Love, in the time of rain showers and thunderstorms

While going through my photos of the Clear Dream Match 2, I realized I was inadvertently telling a sub-plot. I’m sharing what I had noticed:

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This is Team James, the eventual winners of the Clear Dream Match 2. This team photo was taken prior to kick-off, and while everyone had their (friendly) game faces on, we see Fabio Cannavaro and Misagh Bahadoran in a world by themselves, oblivious to the bright lights and flashes.

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Cue to right before the second half started. Fabs is not very impressed with the state of the waterlogged pitch.

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Misagh, however, is all too happy to see Fabs on the pitch and runs over to him.

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Fabs clearly knows his effect on Misagh.

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Fabs:  “Hey Saba, you’re definitely more confident with me in front of you.”

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Misagh quickly establishes position. Note tactile tactics toward Fabs to ease Saba out of the picture.

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No, Misagh. Lifting your shorts won’t distract Fabs from his main concern—that swamp of a pitch.

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Fabs was all too relieved to be subbed out. That or he was just too happy that they were winning. By the way, Misagh, you snooze, you lose. Saba is a step ahead of you.

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He did get his civil handshake moment with Fabs after all.

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Ah, but look at that face. It is like the face of a fangirl that got her fleeting moment of touching the World Cup champion.

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Regret sinks in. Misagh thinks he should have hugged it out with Fabs instead. Too late, Fabs has moved on to the other teammates.

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All’s well that ends well. Those two were on the winning side, and Fabs is watching after Misagh, who just might fall off the stage in excitement.

***

Yeah, I just had some time on my hands to post this. Also, if you do plan to share these photos elsewhere, I would greatly appreciate it if you drop me a note saying so. It’s only kind, and let’s be friends.

On a more serious note, you can read the Five things we learned from this year’s CLEAR Dream Match here.

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The Men in the Arena*

Originally posted in Pinoyfootball.

Philippine National Team captain and veteran defender Rob Gier summed up the match versus Turkmenistan quite succinctly during the post-match press conference.

“It was a tough game, it was totally, totally different from the Cambodia game,” he says, adding that the match versus Cambodia placed the limelight on the Philippines’ attackers. “(The Turkmenistan game) was all about the defenders. It just goes to show the different aspects of the team together, to be successful.”

“I think what’s special about this team is the team spirit,” Gier continues, pointing out that taking on the Turkmen demanded a lot from the Azkals, and the boys could not have done it if they didn’t get along. “We do it for the team, for the country, and for everyone that supports us.”

Indeed, it does take a very special group of people to achieve what these guys have achieved in quite a short span of time.

Consider 2012 a banner year for the Azkals with all the achievements and “firsts” they’ve managed to rack up—setting the stage quite nicely for a strong start in official matches this 2013. The 8-0 win versus Cambodia wasn’t just a victory—it was a statement.

And even that somewhat pales to the statement that was made when the Philippines finally beat Turkmenistan, 1-0.

Much has been and will be said about the match, including that particularly memorable shot by Phil Younghusband into the opening seconds of the game, how we started strongly, and managed to hold onto the lead despite being down to ten men.

All the credit goes to this team.

Credit Phil Younghusband for the goal, and credit him for all the times that he’s tried and missed and failed. He’ll keep fighting for those goals, as he had done with over 30 before. Credit him for the times he’s had to deal with one too many defenders eager to take him down.

Credit Javier Patiño for bringing the quality to the strike force that we had been badly missing and that Phil Younghusband needs to draw defenders away from him. Credit him for bringing the ball to the goal each chance he gets and for threatening opponents whenever he can.

Credit Jerry Lucena and Chris Greatwich for providing adequate defensive cover and finding the open men to attack.

Credit Carli de Murga and Angel Guirado for the Spanish flair that they bring to the right flank.

Credit Rob Gier and Juani Guirado for being staunch on defense, for giving us a sense of security even in those moments when momentum was turning in favor of Turkmenistan, in those moments when they tried their best to breach our back line.

Credit Roland Müller for the clean sheets he’s produced in these two very important games. Credit him for his solid, steady hands, for proving himself worthy of the starting spot in a position with several viable options. Credit him for no longer being defined as just a second choice.

