From zero to hero – the Garcia story

When it comes to player presentations, prize awarding and even winning, it could be said that no-one does it better than those based in the north of Madrid. Yet, when it comes to player send-offs, very few come close those in the south as Atletico Madrid bid farewell to two players who enjoyed long spells at the club in the summer. Mario Suarez, a canterano, left with a handful of medals but, for many, had failed to live up to his potential. Raul Garcia also left and left a hero, but it wasn’t always that way for the former Osasuna midfielder.

When Javier Aguirre joined Atletico, success was expected. The club had invested major funds on players to get back into Europe’s elite competition, the Champions League. Up front, Simao Sabrosa and Maxi Rodriguez would supply Diego Forlan and Sergio Aguero from the wings. In the middle, Portuguese defensive midfielder Maniche was brought in to protect the defence and a young Navarre attacking midfielder named Raul Garcia, who had shown plenty of promise and had many predicting a very bright future, was signed to play alongside him. It was all going to plan until Maniche had a huge argument with Aguirre about playing in a Copa del Rey tie against a side from the third tier. The midfielder was packed off to Russia and Garcia was forced to play further back in a role that he wasn’t suited to. The result was a disaster and almost destroyed the midfielder’s career.

Garcia was not suited to playing a defensive role. His tackles were mistimed, passing was off and he kept trying to get forward, leaving the defence exposed as a result. Atleti crashed out of the Champions League and barely made it into the newly-formed Europa League. In La Liga, they were terrible, and so too in Europe, but at least they had luck on their side when they played on the continent. Fans were furious and took their anger out on Garcia and whistled and booed his every move. At the Vicente Calderon, he looked lost and appeared afraid, only making short, sideway passes, which resulted in some fans nicknaming him ‘the crab’. Away from home, he played with more confidence and, on a number of times during European away trips, was named man of the match. Yet, fans of Los Colchoneros failed to see this, and it seemed that everything which was wrong at the club was because of Garcia.

Things would only get worse for Garcia as he became the butt of many jokes and abuse. One Atleti fansite ran a series of articles, where they interviewed fans of the club from around the world. The articles asked questions such as who their favourite player was, but there was also one asking, ‘which player would you personally drive to another club’. Garcia was picked constantly. So, to change things around, the website rewrote the question and asked, ‘which would you prefer- to swim with hungry sharks or see Raul Garcia play for Atletico’. The sharks won every time and the writing was on the wall. It looked like Garcia was on his way out, but the problem was that nobody could or would pay his transfer fee.

Gregorio Manzano sent Raul Garcia back to Osasuna on loan, in the hope that maybe the club could sell him if he had a good season. While he was there, he returned to his preferred position and started to look like the player many expected him to be. He started to score and provide assists again and looked happy with the ball. Meanwhile, at Atletico, there were changes in the dugout as Diego Simeone took the reins. Garcia returned to the club, with his future up in the air, but after a meeting with Simeone, he was assured that he had a role to play at the club. Garcia was the type of player that Cholo loved; hardworking and dedicated but also easy going off the pitch. Even when fans were giving him unbelievable abuse, he still stopped to sign autographs and Simeone admired his professionalism and commitment to the cause.

Under the Argentine, the Navarran returned to playing either as an attacking midfielder or behind the main striker. From time to time, he was used on the right wing. He repaid Cholo’s faith with goals. He scored nine goals in his first season back, followed that with up 17 and then, last season, added 10 to his tally. He won medals and even made his debut for La Roja. Yet Garcia, being just a year shy of 30, still hadn’t commanded a regular place in the team, and so he asked Atletico for a move away and the club obliged. Only a few seasons ago, no-one dared to meet Atleti’s €4m asking price, but since then he has been reborn under Cholo and Los Rojiblancos had no problem getting what they wanted, even if it was €10m.

Cholo didn’t want him to leave, but he respected Garcia’s decision. The day before the deal was done, Atletico played Sevilla away. Raul was not in the squad, but he did watch the game and saw how his teammates celebrated their goals by making an eight-finger gesture, Garcia’s number. While he initially had a somewhat-turbulent relationship with the fans, in the dressing room he was always well thought of and respected. In fact, many players came out to say goodbye to him in his send-off presentation. For them, they were losing a brother-in-arms, and his loss will be keenly felt.

From the stands, fans took to social media to say thank you and good luck. The days of booing and jeering are long gone and forgotten and Garcia went out a hero. Throughout his stay at the club, he always conducted himself in an exemplary fashion; a player who had his knocks and upsets but showed that, through hard work and knuckling down, success is always possible. In these days of modern football, where players are always dubbed as role models, Garcia truly was and really is someone for many youngsters to look up to and admire. He came to Atletico as youngster with a promising career but through no fault of his own became a villain. He worked hard and left a hero, and few believe that they have heard the last of him. Athletic Bilbao may have just signed a bargain!