“The game of our lives” is how Villarreal coach Juan Carlos Garrido has described his side’s UEFA Champions League showdown with Manchester City tonight. Without a point after three matchdays in Group A, it will be do or die for the Spanish club at the Madrigal.
FIFA.com caught up with central defender Carlos Marchena as he battled lower back pain to be fit for the big game. With no fewer than eight first-team regular starters currently receiving treatment, Marchena’s return would be a major boost for the depleted Submarino Amarillo .
“No question, we got the toughest group out there and then got off to a very bad start. But that’s the challenge we now face. We’re hopeful we can win this game as we really have to get back on track. As for making it out of the group – well why not? Nothing is impossible and there are still enough points available,” said the veteran.
It was just over a year ago that Marchena brought the curtain down on a nine-year spell with Valencia to move 60 km further south and join the ranks of Villarreal. “The club’s plans were very appealing and it feels great to be part of it,” he said.
While the player is the first to admit his side are struggling to consolidate their progress this season, he is determined to keep things in perspective: “We’ve come off the back of a very tough year that included the qualifying phase of the Champions League. True we didn’t expect to have such an inconsistent start to the season, but we have to fight on. The desire and enthusiasm are there. We still have a huge amount to play for and want to enjoy a great campaign.
“When things aren’t going as well you’d like, then anxiety creeps in. But we have to keep believing in ourselves as we have the same core team as last season, with the exception of Santi (Cazorla). And we’ve brought in new players who have a lot to offer too. With the team we have I don’t think we need to worry or overreact,” the Spanish international added.
With a diploma in tourism studies and a love of cooking, Marchena is as cultured off the field as he is on it. That said, after more than a decade in Valencia, he confesses he is yet to make the perfect paella. One dish he has mastered, though, is Andalusian gazpacho, as you might expect from a born and bred Sevillano. Indeed it is this enduring affinity with his home town that made it so difficult for him to accept the decision of his first club, Sevilla, to sell him to Benfica when in financial difficulty back in 2000.
With the economic downturn of recent years, this is an increasingly common scenario for players, and one Marchena says you just have to get on with. “It’s a matter of accepting the situation you find yourself in and dealing with it. When I had to leave Sevilla it wasn’t what I wanted, but it’s what I had to do. If, at the end of the day, your moving helps your club, then you can even feel good about it. Life is like that. Clubs as well as players have to adapt to economic reality. If a situation dictates that you have to leave, then you go on your way. There’s not a lot else you can do.”
The player admits there is a sense of unfinished business after leaving his home town at such an early age. “It was with Sevilla that I really started to enjoy my football and it was with great regret that I had to leave. It still pains me not to have been able to wear that shirt for longer.” Perhaps some time in the future he could return? “Well, that’s not just down to me, although I’ve always said the door remains open as far as I’m concerned,” he explained.
On the field of play, mild-mannered Marchena's total commitment has earned him a reputation as something of a hard man. The centre back is quick to counter the allegation, however. “I’ve always been a competitive player who has defended with resolve. I always want to win but I’ve never set out to hurt anyone. That said, I won’t shirk a tackle and will fight for every single ball.”
As well as being fiercely committed, the defender is approachable and rarely stuck for a word of advice, a trait that has earned him the nickname Pater (Father) with the national team. “I try to get to know the younger players and newcomers so as to pass on the benefit of my experience. I also try to stay close to my team-mates and be accessible to the public, which is why they laugh at me sometimes and tell me I resemble a father figure,” he said, clearly happy with the sobriquet.
A world and European champion with La Roja, Marchena is unbeaten in his last 57 games for Spain, a record that will take some beating. During the 2010 FIFA World Cup™ in South Africa, he seemed to be Vicente del Bosque’s lucky charm, with the coach frequently putting him on very late when things were tight. “I didn’t see it that way,” he laughed “but if that’s what the boss required, then it must have suited Spain too. I always got a boost [when called on] and felt like a team player. I feel very happy and privileged to have experienced so much with the national team.”
Now 32, Marchena knows the clock is ticking. “A footballer’s career is very short. If things go well and injuries don’t take their toll, you can make it to maybe 33 or 34, at which point you’re considered old.” For all that, he hasn’t given up hope of featuring again for Spain and perhaps even competing at another EURO, as he explained at the conclusion of our interview. “It’s a big ask I know, but I’m not discounting anything. I’m willing to battle on to get back in contention.” And who is to say he won’t make it? As he himself says, nothing is impossible.