Credit Dennis Cagara for his consistency. Against Turkmenistan, he effectively snuffed threats coming from his side. Credit him for playing a critical role in the play that led to Phil Younghusband’s goal to lift us past the Turkmen. Credit him for us having a dangerous left flank.

Credit Stephan Schröck for everything that he brings to this team. Credit him for always fighting for the ball, for managing a way out even when the opponents close down on spaces. Credit him for standing up a half-second later when he’s brought down, showing what tenacity is. Credit him for making things happen, not just for himself, but also for his teammates. Credit him for being a spark on the left flank, together with Cagara, relentless in attacking. Credit him for instilling in all of us a belief that we can overcome each opponent we are faced with.

Credit all the players that have seen limited or no playing time. Credit them for helping prepare this unit to achieve another milestone in Philippine football.

The match versus Turkmenistan proved to be a difficult hurdle—and one where lessons could be learned from hard work and experience. Credit the men in the arena for fighting tooth and nail for making another statement and for booking a place in Maldives in 2014.

*Title inspired by Theodore Roosevelt’s “Man in the Arena” quotation.

**And there is one man in that arena that I was particularly rooting for, largely because he has finally been given playing time in the national team. He had a nice little gesture the day after as well, and this is why I’ll continue supporting him.

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Every Photo Has a Story: Football in 2012

Keeping tabs on Philippine football has been a huge part of my hours in 2012, and it’s been a fun and interesting year in stories. Because every photo has a story behind it, I’m sharing my favorite snaps from the year that was—for the fans, fangirls, and the people who’ve shared in the adventures.

Here’s to even more stories in 2013.

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Choosing What to Look At: Post-Suzuki Cup Ramblings and Reflections

(Posted here. Also known as my rejoinder for Pinoy football in 2012.)

 

There are losses that prompt one to write and write until the pain disappears or becomes bearable. Then there are losses that just leave you stunned and muted, unable to articulate anything—and this is what I had been reduced to after the Philippines bowed out of the AFF Suzuki Cup after Singapore.


As overly dramatic as that sounds, it does indicate the level of emotional investments and high expectations I have for the national team. If you’ve read Nick Hornby’s “Fever Pitch”, you would understand what such fanaticism meant. For the record, I thought he sounded insufferable throughout much of the book—and I recognize the same kind of despair in myself when Singapore came out celebrating a victory spelled by a lone goal made by Khairul Amri in the 19th minute of the second leg of the semifinal match.

Singapore went on to have an explosive first leg against Thailand in the first leg of the AFF Suzuki Cup Finals, winning 3-1. The Lions did not look to park the bus in the second leg, attempting to counterattack in the rare moments that they were presented an opportunity to do so. They didn’t run a dangerous game by sitting back and being content to defend their goal. Despite losing to Thailand in the second leg, 1-0, the Lions were crowned the champions of Southeast Asia this year.

Inevitably, this space isn’t for Singapore—who had a topsy-turvy road to becoming the champions, despite the genius of Raddy Avramovic. Neither is it for Thailand—who were the heavy favorites coming into the tournament and who stamped their dominance in every match, except for that one match that made all the difference (in retrospect, how crucial was that third goal of Singapore!).

This is, still, for the Azkals.

In the post-AFF Suzuki Cup finals commentary, there was talk about how the Philippines were now no longer Asia’s whipping boys, but that the team failed to build on their 2010 campaign. Perhaps it was a comment from an outsider looking merely at the results of that particular tournament and simply comparing it with the performance from two years ago.

2012, however, marked a year of significant improvements for the Azkals. Finishing third in the AFC Challenge Cup and being crowned the champions of the Peace Cup were not the easiest of feats. Add to these the series of friendlies held throughout the year to test the team’s mettle.

Along the way, there were a few feats here and there, including beating Singapore (twice, in friendlies, which may have been our undoing in competition—but I’ll stop dwelling on that) and Myanmar, apart from beating Vietnam once again, proving that the Miracle of Hanoi in 2010 wasn’t a fluke.

