Marc Bartra is a man enjoying life, as one might with boyband good looks, a glamorous television presenter partner, newborn baby girl and status as a Barcelona and Spain footballer.
The son of a tractor driver from the wine-growing region near Tarragona in Catalonia, Bartra is at home in his village of 2,000 or in the diverse international setup of Barcelona’s dressing room. The 24-year-old knows he’s learning from the best, but while he doesn’t consider himself the fastest, the brightest nor the most competitive in the team, he’s already got himself down as the best dancer.
“Dani Alves or me,” smiles Bartra. “No, definitely me. I like dancing.”
Bartra has had plenty of opportunity to show off his dancing in the past year. He was doing it on Barça’s open-top team bus as it wound its way across the Ciudad Condal a day after the Catalans had won a fourth European Cup in a decade. After joining the club from neighbours Espanyol aged 11, Bartra was at Barça for all of those trophies, a first-team squad member for the last five years.
He’s enjoyed spells where he’s been a first-team regular without ever being considered one of Barça’s starting XI, yet he’s closing in on 100 first-team games and is so highly rated that Barça have refused to sell him to his many suitors.
“My best moment so far was when I played in virtually all the Champions League group games in the treble-winning season,” he explains to FourFourTwo as the rain lashes down outside Barça’s training ground.
“We won every game and I was in a good rhythm. It was the same when Tata Martino was manager, I played 30 games that season (2013/14), but I prefer to look at the present. I play for Barça, I play for Spain, I want to keep improving. That’s where I’m at.”
Footballers always want to play more and Bartra is no different. A lack of minutes was the reason Pedro left the Camp Nou for Chelsea, and why Thiago Alcantara moved to Munich to join Pep Guardiola, the man who promoted Bartra to the first-team squad in 2010. Alcantara was a Spain Under-21 colleague, as were Marc Muniesa, Cristian Tello and Martin Montoya. All have left Barça, whether on loan or permanently.
Bartra says that his worst moment at Barça was the spell when he received few minutes under Tito Vilanova, just 897 in the 2012/13 season, as midfielders including Alex Song were preferred in his position. A festive cartoon in a Catalan paper showed him begging for more minutes from the three wise men, yet Vilanova had money to buy a new centre-back and preferred to save it because the club had Bartra.
However, in subsequent seasons Bartra has played 2,301 minutes, then 1,845 last term. He’s started – and scored in cup finals – against Real Madrid, but he didn’t start in Barça’s biggest games last term.
“There’s a lot of competition at Barça,” he says, “competition among the best players in the world, but I’ve been at this club since I was 11 years old – it’s part of me. I just have to train at the highest level so that I’m ready when I play. I also feel that the trainer, who I know well, is not someone who only believes in 11 players, but the idea of using his squad.”
Speculation has linked him to England – Liverpool and Tottenham as recently as last summer. “I like to watch the Premier League,” he says. “English football is a little anarchic, full of one-v-ones. I like that, but my heart is in Barça.”
Life under Luis
He’s playing under Enrique, the man who managed him for Barça B.
“I know him really well, I was with him for two years with the B team when we were promoted,” Bartra explains. “I have happy memories of that team. He’s a highly motivated man in everything he does, he wants the best from his players all the time and won’t accept less than that.
“He’s a very ambitious man who wants to win everything. Every training session, he pushes every player and keeps them motivated. He’s also been at the club a long time, first as a player, then as B team and now as first-team coach. So he knows everything and everyone, knows the culture of the club. That works for us. His preparation for games is very detailed so that we arrive at the biggest games in the best shape.”
The biggest game is this weekend, and Barça go into the Clasico as league leaders. The team have been playing without the injured Lionel Messi for two months, but the Argentine has been back in full training this week.
“When we don’t have Leo, we don’t have the best player in the history of football,” explains Bartra. “Any team would miss that, miss his ability to change any game at any moment, even in the most difficult away games. But we’ve played well without him recently. We have Luis Suarez and Neymar. They’ve both been spectacular. Andres (Iniesta) and Ivan (Rakitic) are back from injury. We’re top of the league.”
Suarez’s success at Barça hasn’t surprised Bartra.
“Things could not have gone better for him – and for us,” explains Bartra. “He won everything in his first season and he’s scoring more and more. One thing people don’t realise about Luis is how strong he is. There’s not a stronger play at this club. He goes up against bigger defenders and comes out with the ball. As a defender, I really admire that about him.”
A Barça-Madrid game is especially special for a Catalan.
“It’s not just three points, not just a game, it’s far more than that,” explains Bartra. “If you go to my village when the Clasico is on, the streets are empty. My whole family is Barça, the whole village. I’ve heard there might be one or two Madrid but I’ve not seen them.”
Bartra has a standout memory. “My header past Casillas in the (2014) final of the Copa del Rey,” he smiles. “Spectacular for me.”
Madrid lost that one, with Gareth Bale sprinting past a half-fit Bartra to score the decisive goal. Bartra looked like he’d been outclassed – yet he’d only been declared fit to play an hour before the game after struggling with hamstring problems the week before.
Carles Puyol and Xavi were two Catalan mainstays of Clasico games who’ll be missing, the latter for the first time since 1998.
“Puyol was my hero, the one I looked up to,” says Bartra. “I watched how Puyol played as I grew up. He was our captain and I watched him on and off the pitch. When I was lucky enough to get into the first team, he supported me hugely though the good and difficult times.”
Barça will always expect a difficult time in Madrid.
“The Bernabéu is intimidating,” the Catalan admits. “The stands appear vertical, but I like that. I love the feeling when we arrive there and everyone is against us, from when we are on the bus to walking out on the pitch. That motivates us.”
Bartra is unlikely to start, with Enrique favouring Javier Mascherano and Gerard Pique in central defence.
“My aim is to become a titular (regular starter) at Barça, to start the most important games and to win trophies.”
Given that he’s technically good enough and fast enough to play at almost any club in the world, whether he reaches that starter status will determine his future.
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