There are a few contenders for the right-back spot in Spain’s starting XI at Euro 2016, although one of them, Cesar Azpilicueta, is also in the running on the left. But none has a story as remarkable as Atletico Madrid’s Juanfran.
One of the many to come through Real Madrid’s youth set-up without receiving a fair shake in the first team, Juanfran crossed the capital divide – via a loan at Espanyol and five years with Osasuna – in 2011. His first game was against Los Blancos, having been a winger during his time at Santiago Bernabeu, Cornella-El Prat and El Sadar, and though Juanfran couldn’t have known it yet, moving to Vicente Calderon was to be the making of him.
It was Gregorio Manzano who first moved Juanfran into the back four and Diego Simeone who got even more out of the man from the Alicante province. Juanfran signed for Atleti in January 2011, Cholo arrived in December and nothing has been the same at the Calderon since. Juanfran, it transpired, was the perfect player for the demanding Simeone, one who, along with Gabi, offers energy and an unflinching desire to win. Increasingly, as the Atleti squad turns over, it is Juanfran and Gabi there to add experience to a youthful side.
And yet at international level it is Juanfran who is something of a rookie. His debut came in 2012, in a pre-Euro 2012 friendly, and while he made Vicente del Bosque’s squad for the tournament, he never made an appearance. He went to World Cup 2014 but only got on the pitch in the dead rubber win over Australia, creating a goal for David Villa. Juanfran will begin Euro 2016 preparations with 17 international caps, more than Azpilicueta or Mario Gaspar, who were in the Italy-Romania squad, and Dani Carvajal, who wasn’t.
Del Bosque favoured, for the first few years of Juanfran’s international career, Alvaro Arbeloa, leaving Juanfran the other side of 30 but with fewer than 20 appearances for his country. The Coach has spoken of a new generation for La Roja but at his already relatively-advanced years, Juanfran may not be part of it – or might not be for long. Azpi, Mario and Carvajal are all significantly younger than Juanfran, and there’s Hector Bellerin to consider too.
Having had to wait for Arbeloa’s time to come to a close, though, this could well be Juanfran’s turn. His place in the Atletico side is unquestioned and he’s racked up trophies at club level – the 2012 Europa League, the 2013 Copa del Rey, the 2014 Primera Liga title and a handful more, with a Champions League runners-up medal too. Juanfran has more than 200 Atletico appearances, most of which are under Simeone, and while there are players with more Spain caps certain to go to France, Juanfran is in every other way a senior player.
Euro 2016 stands to be Juanfran’s first real tournament experience, a summer in which he plays regularly. He’s come a long way from the Santiago Bernabeu fringes.