Despite his seemingly eternal status as understudy to Iker Casillas, Pepe Reina is one of the inspirations of the Spain dressing room. The Liverpool goalkeeper embodies perhaps better than anyone the spirit of a national team that made the group ethic the cornerstone of its successes at UEFA EURO 2008 and the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™.
FIFA.com chatted to the extrovert custodian about his memories of South Africa 2010 – the subject of a book he has just written – Liverpool’s recent inconsistent form, the Spanish league and the FIFA Ballon d’Or 2010.
FIFA.com: Aside from the friendly defeats to Argentina and Portugal it’s been an unforgettable 2010 for the national team.
Pepe Reina: Well, the World Cup was what counted for me. People should know that we’re going to do our very best to wear that world champions’ badge with pride over the next four years. We know we have even more responsibility on our shoulders now and even greater demands on us.
We also know we’ll be coming up against teams who’ll be much more motivated to beat Spain now. We haven’t exactly taken on easy sides in our friendlies. Argentina and Portugal at home are no pushovers, and there’s no denying they were heavy defeats and that we didn’t give a good account of ourselves. All the same, you also have to learn from these games.
What’s your biggest memory of beating the Netherlands in the FIFA World Cup Final?
There are a lot of images and feelings that come to mind, but there is one funny thing that stands out. I really lived every moment of every game on the bench, especially when El Guaje (David Villa, the tournament top scorer) found the net. I was quicker on my feet than anyone and I always got there first for the goal celebrations. But that day my legs felt heavy for some reason and my team-mates were just flying by me when we ran off to the corner to celebrate Iniesta’s goal. Whenever I watch the pictures now I can’t help laughing. Those are the kinds of things you remember and cherish, and you feel proud at having taken part in something like that.
Another memorable moment was your embracing Iker Casillas just seconds after the final whistle. Can you explain why you did that?
Of course I can. You always have a special feeling for your fellow keepers, a fondness for them. It’s like a union thing I suppose, a mutual appreciation society. Casillas, Victor Valdes and I got on fantastically well during the World Cup in South Africa. It was brilliant. I think that helped Iker hit top form too.
Whenever I watch the pictures now I can’t help laughing. Those are the kinds of things you remember and cherish, and you feel proud at having taken part in something like that.
Turning to club football now, Liverpool seem to be improving after a bad start in the league. What are the team’s ambitions for the remainder of the season?
We’ve been going through a bad spell and I think our real goal now is to win every Sunday and to take it from there and keep on improving. I hope we can finish as high up the league as possible, but right now even we don’t know how high up that is. We don’t want to set targets or put extra pressure on ourselves either.
The team’s still coming together. We’ve got a new coach with new ideas and new players, and it’s not easy. You can’t make a team competitive overnight and we need to keep on growing. The club’s new owners are going to bring a lot of stability too, which is going to allow everyone to calm down. As for us, we’re just going to focus on the football, which is a step forward in itself.
Would the team be happy with a top-six finish?
I don’t think so, but it would be an improvement on last year, which would be something. Even so, my objective’s not for us to finish in the top six, but to be the champions, at least some time in the future. That’s what we have to aim for.
Though you still have a contract with Liverpool, there’s been talk of the club selling you because of its financial problems. Have you given any thought about going back to Spain?
Liverpool’s where I belong right now and I’m not thinking of going anywhere. England’s the most evenly balanced league there is these days and life is good here, despite the weather. We’re happy. My family is really settled, and that also tilts the scales a little.
When I renewed my contract last year I knew full well that the club was going through a tough patch, and I think my signing the extension was a gesture for the fans and the club itself. I’m very happy at Liverpool, but I also like to be competitive and achieve big things. So what I’m really looking for is for the club to start pushing for trophies again.
What’s your view of the Spanish league these days? Unlike the English Premier League, Real Madrid and Barcelona seem to be the only candidates for the title.
But that’s not because the other sides aren’t very good. I think the mid-table teams in La Liga would do fine in the Premiership. One thing that is true in England is that anyone can beat anyone, and that makes the championship a bit more open. It’s not just a two-horse race.
There are two Spanish nominees for the forthcoming FIFA Ballon d’Or 2010. Who would you give it to?
My favourite is Xavi Hernandez, and I think it’s between him and Iniesta. I’ve got a good feeling about it, and I think it’s going to be a Spanish player this year.