Sergio Busquets is a footballer who divides opinion. Not in Spain, where his class is appreciated, but further afield where he is seen as a cheat who personifies the less edifying aspects of the Spanish game.
His haranguing of the referee seldom looks good, but focus on that and fail to spot one of the most internationally underrated talents in football, a talent who continues to improve, who was good enough for Barcelona keep ahead of Yaya Toure, a talent who had a serious claim to be in the FIFPro world XI.
Lionel Messi aside, when Pep Guardiola gets a new club there’s one player he’d like to take with him more than any other: Busquets. He knows he could build a side around Busquets, son of the former Barcelona goalkeeper.
Kids of top 90s footballers tend to have been raised in relative opulence. Xabi Alonso enjoyed a comfortable upbringing, Thiago Alcantara too. Their dads had money. Busquets is a little different.
He was raised in Badia del Valles, a hard suburb of a Sabadell (who have a team in the second division), which is to Barcelona what Rochdale is to Manchester, Dudley to Birmingham. He still lives there.
“There are no pretensions where I’m from,” said Busquets, who is pleasant and bright off the field. “My dad’s job was different but I loved it.”
Carlos Busquets was Barça’s long time goalkeeper – usually a reserve but he played in the 1991 European Cup Winners’ Cup final defeat v Manchester United and the 1994 European Cup final defeat v AC Milan.
He was a character with a capital ‘C’. If a Barcelona player had his car radio stolen in the 90s, then they went to Carlos to try and find a solution to the problem. Busquets knew everyone from the right and the wrong side of the tracks.
He took young Sergio into the dressing room to meet Rivaldo, Figo (his hero until he joined Madrid) and Sergi. Sergio sees his team mates bringing their kids into the dressing room (and Barcelona’s players have been having a lot of kids) and makes a fuss of them because it was him 20 years ago.
He also encouraged his boy to do what he hadn’t done and study hard at school. Busquets claims that he would have gone to university (he was a top student in maths) had football not taken over. Or, in his words: “Football started to become more important and suddenly I was 18-years-old and playing for Barca.”
Carlos still works at Barça as a goalkeeping coach. Sergio claims his dad “taught me a lot about the mentality of being a good professional.”
Busquets played under Guardiola for the reserves, who had been relegated to Spain’s fourth tier. They now play in the second division. Some Barça socios claimed it wasn’t good enough, that the emerging talents should not be playing in small town stadiums at clubs where the average crowd was 200. Busquets viewed it differently.
“Pep was manager and we’d go to little Catalan towns where everyone wants to shoot you down because you played for Barca,” he said.
“I remember one game at Rapitenca in a tiny stadium in the south of Catalonia near the Ebro Delta. The people were shouting all kinds of abuse at us, as were the other players. Most of us were 18, 19, playing against 34-year-old men who wished they’d played for Barca.
“It didn’t intimidate me. I don’t mind that part of the game. In fact I quite like an aggressive game – I’m from a barrio so I was not scared playing down there, but some of the other players were nervous after the first challenges went in.”
Busquets is largely a product of Guardiola’s faith. He promoted him to the first team for his first match on the Scottish pre-season tour of 2008. He told him to enjoy himself and not be nervous and picked him most weeks.
Busquets won the treble at the end of his first season. A year later he won the World Cup with Spain after proving a successor to Marcos Senna for La Roja. From Spain’s fourth level to a World Cup winner in 18 months.
Guardiola described him as a street fighter. He said that after Busquets ran across to have a go at Copenhagen manager Stale Solbakken, who was arguing with Guardiola after a Champions League game.
After his outstanding performance at Malaga on Sunday night, when he was surrounded by three opponents and still came away with the ball after showing skill normally associated with Iniesta or Messi, after Barca finished the first half of the season unbeaten with a record points haul, his replacement Vilanova said: “Busquets is fantastic, so clever tactically. He acted like a coach on the field.” So you could see why Guardiola would want him.
He seldom scores or provides assists for goals,
But his team mates love him because he’s always there to accept a pass and he’ll move the ball along quickly. It sounds simple and he makes it look simple. He chases hard when Barça lose possession, he defends, he attacks.
He protects the diminutive talents around him, he’s not a dirty player – though he has more than twice the number of yellow cards of any other Barcelona player.
It goes with the territory of being an enforcer. He’s started more games than any player bar Messi, he thinks like Xavi and has the skill closer to Iniesta.
Although more tenacious, Busquets is not unlike Guardiola the player, a pivote. He’s played that way all his life and would help out at the back if Barça attacked and the 4-3-3 became a 3-4-3.
And he’s still only 24.
He was linked with Madrid last week. I asked him directly if he’d join Madrid.
“There are many teams I would prefer to join before I joined Real Madrid,” he said. “Many. For me, a Catalan, who plays for Barca, for me to play in Madrid - very, very difficult.”
Figo was his hero, but he’s unlikely to follow in his footsteps.
Andy Mitten will be blogging for us throughout the season. He contributes to FourFourTwo, the Manchester Evening News and GQ magazine amongst other publications.