The big interview: Luis Enrique – "I’d like to manage in England at some point – the fans are faithful"

“I don’t really do any interviews,” muses Luis Enrique on a walk from his house to a nearby beach bar in Gava Mar, a footballers’ favourite area of residence 15 kilometres south of Barcelona. “But I thought I’d do this one, I don’t know why.”

Enrique has a prickly relationship with the media – he feels that if he speaks to one newspaper then he’ll have to speak to them all – but he’s friendly from the minute FourFourTwo arrives at his house in October 2013.

Along the way to the bar, he points out the houses of current Barça stars, tells us that he’s been listening to podcasts in English to improve his already-passable lingua franca. A couple of cyclists pass by on expensive carbon road bikes. Still an ultra-fit athlete who competes in gruelling ironman races, he gives the riders a knowing nod.

FACT FILE

  • Full name: Luis Enrique Martinez Garcia
  • Date of birth: 08/05/1970
  • Height: 5ft 11in
  • Position: Attacking midfielder
  • Place of birth: Gijon, Spain
  • Clubs: 1988-91 Sporting Gijon 36 apps (14 goals), 1991-96 Real Madrid 157 (15), 1996-2004 Barcelona 207 (73)
  • International career: 1991-2002 Spain 63 (12)
  • Honours: La Liga 1995, 1998, 1999 Copa del Rey 1993, 1997, 1998 Supercopa da Espana 1993, 1996 UEFA Cup Winners' Cup 1997 UEFA Super Cup 1997 Summer Olympics 1992

When we sit down, the Asturian is welcoming, animated, enthusiastic and, 90 minutes after starting, is still talking with the energy that has seen him compete in several marathons and enjoy a stellar career with Sporting Gijon, Real Madrid and Barcelona. Later, he was Pep Guardiola’s replacement at Barça B, then spent a year at Roma before taking the reins at Celta Vigo in June 2013.

What’s your earliest footballing memory? Were you always a sporty child?
Rupert Foster, Surrey
I was a very sporty child. Earliest memory? Spain 12-1 Malta. Spain had to win by 10 to reach the 1984 European Championship. I watched on television in Gijon. My first memory at a game was queuing up oustide El Molinon [Sporting’s stadium] to see Sporting vs Cadiz, aged 10. I remember seeing the grass and how well kept it was, how perfect the lines were. I was inside the stadium 90 minutes before the game, watching the grass with my brother, who is 11 months older. My father wasn’t a football man. I loved going to games. I’d stand at the back of the ultras and listen to their songs. I took a flag made by my mother. There’s a photo of me in a newspaper sitting on the fence with my flag – though I had to hide it from my mother because I was standing near the ultras and she wouldn’t like that.

You’re well known as a passionate guy. Were you the same as a child?
Jackie Robertson, Plymouth
I’ve always been enthusiastic about whatever I’ve done. I mark out challenges in life. I was lucky that I was able to dedicate my life to what I most loved: as a fan, a player and now as a manager. It must be terrible to work in something that you don’t like. Because I am so passionate, it’s easy to empathise with players and for them to believe in me.

I had to hide the photo from my mother because I was standing near the ultras and she wouldn’t like that

You began your football career playing futsal. How did that improve your skills as a young age?
Ryan Moore, London
Here in Catalonia the kids play Futbol 7. In Asturias it’s futbol sala, futsal with five players. Because it’s a reduced side, you develop different characteristics. It’s not about strength, but technique. It really helped develop my football for three or four seasons. Starting 11-a-side was totally different, the goals seemed huge – the distances too. I didn’t have the strength when I first started 11-a-side. Futbol sala is a better way to develop technique. You can work on strength later.

Where does your nickname Lucho come from?
Mike Monaghan, Lincoln
Lucho Flores was a Mexican player who played for Sporting for two or three seasons. I was there as a 14-year-old, a forward. They called me Lucho. I didn’t mind, he was a good player.

A Blanco in 1992

How important a role did Sporting Gijon play in your upbringing?
Dani Rodrigo, Madrid
A lot, but Sporting didn’t want me at 14 and I had to leave for another team. I went back at 17, played for Sporting B for a year and the first team for a year-and-a-half. I would have been better staying another year and developing at a club with a local perspective, not the pressure of winning every game like you get at Barça or Madrid.

Jose Mourinho make it as a top-level coach? Never. Never! Not even Jose thought that

What was you first impression of your Sporting Gijon team-mate Kevin Moran?
Anthony Shaw, Oldham
Respect. I was young. He was an international with many games in the World Cup. He was very correct, very noble – a true professional. I never saw him make a dirty tackle. He only played a year or two, but he was very well respected in Gijon.

Why did you join Real Madrid? What was it like to play with Laudrup, Butragueno, Raul, Hierro?
Morris Guerrero, Arizona
On a personal level, you never think that a big club will come for you. I didn’t dream of Madrid after a year-and-a-half at Sporting, but Sporting needed to sell for money. It happened quickly and I signed a five-year contract. The players were big names but normal people who have ability to play football. It was easy to play with them because they were so good, but I went as a goalscorer.

Then they put me in midfield – I’d never played there before. What was I supposed to do? It was difficult. Then to full-back. Normally, a player would leave in these circumstances. Madrid wanted to loan me to Sevilla, then they decided I could stay – and I stayed five years! I adapted to the position and did what my trainer wanted me to do.

Playing for Real Madrid in the Champions League with future team-mate Overmars

In an old version of Championship Manager, you were able to play in every outfield position. Which was your favourite?
James Cokeham, Goole
Forward. It didn’t matter where up front, but up front. I wasn’t a targetman, more a player who moves around as I’m not big enough to be a targetman. When I got to Barcelona, my position was to play off the main striker. The big man, Ronaldo, would be marked so it would be easier for me or Philip Cocu to find space and score. Bobby Robson would push me forward during games for a goal. I got my nose for goalscoring back after my time at Madrid.

Madrid wanted to loan me to Sevilla. Then they decided I could stay, and I stayed five years

What do you remember of Mauro Tassotti’s elbow at USA 94? Did you swing at him after the game? Did he ever apologise?
Paul Montgomery, via Twitter
It’s the question I’m most asked. Everybody remembers it. Not for the elbow itself, but for the fact that we were knocked out. That was the worst thing for us. We went to watch Nigeria vs Italy a few days before and Nigeria were the better team. Italy had a great side with Maldini and Baggio, but the Italian players had cramp, they looked exhausted. We left the game with Nigeria winning but Italy equalised and won on penalties. It didn’t matter to us, though – we thought the Italians would be dead, we’d seen their cramps. They were not dead.

After that incident, FIFA put the rule that you can’t play while bleeding. Then, we had to play on. It was an injustice, I couldn’t continue on the pitch but the man who caused me the damage could. These things happen in football and I’ve done a few misdemeanors in my time as well, just not in the World Cup. Tassotti apologised. Not directly after the game when there was way too much bad feeling, but later. I’ve seen him since and I have no problem with him.

There was some serious talent in the Spain teams you played in. Why didn’t you do better at major championships? What’s the main difference between then and now?
Chris Katopis, via Facebook
We had no luck. Sincerely. We had no luck on any of the occasions. Tassotti in ’94, the illegal goal against South Korea, penalties in Euro 96, the Morientes goal which wasn’t given in 2002. Spain won the European Championship on penalties. You need luck. Manchester United vs Bayern Munich. You need luck, especially when the games are so tight – and we had none.

Enrique celebrates after netting vs Switzerland at USA 94