No place like home for Reyes
Jose Antonio Reyes is a man in a hurry. At the age of just 23, the fleet-footed wide-man has already worn the colours of both Arsenal and Real Madrid, two clubs currently competing for the European game's biggest prize, as well as representing Spain at this summer's FIFA World Cup™ in Germany.
Yet, while young Andalusian has enjoyed a dizzying rise to the top, as he himself admits, the road to success has not always been smooth.
Now back to full fitness after tearing muscle fibres in his right leg, the pacy forward made time after training to chat to FIFA.com about life at his new club. Visibly relaxed and in good spirits, Reyes is evidently thrilled to have returned to Spain's Primera Liga.
"I feel really at home in Madrid," he says with a wide grin. "Coming back to Spain and playing for Real Madrid means a great deal to me. Living in England just doesn't compare to living here."
Reyes made his Primera Division debut for home-town club Sevilla FC at the tender age of 16, before heading over to English shores a few months after his 20th birthday. "It wasn't easy leaving Sevilla. At the time I wasn't keen on a move because I was really happy at the only team I'd wanted to play for. That said, playing in England was a great experience."
With Arsenal's multi-million pound offer proving too hard to resist for both player and club, Reyes made the switch to North London during the 2003/04 transfer window, where he was made to work hard for a place in Arsene Wenger's star-studded lineup.
Despite making an inauspicious start to his Gunners' career, his first goal in an Arsenal shirt coming at the wrong end in a League Cup tie against Middlesbrough, the versatile attacker gradually went about adding his undoubted skills to the side that won that year's Premier League title.
"I don't regret a thing (about going to England). I learned so much: a different work ethic, a sense of discipline. You can't fail to learn a lot in a league as competitive as England's," is Reyes' verdict on three fruitful years spent terrorising Premiership defences. "Football over there is different to Spanish football. The game's more physical and there's a lot more contact. Here in Spain we favour a more skilful style of play, the quality of the football is higher."
While there is little doubt that Reyes is a more rounded individual for the experience, he confesses to having struggled to adapt to British life, despite his naturally outgoing personality. "I just wasn't able to settle in London at all," he says, with some feeling. "It gets dark really early over there, the shops close really early - as the days went by I ended up feeling worse and worse. As a player, when you're feeling down it has a knock-on effect on your performances out on the pitch. When that happens a change of scenery is the best option."
Consistency the key for Real
Fortunately for Reyes, he was to get his wish. Having risked Arsenal's wrath by making his unrest known, the flamboyant forward finally ended up signing for Los Blancos ahead of a host of other clubs, including city rivals Atletico de Madrid. The capital outfit may be entering their fourth season without a major title, but Los Merengues have always been close to the player's heart.
"I signed for a Real Madrid side that hasn't been winning titles, but we've got a squad that is strong enough to win any competition," says the Seville-born star. "For me personally, they (Real Madrid) have always been the best team in Europe and I'm really happy to be here."
The new-look Real Madrid under former Juventus and AC Milan coach Fabio Capello have endured a rather inconsistent start to the campaign, mixing disappointing defeats (0-1 against Getafe in the league), with spectacular wins (4-1 against Steaua Bucharest in the Champions League and 2-0 against Barcelona domestically), and controversial draws such as the 1-1 Copa del Rey stalemate with lowly Ecija from Spain's third tier.
"That cup game doesn't really count because the pitch was in such a poor state it was really difficult to play decent football. But the team is moving in the right direction and we hope to keep it that way. The team clearly didn't play well against Getafe but the following two games against Steaua (Bucharest) and Barcelona were really good team performances."
Are the players confident of breaking their trophy drought? "Of course," he states emphatically, "We should be with the team we've got! We're full of confidence and absolutely convinced that this year the trophies will come." On the domestic front, Reyes singles out two familiar foes as Madrid's main rivals for honours: "Barcelona and Valencia are our biggest rivals here in Spain."
Even though Reyes was not around during the darkest days of Madrid's barren spell, it appears that the atmosphere in the Bernabeu dressing room has changed for the better. "I wasn't here during the previous regime so I can't say exactly (what's changed). But my team-mates have been saying that things are different now, and that the changes have been very positive for dressing-room morale."
As the interview draws to a close, the time has come to ask the million-dollar question: What on earth is going on with the Spanish national team? "Well I don't really know. If we knew where we were going wrong then we'd be able to put it right," he says, with a sad smile of resignation.
That said, as befits this bubbly character he refuses to end on a pessimistic note: "We're going to qualify for the European Championship. Not only do we have the confidence to meet this qualifying group head on, we all know in our hearts that we're going to succeed."