In the course of such victories, adjustments have been made and figureheads have emerged as heroes. Chieffy Caligdong may no longer be the usual starter, but he has always proven to be the spark off the bench (and nobody could ever doubt his heart—remember him going against Singapore’s midfielders who were twice his size?). Rob Gier, now, in more ways than one, has been the anchor of this team—a rock on defense and a leader on the pitch. Ed Sacapaño, since that performance against Singapore on November 15, now walks a little taller, a little prouder—dispelling any doubts on who should be on goal.

One can choose to look at the end result of our 2012 AFF Suzuki Cup campaign and dismissively say that the team hadn’t built on the surprises of two years ago, or choose to look at the path that the boys have forged this year—which tells much, much more.

When I was watching Singapore celebrate their victory, I can’t help but think that that could be us in two years’ time. Southeast Asian football just got much more competitive, and our boys are right in the thick of things. There’s much work to be done, more so in the coming year. We’ll keep believing, and the Azkals will keep clawing to the top.

Of draws, disappointments, and grand gestures of love.

The good: We managed to keep a clean sheet in the first leg of the AFF Suzuki Cup semifinals.

The bad: We couldn’t manage to score a goal. Singapore just dominated us. Good thing their decisiveness in the final third was absent as well.

The lowdown: Posted all my verbal diarrhea here.

The crazy:

Well, this happened on Twitter a couple of days before the match:

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Because Chris Greatwich saw my Twitter quip, you know I gotta stand by my word:

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Well, no Chris Greatwich in action—come on, HMW! Stop sticking to your favorites and deploy some actual tactics! But hey, I hope the guy felt the love.

I’ve been told he came over and said, “I’m signing that one.” (Missed it—media room duties!) Here’s proof:

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1/3 love, 1/3 insanity, 1/3 this guy really needs to be on the pitch for crying out loud.

For the record, we also pulled through with a banner for Demit Omphroy:

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Yep, too much fun with puns. Still waiting for these two to be unleashed. Should I now have a banner in German for HMW?

To the semis we go!

Here are the two goals by the Philippines against Myanmar to secure our spot in the semifinals of the 2012 AFF Suzuki Cup! Finally—the home game that was denied to us two years ago is finally happening!

My thoughts on the Azkals earning their stripes here.

Quite an awesome football week!

This week is one for the books when it comes to football, simply because there’s just too many of the awesome to report on.

One. Steven Gerrard reached 100 caps for England. Here he is with 100 school kids, posing for photos. Too adorable.

Two. Zlatan Ibrahimovic didn’t just score a world-class goal. It was out of this world. Proof:

Three. Spain thrashed Panama, and we have Sergio Ramos contributing to the goalscoring thanks to this awesome free kick. Just a few more attempts, and mi hombre is on his way of becoming a free kick specialist!

Four. The Azkals won over the Lions! Quite an inspired second half from the boys—and boy, oh boy, Ed Sacapaño was just one huge wall against Singapore! My thoughts on it here. (P.S. No more drama and politicking please in the NT—time to have a win-at-all-cost mentality!)

Five. Liverpool beat Wigan at Anfield 3-0, thanks to a Luis Suarez brace and a Jose Enrique goal. Gotta love the Suarez-Sterling partnership, and Jose Enrique finally at his best. Now this is the Liverpool under Brendan Rodgers that I’ve been waiting to see! (Also, Everton, Chelsea, and Manchester United lost this weekend—what joy!)

Six. Real Madrid beat Athletic Bilbao (I do like this Basque team though), 5-1, anchored by inspired performances from Karim Benzema and Mesut Özil.

Quick round-up, September-October 2012 version.

I apologize for the lack of updates lately. Work has been hella crazy and my writing requirements have been endless. I have been watching and writing about football whenever I can for the last two months. Still, some quick updates are in order.

On the rivalries: Liverpool lost to Manchester United 2-1 at home. Boo. Real Madrid drew 2-2 with Barcelona at Camp Nou. I’ll take that.

Por fin, a win: Liverpool finally bagged their first home win of the season, winning 1-0 versus Reading. A Raheem Sterling goal at that. The future is bright.

