For Raul Albiol, remaining a fixture in Vicente del Bosque’s Spain squad in recent years, despite restricted playing time at Real Madrid, has not been without its difficulties, as he himself explained to FIFA.com. “I’m very grateful they still trust me in the national team, even when I'm not playing for my club. Of course, it’s an even greater responsibility because you have to show you’ve earned that call-up – everyone is watching you. On top of that, you come in for criticism from those who argue that I shouldn’t be in the national team if I’m not playing for my club.”
Fortunately for the protagonist of this story, that period has passed, with the centre back now enjoying plenty of minutes, not to mention trust, at new club Napoli. “I’m very happy with how I have been received by the club, the fans and my team-mates. I wanted to leave Madrid so that I could play more regularly, Napoli were interested and, on top of that, Rafa Benitez was there!”
His exclamation is for a reason because, aside from Del Bosque, Benitez is perhaps the coach who has had the greatest influence in Albiol’s career. “He gave me my debut at Valencia when I was 18, so when Napoli called me, I thought it was the ideal moment. I had the trust of the coach and I hoped to repay that with hard work. I’m happy with the decision I took,” he told FIFA.com
The Neapolitan adventure
Currently third in Italy’s Serie A, six points behind leaders Juventus, Napoli have one clear objective this season. “It’s a team who have gone a long time since winning the league and that is why, for us, winning the Scudetto is a very important challenge. Juve have dominated the championship in the last few seasons, but we hope to compete until the very end,” he explained.
And if they manage it, will the shadow of Diego Maradona loom less prominently over the southern Italian city? “People don’t remind me so much of him, but they do with the Argentinians…,” he said with a grin. “Here, being Argentinian is something special because the tifosi revere him like a God. That’s normal, because Diego gave them so much, and the Neapolitans are very grateful people. They give you everything. That’s why Maradona will always have their affection.”
At 28, this is Albiol’s first adventure outside La Liga and at the moment, he is happy with the new experience. “Italian football has always interested me, it attracted me, and even though the level has perhaps dropped a little over the last few years, it remains a very attractive championship,” he said.
As always when a player changes leagues, there is a period of adaptation, but the centre back has had few difficulties in adjusting to his new surroundings. “Here the teams usually play with three central defenders and two strikers, something that rarely happens in Spain, and the games are tighter, but I am adapting well,” he said assuredly.
Perhaps the biggest change of all is the continuity he is enjoying in the first team, an important and timely reminder for Del Bosque as the coach continues to try out new players from the youth sides, such as Real Sociedad’s Inigo Martinez. “That shows you cannot relax. The younger guys coming through are pushing hard. That competition is positive, and we’re delighted with them.”
Pressure for the favourites
With just months left until the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™, the importance of remaining in the coach’s plans is magnified. And for someone like Albiol, who formed part of the Spain squad at South Africa 2010 but was unable to feature because of injury, the date in Brazil is especially significant. “There is still a long way to go, and it will be difficult to make the list, but I’m excited by the prospect of playing at the World Cup,” he admitted.
As defending champions, Spain are one of the favourites for the title, but that does not concern Albiol. “It’s a good thing that people expect us to win it. That means we have a chance and that we have the team to do it. We want to win it and we are setting out to claim our second World Cup, but it will be difficult. We can’t think about the final when we don’t even know which group we will be in. We’ll go there with humility,” he said, neatly shifting the pressure onto the hosts. “Brazil are under greater pressure because they’re five-time winners and because they’re playing at home.”
At the FIFA Confederations Cup, where La Roja lost out in the final to A Seleçao, it soon became clear that the local fans had no intention of giving support the world champions. However, Albiol believes a hostile atmosphere can be of benefit to the champions. “Let them boo and insult us – that’s because they see us as favourites. When they applaud you or pat you on the back… something is wrong,” he said with a smile. And as he awaits the Final Draw on December 6, the revitalised defender claimed not to care which rivals Spain will meet in their group. “In a one-off game," he warned, "anyone can beat you.”