Seven years ago, Sergi Canos’ view of the footballing world was very different. Never having thought beyond Spain, his horizons naturally narrow for a 13-year-old freshly arrived at one of the world’s biggest clubs, Canos suddenly had a watershed moment.
He was not the only one. After hearing the news that Jon Toral and Hector Bellerin decided to leave Barcelona’s academy in 2011 to try their hand at developing further at Arsenal, Canos’ attitude towards his own career path changed too.
“I think they were the two biggest players in La Masia,” Sergi recalls, now 21 years of age and five years into his own English adventure. “So when they left, everyone was like ‘Oh, wow…’ We were at Barcelona, a huge team, but that was something very different to what we knew, they left to go to another country.
“Because we were kids, our world was Barcelona, so if you don’t make it in Barcelona then there’s nothing else, but when they left it was like: ‘Wow, there are other ways to be a top player.”
From La Masia to Griffin Park
Things went well for the Castellon-born attacker during his spell at La Masia, where he spent three years learning his craft before swapping Catalonia for Merseyside. In 2013, his excellent performances at the Mediterranean International Cup dictated that he was named Player of the Tournament despite his team not even making the semi-finals: “everyone thought that I paid for that trophy,” Canos laughs.
Read more: Why Brentford scrapped their academy and embraced B-team football
Now an established first-team player at Brentford, angling for promotion to the Premier League, Sergi and many others have found professional opportunities elsewhere. La Masia graduate Adama Traore has made an impact in England most recently for Wolves. Younger still, teenagers Eric Garcia and Adrian Bernabe swapped Barça's youth ranks for Manchester City.
“The third year was the best,” Canos explains fondly. “I trained with all the [first-team] guys. I didn’t know that was going to be possible, in Barcelona they have steps, that’s why people leave. They don’t want to take you two steps up because they want: A, B, C, D. They don’t want to put one player from A to C, they don’t want to miss B. That’s why I think people leave, that’s why I left.”
‘Barça makes footballers for everyone'
Rather than frustration over not achieving his dream as a 13-year-old, Canos paints a different picture. Regular first-team opportunities have been rare for La Masia products for a long while, the conveyor belt that brought the likes of Carles Puyol, Victor Valdes, Andres Iniesta, Xavi, Lionel Messi and Sergio Busquets to the forefront of football has long been dormant – but there is no reason to feel rudderless.
Read more: ‘If you give an 18 or 19 year old a chance, you can’t kill him by the first or second game': Canos on the struggles of Barça's current young stars
“I think the most important thing is that Barcelona makes footballers for everyone. When you sign for Barça, I don’t think that everyone thinks that they will get to first team, that’s just the dream. Everyone thinks ‘I’m going to make the most of it and go somewhere else'.
“[Jordi] Mboula didn’t make it at Barca, but where is he? Monaco. Sergio Gomez? Dortmund. Even if you say the ‘worst' stories, [Jordi] Masip is at [Real] Valladolid, Julio Pleguezuelo [Canos’ former La Masia roommate] is at Arsenal, [Alex] Grimaldo is at Benfica! If we thought for 10 or 20 minutes, do you know how many we can say have become professional footballers? That’s how big Barça is.”
Learning to be a man at Liverpool
Bellerin was one big early example of a young Spaniard heading to England for success, and there have been no signs of the trend slowing. While Englishmen try their hand in the Bundesliga, or elsewhere in Europe, some Spaniards seek to take the next step forward in their career by doing the opposite. Canos chose Liverpool, before settling down for a second spell at Brentford after a stint with Norwich.
“I wouldn’t change anything in my life, anything, but I did regret the first six months at Liverpool. ‘Why? Why did I come here?!’, Canos laughs. “But now, I am so glad. Liverpool made me into a man and showed me what football was.
“I came from a community of 100 kids and everyone was friends. You naturally had problems with some people, but everyone was friends. I came to Liverpool and I could feel ‘This guy from Spain has come to take my position’ from those who have played for Liverpool for a long time.
“First of all, I didn’t want to take anyone’s position, I just wanted to enjoy it and to be happy, but I could feel that they were not as comfortable with me. When I knew more English and could communicate better, I was more integrated into the group.”
‘England is different'
Having previously played for CD Castellón’s academy, in a region of Spain where the likes of Valencia and Villarreal are currently blooding plenty of young graduates into their La Liga plans, Canos breaking onto the scene in the Championship is a curious twist of fate.
“I will go back to Spain, but I want to make my career here. English football suits me and I like playing here so much. It’s all about football,” Canos explains, becoming noticeably more animated.
“You can’t compare England to anywhere, it has something different, I am really attached to the atmosphere and when we play on Saturday, on the Sunday I’m already looking to the next Saturday. It’s the feeling of football, that’s why a lot of players from Spain want to come here.
“Against Norwich we were in bad form and Brentford brought 1,000 people on a Saturday. Nobody brings a thousand people to an away game in La Liga, we can’t even talk about the second division. I’m a Valencia fan, I don’t think they even took that many to Villarreal and it's 30 minutes away by car and a derby! Here it is different. My mum always says: ‘Where are these people coming from? Don’t they work?’
“You have to go [to the game]! I love that. ‘Oh, I can’t make it…’ ‘No, you have to!’ ‘Okay, I’ll try my best.’”
Enamoured with the buzz that surrounds match days, Canos’ family have also put down their roots with no short-term intention of returning to Spain. As a teenager at Barcelona, his parents would have to drive two and a half hours by car each weekend to watch his games, the reality of moving to La Masia and living away from home.
“My mum and sister are still in Liverpool even now, my sister is doing her A-levels. Two years ago we thought of my mum and sister moving to Spain. My sister said: ’But then we’re not going to come and watch you play every weekend?’ I didn’t think it was that important, you know? But my sister said: ‘We love being around and going to games, we love Tuesdays when Sergi plays at 7.45, so I’ll do my homework and then we’ll watch it on Sky Sports.’
“They’ll come to London on Friday and then stay until Sunday because they want to watch the game. That’s how important football is in my family and how the atmosphere in England matches it.”
Having spent half a decade in England, Canos admits that footballing friends have asked him for advice on whether a similar move would make sense for them as they seek a change in their career.
“For some, it depends how you adapt being here. It’s very difficult to adapt and to get to the stage that you’re happy and enjoying it. Every player is different. I would say yeah, come. Don’t think twice. Other people might say it is horrible and they hated it.”
Nolito springs to mind, Pep Guardiola’s second signing for Manchester City. The Celta Vigo wide man had impressed in La Liga, but returned back to Spain a year later telling tales of a country with no sunlight. His daughter, he supposed, looked as though she had been living in a cave.
“He knew that before coming. If you want your daughter to see the sun, don’t bring her here. You will see the sun, but only occasionally,” Canos jokes. “Everyone knows the difficult parts. I’m so happy that I took the chance when it came.”
More from Simon Harrison:
The post Sergi Canos: ‘Barcelona was my world – but I'm so happy I left' appeared first on inews.co.uk.