On the home front: The Azkals have finally ended a 99-year wait (as if we all waited that long!) for silverware, winning the Peace Cup. My thoughts on that here.

I also had the privilege of sitting down with Demitrius Omphroy and got to know his life story (to date). I don’t say this about a lot of people, but here’s someone I genuinely like and respect. Here‘s my take on him.

That’s it for now, flying off to Bangkok once again tomorrow.

 

 

The Luck of the Draw(s)

Originally posted in Pinoyfootball.

 

If there was a moment in time when a supporter of the Philippine men’s national football team could step back and think of just how far the Azkals have gone since the team shot to superstardom, it has to be June 2012—when the boys finally proved they were no longer the underdogs coming into matches versus regional powerhouses Malaysia and Indonesia.

 

The good thing about friendly matches is that these allow for a bit of experimentation, especially in view of upcoming regional competitions later in the year. The friendlies with Malaysia and Indonesia heralded glimpses of what many believe is the strongest line-up of the Philippines in recent memory.

 

Despite a grandiose label, the Azkals only managed a draw against either team. Such results beg for questions—What went right? More importantly, what could stand to be further improved?

 

Against Malaysia, the Philippines were without the services of Phil and James Younghusband, as well as Neil Etheridge, who served a one-match suspension. Etheridge was hardly missed, as Roland Müller showed us what he can do, having a stellar game against the Malaysians.

 

The Philippines came out in the first half electrified, thanks largely to the presence of Stephan Schröck, who was just all over the place to create trouble for the Malaysians. Apart from the quality that Schröck brings to the team, what can never be ignored is the swag he brings. There is no denying that the man plays without fear of the opponent—he just charges through, seemingly brimming with the confidence to win. (Now if only we had his services more often for the national team.)

 

If the first half of the Malaysia-Philippines match showed a high level of energy in the first half, this was not sustained in the second. Bad calls aside, the Malaysians made some adjustments in the second half to frustrate both Schröck and Angel Guirado, effectively snuffing out any threats for the Philippines to score goals. There were times when it felt as if Schröck was running onto a brick wall, with the Malaysians eventually dispossessing him.

 

As for Guirado, he was adequately covered by at least two Malaysian defenders near the touchline. This was when one would have missed the crosses of James Younghusband, who would manage the feed the ball to the strikers—something that was found wanting with Guirado utilized on the right wing.

 

One other thing to note during the Malaysia-Philippines match is that the Azkals were considerably outpaced by the Harimau Malaya, especially in the second half. While the Azkals’ conditioning has improved from their performances last year, how they could keep up with other (stronger) teams, especially in the last 30 minutes of a match, may become a critical factor.

 

Moreover, the Philippines’ defense was found wanting. Perhaps the Azkals had lady luck on their side, since Malaysia couldn’t properly finish, failing to find the net in their shots, even with their second wave of attackers.

 

Whether one supported Malaysia or the Philippines, a goalless draw was frustrating for both sides, given all the chances to score. Perhaps this was even more frustrating for Malaysia than it was for us, given that they had the momentum in the final third of the game, launching waves of attacks at the Azkals’ backline.

 

This then set the stage for a team that was hungrier to win at home.

 

Proving a Point

The match against Indonesia was billeted at “the home game that never was”, yet it hardly felt like that. For one, Indonesia’s line-up had dramatically changed, with only three holdovers from the 2010 Suzuki Cup—Irfan Bachdim, Markus Maulana, and Okto Maniani. The rest of the Indonesian national team is from the Indonesian Premier League, with nobody over the age of 25 (even this situation is an indication of the issues within Indonesia’s football association, but let’s not go there).

 

In contrast, the Philippines’ starting line-up had Müller, Carli de Murga, Rob Gier, Jason Sabio, Dennis Cagara, Marwin Angeles, Manny Ott, Angel Guirado, Paul Mulders, Chieffy Caligdong, and Denis Wolf. Consider the substitutes: Neil Etheridge, Misagh Bahadoran, James Younghusband, Phil Younghusband, Jerry Lucena, and Jason de Jong. It is as strong as it could get.

