An understated and industrious performer, Cesar Azpilicueta is arguably far less well-known than his club-mates and compatriots Juan Mata and Fernando Torres. However, after just a few months at Chelsea, the Spanish defender became an undisputed starter at right-back under former manager Rafael Benitez.
Nevertheless, despite helping the Blues to victory in the 2012/13 UEFA Europa League winner and to the final of the FIFA Club World Cup 2012, the ex-Osasuna and Marseille full-back would go on to lose his place to Branislav Ivanovic following this summer’s appointment of Jose Mourinho. But there is no sign of the Pamplona native throwing in the towel.
Despite also facing stiff competition for a place at national-team level, coach Vicente del Bosque gave Azpilicueta the opportunity to play for his country for the first time in February 2013. He was subsequently selected for the FIFA Confederations Cup Brazil 2013, where he played in his team’s defeat by Brazil in the Final.
What's more, the 24-year-old is nowadays considered a future leader of La Roja, having previously captained his country in the Men's Olympic Football Tournament London 2012. In interview with FIFA.com, Azpilicueta reflected on a range of topics including his early career, his adaptation to the English game, his first steps with the national team and his determination to play at the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™.
FIFA.com: Cesar, it took you just a few weeks to secure your place in the Chelsea side last season. How would you explain your rapid adaptation to the team and to the Premier League?
Cesar Azpilicueta: When I arrived at the club last year I didn't play much during the first two months. Coming from the French league it took me a few weeks to adapt to the style of the English game, which is faster and more physical. Roberto Di Matteo, who was in charge of the team at the time, just asked me to keep working and get myself ready to play. So I gave everything in training and my match time increased as the season advanced. The transition took time but today I feel very comfortable playing in the Premier League.
Your team-mate and compatriot Juan Mata recently told us that he was loving life in London and felt very settled there. Has he helped with your integration?
Juan is a friend of mine. We'd already known each other for a few years, having played together at youth national team level. He's a naturally curious person and he’s interested in so many things: he knows the city really well and gave me lots of advice on life in England. It's certainly true that he’s acted as a kind of guide since I arrived. If I want to go out to a restaurant, I just call him and he always gives me great recommendations (laughs)!
At just 24 you've already experienced the Spanish, French and English leagues. What would you say differentiates the Premier League from your previous experiences?
Here the game is much faster and more physical than in Spain or France. I've never run as much as here in England. In the Premier League there’s hardly time to think between the first and the 90th minute. It's incredible. The majority of the players here are extremely athletic and can run for miles. What you also learn in England is that you must know how to deal with knocks during matches. At the end of every game you're worn out.
Despite winning the Europa League, Chelsea had a fairly complicated season last year. Looking back, how would you analyse it?
We certainly had a few disappointments, like our defeat in the final of the Club World Cup. We didn't manage to win many titles, but we won the Europa League all the same. Coming only a year after winning the Champions League it was a historic double in European football. And beyond that, we also qualified for the Champions League which was essential for the club. So it's not that bad. But the past is behind us, now we have to look to the future and aim to have the best season possible.
Your performances for Chelsea have equally provided you with opportunities in the senior Spain squad, having previously captained your country at the Olympics. What memories do you have of your first cap against Uruguay last February?
Obviously it’s one of the best memories of my career to date. I was with a fantastic group of players and I was able to experience the team’s incredible level of play up close. I used to watch all of La Roja’s matches on television, but to actually be a part of that one-touch style of football yourself is just unbelievable. On that day against Uruguay for example I really enjoyed myself and our first-half performance was perfect (Editor’s note: Spain won the match 3-1).
Now you're regularly called up by Vicente del Bosque, do you think this will be the season you cement your place in the Spain team?
I'm an ambitious player and I work hard to achieve my goals. The national team has an abundance of talent in every position and competition is fierce, so it's difficult to establish yourself. But I'm going to keep fighting and give everything to try to force my way into this exceptional side. I'm being called up regularly at the moment and my aim is to keep it that way.
Although you haven't played in the previous qualifiers for the upcoming 2014 FIFA World Cup, are you still aiming to take part in the competition next year?
Of course. Although, that said, we haven’t mathematically qualified yet. We still have to win our final two games to book our place and I really hope to be on the plane [if we do]. Taking part in the competition would be fantastic for me: it's the pinnacle of any footballer's career. I have great memories of playing at the Maracana in the Confederations Cup and now I'm hoping to go back there.