CHENNAI: The foreign player in the Indian Super League is a curious entity. On the field, his job is to ensure that local players do not drag down the quality of football below a certain standard. Off it, he has to act as a bridge between Indian football and the rest of the world, creating tiny links that can register in the minds of the country’s European football-crazy fans, thereby lending the ISL a semblance of relevance.
Names like Florent Malouda and Diego Forlan find this easy, having pulled on the colours of some of the biggest clubs in the world. Then there are others like Jofre Mateu Gonzalez, who has breathed in the same oxygen as some of football’s biggest legends.
Jofre, formerly of Atletico de Kolkata and now Zico’s go-to man at FC Goa, came through FC Barcelona’s famed La Masia academy, even managing to score on his La Liga debut. Fourteen years after he left Barcelona, the club still dominates the questions he receives from star-struck players or excited fans.
“It was a big experience,” says Jofre. “I was going away from home and I was 13. It was great to share the dressing room with my idols. As a school, as an academy, as a place where football thrives, La Masia is the biggest for me.”
Jofre’s time at Barcelona, the pre-Messi, pre-Ronaldinho era, was not quite the most trophy-laden in the club’s history. But he got to share space with some of the biggest names. “When my first pre-season with the first team happened, (Louis) Van Gaal was the coach with (Jose) Mourinho as assistant,” Jofre remembers.
“There were many players of the second team. We were eating together at a table. And there was only one player of the first team sharing the table with us and that was Luis Enrique, who is the current Barcelona coach. He was sitting there so that reserve players feel part of the first team group.”
Then there was the time he rubbed shoulders with then Barca captain and now Manchester City coach Pep Guardiola. “I was in the team bus. I was new and I didn’t know where to sit. Turns out I was sitting in (Dutch defender) Winston Bogarde’s seat. He came in and asked me to get out of his seat. In comes Guardiola who asked Bogarde to find another seat and let me stay there. Even then, he was looking out for the players.”
After leaving the Blaugrana, Jofre went on to play for La Liga clubs Levante, Espanyol, Murcia and Real Valladolid. But ask him who the best manager he has worked with, and Jofre lets out a laugh. “I’ll have to say Zico now, no?
“When I was with Van Gaal, with Guardiola, I was very young and maybe because of that I didn’t take a lot from them,” he says. “Maybe I was not focussing on their jobs and skills. But with Zico, I can see how he is involved in making players feel comfortable. I couldn’t imagine how he could be so humble, being Zico. I had a coach in Spain, Manuel Preciado who was my coach at Levante. He was a reference for me always, because of how he lived. But Zico is like a big lesson.”
● Know Jofre ● Age: 36 Nationality: Spanish ● Position: Midfielder
Teams played for: Barcelona (1998-2002), Mallorca B (loan, 2000-2001), Levante (2002-2005), Espanyol (2005-2006), Murcia (2006-2008), Rayo Vallecano (2008-2010), Valladolid (2010-2012), Girona (2012-2014), Atlético de Kolkata (2014), FC Goa (2015-present).
Honours: Barcelona: La Liga (1997-98), Espanyol: Copa del Rey (2005–06), Atlético de Kolkata (ISL 2014).