 

The Philippines dominated possession in the first half, threatening Indonesia’s goalkeeper Maulana (who is a strong contender for a Best Actor Oscar, isn’t he?) several times, before Indonesia finally tested Müller at around the 40th minute. The first half also saw an enterprising Dennis Cagara, in his third cap for the Philippines.

 

As experimental as the line-up could get, there were positives and points for improvement. Sure, we finally have a semblance of a passing game, yet we lacked the creativity and the connection in the final third to convert our chances into goals.  Both the matches against Malaysia and Indonesia further showed that the midfield has to connect better with the forwards to create opportunities to score.

 

For all the confidence that the Philippines could muster, it was Indonesia that drew the first blood, with Patrick Wanggai scoring in a counterattack. James Younghusband almost immediately leveled the score, before Irfan Bachdim restored Indonesia’s lead, following a defensive lapse from the Azkals.

 

Bachdim’s goal seemed to have thrown the Azkals off their game, as the team played catch-up in the last 30 minutes of the match (a seemingly familiar scenario?). Things were not about to get any easier as bedlam ensued, resulting to red cards for Bachdim, Caligdong, and Ott.

Despite being down to nine men, the Azkals continued to keep up with Indonesia in pace, and the resilience paid off, with Phil Younghusband scoring a late goal to have the match end in 2-2 draw.

 

It may have been quite an electrifying game (scuffles included), but the results left some Azkals supporters disappointed (this one included).

 

A More Menacing Bite Needed

At the post-match press conference, Phil Younghusband remarked, “I think you’ve seen today just how much we’ve grown since 2010. We were in control of the ball. We dictated the tempo of the game. I think we’ve learned more about how far we’ve gone in the last two years, and how we are favorites. I mean, before the game, we were favorites, whereas two years ago, we were never the favorites.”

 

He was spot-on in his assessment. Still, there’s a long way to go if the Azkals were to emerge victorious in the upcoming Suzuki Cup.

 

I asked Irfan Bachdim if he considered the match versus the Philippines as the beginnings of a new regional rivalry. “Rivalry is such a big word,” he stated. “I think our rivalry is more with Malaysia.”

This is indicative of what the Azkals need to work on. Against Indonesia, our powerhouse line-up failed to stamp its authority over a young team that didn’t have the likes of Cristian Gonzales. Sure, the respect level has significantly increased, but we have yet to instill intimidation in our opponents—and this will come once we start winning against them. (Not through a “You’re in our house now” banner—which would have been more effective if we had an 80,000-seater stadium filled to the rafters and cheering non-stop for the Azkals.)

 

There’s still one more friendly lined up for the Azkals this June, against Guam in Panaad Stadium, Bacolod City. After two disappointing draws, expectations are high for the former underdogs to secure a convincing win.

 

We’ve come a long way, but this building and experimenting process is far from over.

Chilling with Carli de Murga: On Azkals, panget music, and great literature

Originally posted on InterAKTV.

Carli de Murga does not consider himself a role model for little kids wanting to do well in football.

“I think that I am not especially the role model to look up to, because there are things that I have done well and others not so well,” de Murga explains in Spanish. “To be a good football player, one must do everything well.”

It’s quite a contrast for the surroundings of where this interview took place. It was a bright and sunny late April morning, and the European International School (EIS) Football Cup was in full swing. De Murga, together with Azkals coach Hans Michael Weiss and fellow players Chieffy Caligdong, Misagh Bahadoran, and Patrick Reichelt, was invited to grace the event.

Around us, a couple of highly competitive football matches among boys aged 7 to 13 years old are in full swing, with their parents cheering on.

While he doesn’t see himself as a role model, de Murga acknowledges the importance of gracing football events for young kids. “We help promote football among the little kids,” he says in heavily accented English. “Now, football is developing in the Philippines and in a few years, we hope it would take big steps and reach higher levels.”

Carli de Murga has momentum on his side, enjoying regular appearances for club and country since arriving in the Philippines from Cadiz, Spain in late 2011. This right back has shown smarts, skills, and a commendable work rate on the pitch.

