In club football, Santiago Solari has won practically all there is to win: league championships with River Plate, Real Madrid and Inter Milan, a Copa Libertadores with Los Millonarios, and a UEFA Champions League and Intercontinental Cup with Los Merengues. When he returned to his native Argentina last year to join San Lorenzo, it looked as though his career was coming to an end.
But Solari had other ideas. Having seen through his contract with El Ciclón, the Indiecito (Little Indian) decided to head north and sign for Mexico's Atlante, who will represent CONCACAF at the upcoming FIFA Club World Cup UAE 2009. With just a few days to go until the big kick-off, the veteran midfielder spoke exclusively to FIFA.com.
FIFA.com: Santiago, what does playing in this competition mean to you?
Santiago Solari: It's a fantastic opportunity. I've played in its predecessor, the Intercontinental Cup, but now the format is fairer as teams from the other confederations are involved. I've represented South America with River Plate, and Europe twice with Real Madrid, so now, to be representing a third confederation is quite unique - I don't know how many players have done it. For me, it's a great privilege.
You have played for some of the world's biggest clubs like Real Madrid and Inter. How different is it now to be at a more modest side like Atlante?
I think it's wrong to draw comparisons. Each club has its own history and has made its own impact in its national league. Atlante should be proud of their history in Mexican football, of their improvement over the past few years and of their position as Mexico's representative at this Club World Cup, which is probably the biggest event in the club's history. Personally, I'm honoured to be at the club to live through this experience.
Did Atlante's involvement in the FIFA Club World Cup influence your decision to come to Mexico?
Yes. There were other factors, but the fact that the club had qualified for this tournament was important when it came to making my decision, as it meant that I was coming to a club which was improving all the time and had won trophies, which is the type of club I've always been interested in. I'm a very competitive person.
How difficult has it been to adapt to your new team and to the Mexican league?
I have a lot of experience playing in different environments. I've adapted to leagues with completely different playing styles, such as Spain and Italy, so it wasn't a problem. Naturally, you always need to adapt to the pace of the football, and in a place like this, to the climate and other variables. In one match, you could be playing at an altitude of 3,000 metres, in the next, on the plains, in another you might be playing at midday in 45 degree heat.
And playing in Cancun is not easy.
It's very hot and humid here, which at first is physically very tough. Of course it takes time to adapt, but I think I'm over that now.
Has Atlante lived up to your expectations?
Yes, of course. Unfortunately, in the last few games we slipped out of contention for a place in the end-of-season play-offs. We fought hard, but we didn't manage it. It's a very competitive league, with each team capable of beating the next.
Will this early elimination help you better prepare for the FIFA Club World Cup?
No, I think that the ideal scenario would have been to qualify for the play-offs and thus keep playing competitive matches in the run-up to Abu Dhabi. Unfortunately we didn't get that far, so we'll have to make do with training sessions and friendly games, which is never the same as competitive football.
Atlante played against England's Aston Villa and Malaga of Spain in the Peace Cup last July. Was that useful for the team?
Yes, we gained vital experience from that tournament as many players from here had never played abroad, which is very important for their development. That said, the two competitions are completely different: one is a friendly tournament, which many European teams merely use as preparation for the season ahead, while the other is a world-class tournament which every team will be going all out to win.
Practically all of your team-mates say they would love to play Barcelona in the semi-finals. You're a special case, in that you've already played against them many times.
That's still all hypothetical. First, we have to get through a play-off to earn the right to play Barcelona. That's the key game which we must concentrate on.
Of course, but assuming you manage to win the play-off.
I'd love to take on Barcelona. I've got former team-mates there like [Zlatan] Ibrahimovic, with whom I get on very well, and Maxwell, who's a great guy. There are also familiar faces from Spanish clásicos and even European competition, like Xavi and Puyol, whom I played against in the [UEFA] Champions League semi-finals.
How far can Atlante go?
We'll be competing as fiercely as we can. It will depend on ourselves. This is a tournament played at the highest level, and I think we have to place a lot of emphasis on our first match, arrive in the UAE well prepared, and give our all. If we progress, we'll have everything to play for against Barcelona, and if we could reach the final, it would be a dream come true.