Former Swansea striker Michu rebuilding career in Spain’s four
Michu was the Premier League’s top scorer at end of 2012 but ankle injuries meant he bought out Swansea contract and now he is with an amateur team
Michu during his debut for Unión Popular de Langreo, a 3-0 win over Club Deportivo Covadonga. Photograph: Eloy Alonso
I lasted 60 minutes and then my ankle said: ‘Enough.’” Michu walked off the pitch that night in Bern and did not walk back on again until last Thursday night in Langreo, 441 days later and a long way away. The Premier League’s top scorer at Christmas 2012, an international with the world champions Spain in 2013, he started 2014 in the Champions League with Napoli; now, aged 29, after a series of operations on his right ankle, he hopes to restart his career from the bottom with Unión Popular de Langreo in Spain’s regionalised fourth tier.
Michu’s last game was at the Wankdorf stadium in the Europa League. More than a year later he finally played again, at Ganzábal alongside the river Nalón in the wet, green hills of Asturias, surrounded by mines and foundries; an artificial pitch with a municipal swimming pool at one end of the ground and a block of flats at the other. His return came in a 3-0 win over Club Deportivo Covadonga in Spain’sTercera, a league with 17 divisions, down below Primera, Segunda and the 80-team Segunda B, itself split between four regionalised groups.
Langreo’s manager calls them “amateur”, although some players are paid fees of up to €500 a month. Michu is not one of them. The captain of Covadonga is Negredo; not Álvaro but his brother César. When Michu came off in Bern, he was replaced by Marek Hamsik; when he goes on here, wearing 16, he replaces Carlos Viesca, a 23-year-old striker. Seven hundred and 16 people are there to see it.
At one end, someone has hung six Michu shirts over a barrier: Oviedo, Rayo Vallecano, Napoli, Swansea City home and away and Spain. Diego Cervero is here – the captain of second division Real Oviedo is among Michu’s closest friends, with whom he began his career 20km away at the Carlos Tartiere stadium. Michu’s father is here, too, and so is the player’s brother, Hernán Pérez Cuesta. He really could not miss this: Hernán Pérez is Langreo’s coach.
Michu fans display some of the shirts that he has worn throughout his career. Photograph: Eloy Alonso
Michu began training with Langreo in the summer. He was still owned by Swansea and there were offers to go to first division clubs in Spain and interest from England, too, but Michu knew that he was not right and that joining them would not be right either. “You have to be honourable in life,” he says. Instead, he began a process of rehabilitation that he knew might fail following another operation. There is little cartilage left in his right ankle, leaving bone against bone. “I don’t remember what it is like to be pain-free,” he says
Hernán Pérez, his brother and coach, says: “He has suffered terribly: many people would have thrown in the towel already.” Langreo offered Michu a place to train and, eventually, to play. So, too, did Covadonga. Their manager, Fermín Álvarez, knows Michu from Oviedo, where Michu made his debut aged 17, in the same Tercera to which he has returned 12 years later
Covadonga also agreed to move the game from 3 January to Thursday night, so Michu could play. Although he rescinded his contract with Swansea, he had to wait until the transfer window opened to be able to formally register with the Royal Asturias Football Federation. He had hoped to play in November; now, at last, he could. On the way on to the pitch, a slogan is painted above the door: “We’re in this together.” Michu says later: “There are no words to express how grateful I am to everyone.”
Michu turns up a little before 6pm, an hour and a half before kick-off, a bag slung over his shoulder. He is nervous; more nervous, he later admits, than when he visited Old Trafford or Anfield. “I couldn’t sleep last night; I couldn’t even take asiesta this afternoon, and I always have,” he says. “It seems strange that I couldn’t control my emotions but that’s the way it is.”
He starts on the bench, photographers gathering to take pictures. But at half-time he is out there warming up with Álvaro Vázquez, the physical coach. In the 48th minute, at 8.39pm, with the score at 1-0, he comes on. Slowly, he eases his way into the game. Playing just behind the forwards, he has a couple of chances, one that he hits over, another that he passes instead of taking on. A volley flies past the post. He provides two assists that are ruled out by the linesman and starts the moves that lead to the second and third goals.
Michu in action during his first game back after operations on his right ankle,a 3-0 win over Club Deportivo Covadonga. Photograph: Fernando Rodríguez/La Nueva España
At the full-time whistle, he heads straight to the dressing room, the first off. He is not comfortable with the attention but things have gone well.
“It was a special day,” his brother and coach says. “Even if you have played in huge stadiums, that feeling you get as a footballer is the same everywhere and you need it. He had not played for a long time. Above all, we have to recover him emotionally. Hopefully he will be better with every game and we’ll see how far he can go. The president said he can stay here for as long as he wants and go when he wants. Let’s see how his ankle responds, let’s see if we can lift him emotionally – and then whatever will be, will be.”
For now, what Michu wants to be is happy, a footballer. His ankle does not feel entirely comfortable but he does not expect it to. “There’s always some pain. I hardly know what it is like to play without pain but I felt good,” he says. “It’s been so long. I remember my last game … it was an artificial pitch and I lasted 60 minutes and then my ankle said: ‘Enough.’ Now I hope to rise again. I’m not really planning anything: enjoy the next session, then play a bit longer in the next game. Then we’ll see if I can compete at a higher level or not.”
There are still doubts, then? “Yes.”
He adds: “I can play. The problem is: what level? I would love to reach the level I was at again, or who knows if even higher, but it will be difficult, I know that. I came here to be happy. It’s football, whatever level you’re at. I’m playing, competing. Long-term plans? None. Tomorrow I train and on Sunday we play Lugones.”