested a walk to the beach, where we could talk at a café, a walk past the seafront homes of several Barcelona players.
Enrique, 42, was friendly from the off, yet his reputation preceded him. The Asturian wasn’t usually one for dealing kindly with the media. Journalists saw that first hand when he was Barcelona captain, the lungs of the side from 1996-2004, a cracking player who was also popular at Real Madrid where he’d spent five years.
After retiring in 2004, he turned to running, triathlons and iron men competitions. Enrique loved football, but there was more to life. He’s still ultra fit.
The editor requested Enrique to be pictured wearing boxing gloves as he was renowned for being a fighter on the pitch. And also pouring a bottle of Asturian cider from above his head into a glass held in the other hand just above the knee. The photographer bought gloves, a good quality cider and a typically Asturian glass. I told him to hide them. We’d not met Enrique before and didn’t want to push things too far, too soon.
Enrique talked and talked. It was a pleasure listening to him. He was passionate, informed, humorous and articulate. He talked about going to see his childhood heroes Sporting Gijon, about being pictured in the local paper close to the ultra fans. He hid the newspaper because he didn’t want his mum to see him standing near the hard men.
Enrique broke into Sporting’s first team, where met a big Dubliner, the experienced Irish international Kevin Moran. Enrique was half his age. When he was older, Enrique remembered to treat young players as Moran had treated him, players like Andres Iniesta, who went to the wrong dressing room on his first day with Barça’s first team.
“I saw Iniesta, pale skin, slight,” recalled Enrique, then his captain. “But oohh, what a player. A lot of players don’t realise that Iniesta and Xavi had lots of games on the bench. Only Messi walked into the first team. Young players have to understand, adapt and learn. They have to learn little by little otherwise there is too much pressure in them. Only Messi went straight into the first team. After Messi, Iniesta’s the most inventive player in Spanish football at the moment. He’s like Harry Potter. 1-2-3, and whoosh, he’s past the player. It’s like he has a magic wand.”
When Enrique retired, he also decided to travel and see some of the places he’d not properly seen as a player.
“I wanted to watch games from the perspective of a fan and stand where I’d played games,” he explained. So he went to Anfield for a big European game, but put his hood up and stood on the Kop. “I wanted to hear ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’,” he said. “One person recognised me. He was a big guy with a scarf and a Liverpool shirt. He said: ‘You’re Luis Enrique!’ What are you supposed you say to that? I moved a little bit and nobody else recognised me.” He went to Celtic Park too.
Enrique moved into coaching with Barça B, replacing his former team mate Pep Guardiola who’d stepped up to the first team in 2008. He spent three solid years there and turned down numerous offers. In 2011, he decided to take the AS Roma job. They wanted to incorporate the Barca model. Don’t they all?
Enrique is a learner. He explained how was listening to British podcasts to improve his English and learn more about English football. He thinks it’s important to learn the language of any country that you work in, that’s why he learned Italian at Roma.
After 85 minutes of talking (40 minutes would have been enough), the boxing gloves and Asturian cider glass came out. Enrique smiled - then agreed to be pictured as requested.
We kept in touch. Enrique said he was interested in working in England and he emailed to say how he’d read all about Wigan Athletic reaching the FA Cup final and the story of that club. He mentioned his admiration for Swansea and the work of Brendan Rogers.
He didn’t have an agent and I have no intention of being one, but I made a few suggestions of English clubs where managerial vacancies were likely over the summer. That included speaking to a Spanish player at one club and mentioning Enrique’s name. The player loved the idea and called back, outlining why he would be a good choice over 30 minutes, from the state of the training ground to their style of play. All the information was passed onto Enrique, but he emailed back and said: ‘Don’t worry about me, I’m fine!’
That story was relayed to the Catalan journalist who’d put me in touch with Enrique. She started laughing and said: “I can’t believe you’re suggesting small English clubs to him, he’s only waiting for one job.” She made it sound like it was the most obvious statement in the world and I felt pretty foolish when all I was trying to do was help.
A month later, he agreed to become Celta Vigo’s coach. But a month after that, he was offered the job – coach of Barcelona’s first team. Tito Vilanova had to step down after a reoccurrence of his cancer and Barça needed a coach. They asked Enrique. The offer wasn’t unanimously agreed at Camp Nou. Enrique was popular at the club for his work as a player and coach, but he’s as strong willed as Guardiola and Johan Cruyff and not everyone wanted to see him back. But he was offered the job and told a compensation package could be negotiated with Celta Vigo. Enrique said he wanted time to speak to his wife, who is from Barcelona. The club never got back to him and instead offered the job to Tata Martino.
Enrique has since focussed his attention on the job at Celta, who only stayed up on the final day last season having won their last two games. Before that, they’d spent five seasons in the second division. Enrique has got a playing budget of €35 million, well short of Barcelona’s €500 million, but a figure just below mid-table in the Primera Liga. He’s got enough to work with and signed three players he’d worked with at Barça B – Nolito, Rafinha (Thiago Alcantara’s brother who signed on loan) and centre half Andreu Fontas, plus striker Charles, who was the top scorer in the second division last season with Almeria. He’s already scored three league goals. The summer departure of Celta’s local hero Iago Aspas, sold to Liverpool for €9 million, doesn’t hurt quite so much.
Enrique has enjoyed a successful start and Celta were unbeaten before Monday’s visit to Athletic Bilbao, the first game to be played in the new San Mames stadium. Charles scored the first goal in the stadium, which is currently three sided with 36,000 seats, but will grow to 53,000 by next year.
Celta lost 3-2, but were praised for their football. Enrique? He stood taking pictures of the new stadium with his phone – the football fan who’d said as much when we met when he remarked: “I was lucky that I was able to dedicate my life to what I most loved: as a fan, a player and now as a manager. It must be terrible to work in something that you don’t like. Because I am so passionate, it’s easy to empathise with players and for them to believe in me.”
They believe in him so far and so do Celta’s fans.