Today, off the pitch, he’s just chilling under a tree, taking in everything behind a very hipster pair of shades. Our interview is a smattering of English and Spanish, a rather unusual mix in this part of the world — even I thought this would be a bit of a struggle.

When asked what the most challenging aspect of relocating to the Philippines was, he says, “The weather… and I have a big problem with the traffic.” And the food? “I like Filipino food!” he exclaims. “In Spain, my mom cooks Filipino food for me.”

It’s easier, however, to get de Murga talking when we’re talking about the more personal aspects of football. He’ll openly share his experiences, his preferences, and will even dish out a secret or two about his teammates.

“When I arrived back in Spain (from the Philippines), I found in my place a Filipino community that had shirts with my name, and they had a fan club called Carli’s Angels,” he shares, disclosing the best thing his supporters have done for him.

“I’m very excited to play against China in June,” he chatters away. “I heard the head coach of China is Spanish. He was previously the coach of the Spanish national team and of Real Madrid.”

“Jose Antonio Camacho?” I venture.

“Yes, Camacho,” he agrees. “He’s a very good coach.”

(Editor’s note: The planned friendly against China has been cancelled, with the Azkals taking on Guam instead.)

When asked what else he hopes the Azkals would achieve in 2012, de Murga responds without missing a beat, “The Suzuki Cup, I want to win that.”

I asked if he also thinks his club, Global FC, would win the United Football League, he says: “Yes, I think… I cannot say that we’ll win the UFL, but we’re going to do our best to maintain our position. If we don’t have too many injuries, we have a strong team, and we’ll get there.” He added that Loyola and Stallion are Global’s toughest competitions in the league.

De Murga breaks into laughter when asked about having to replace Neil Etheridge in the Azkals’ AFF Challenge Cup semifinal match versus Turkmenistan, after the Philippines’ first-choice goalkeeper was handed a red card for kicking Gahryman Chonkayev.

“I really like playing as a goalkeeper,” he says animatedly. “In Spain, when I go to play with my friends, I always play as a goalkeeper, because I can’t get injured. They say I’m a good goalkeeper!”

“When Neil got the red card, I thought, ‘This is my time!’” he laughs. “I could finally show my goalkeeping qualities!”

It may not be surprising to display such versatility. After all, de Murga grew up in a land where football is part and parcel of the culture, but his reasons for picking up the sport is just right at home.

“I started playing because of my brother,” he shares. “He taught me and brought me to games. He’s the reason I got into football.” And as with any Spaniard that treasures the romanticism in football, de Murga supports FC Barcelona. “They won’t win La Liga this year,” I jabbed. “No, no, no, we cannot win always,” he responds, taking it good-naturedly.

Being a Culé, one must wonder as to which player de Murga looks up to. He is quick to identify Lionel Messi, Andres Iniesta, and Xavi as the players he admires, but upon prodding, the first football shirt that he owned was a Barcelona kit with Pep Guardiola’s name at the back.

De Murga also opens up about his teammates. When asked who is más inteligente (the smartest), he pauses and says, “Yu Hoshide.” The best dressed? “Sorry, I don’t know.” He also goes on to explain why Angel Guirado has the worst taste in tunes — which teammate Misagh Bahadoran describes as panget music. “He always listens to party music… like David Guetta.”

Now this begs the question, what music does Carli de Murga listen to? “I listen to the Red Hot Chili Peppers and the Beatles.” Impressive, if you ask me.

De Murga also dishes on a question that many Global FC fans may have asked at one point. Who takes the longest in the shower? “Me and Angel,” he quickly responds, eliciting laughter from those that heard the answer.

If there’s one thing that could be gleaned from spending a few minutes with Carli de Murga, it’s the fact that it’s hard to place him in a box. He’s the right back that enjoys donning the goalkeeper’s gloves, the Culé that actually said a Madridista coach was very good, and the football player that enjoys a good book.

“Do you have a favorite book? Líbro? “Matar un ruiseñor,” he shares. Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. “It is a favorite of my dad’s, and I was young when I first read it.”

A bagful of surprises, indeed.