Jose Mourinho was in a rare tranquil moment. It was February 2015, and atop the Premier League his Chelsea were flying, their unwavering control over a title race placating Mourinho and affording him a moment for reflection. So reflect he did, on his return to west London, mainly. But also on something else: the place he'd returned from.
"I don't think leaving a big club like Real Madrid is an easy option," said Mourinho to BT Sport. "Normally people that leave Real Madrid because the club wants people to leave, not from their own initiative."
At the time, the line was glossed over a little; the focus instead was the potential for a dynasty. And yet the line was a revealing one. Extremely so. Even for a man as decorated and well-travelled as Mourinho, leaving Real Madrid is hard. For others, leaving Barcelona is just the same. And this doesn't just go for managers; it goes for players as well—players perhaps more than anyone.
It's not quite the same at other clubs. At other heavyweights around Europe, greater possibilities and upward trajectories still potentially exist behind the exit doors even if guarantees don't. You could be at one of the Manchester giants, or at one of London's powerhouses, or at either of Milan's behemoths, or at Paris Saint-Germain, or at Juventus, or maybe even at Bayern Munich, and you could still go higher.
But once at Real Madrid or Barcelona, you can't. Stepping away from the Bernabeu or the Camp Nou almost invariably means stepping away from the game's pinnacle, their respective exit doors concealing difficult paths on an emotional level for men possessing a combination of talent and drive the rest of us can barely comprehend.
Such paths and such descents are the sort elite sportspeople spend their careers fighting. So is there life after Real Madrid, as Marca once asked? Is there life after Barcelona?
As it turns out, there is.
One of the themes around Europe this season is the excellence of players who've recently departed La Liga's giants.
At Napoli, Gonzalo Higuain is one of the continent's hottest strikers; at Paris Saint-Germain, Angel Di Maria has taken the French champions to a new level; at Bayern Munich, Thiago Alcantara has become one of the game's most complete midfielders and Xabi Alonso is enjoying "father time"; at Arsenal, Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez are Premier League standouts; at Everton, Gerard Deulofeu is excelling; at Stoke City, Bojan Krkic has found himself; at Juventus, Sami Khedira looks like Sami Khedira again; at Chelsea, Cesc Fabregas remains a linchpin.
There are others, too; those are just the headliners.
Has leaving Madrid and Barcelona become easy, then?
Though Alexis and his hit-the-ground-at-a-full-sprint start to life at Arsenal might suggest it is, many find otherwise. At the same club, Ozil in his longer adaption showed the impact a move away from the Bernabeu can have.
After a bright opening few months in north London, the German fell to a point of ridicule and sneers in 2014, his price tag scoffed at, his demeanour a target for abuse.
Stylistically, the switch from La Liga to the Premier League was always going to be challenging for the slight and technical Ozil, but his difficulties went beyond that. Often appearing dejected and detached, his ego undoubtedly hit, Ozil for some time looked like a player who wasn't where he was by choice. And that's because he wasn't.
At Real Madrid, he hadn't wanted to leave but was forced to—just as Mourinho alluded to as the norm—in order to fund the move for Gareth Bale. Worse was that rumours of partying and questions of professionalism swirled around his departure, the suspicion, as it often is at Madrid, that the rumours started from within to sway public opinion against a player whose sale would otherwise be politically difficult.
Ozil isn't alone in that respect, either.
Such circumstances seem to arrive rather conveniently when contract discussions begin in the Spanish capital. Khedira experienced something similar. Ditto for Di Maria. James Rodriguez is experiencing it now.
Like Ozil, Di Maria initially found life away from Madrid particularly difficult. At Manchester United, the Argentinian was at a club he didn't choose and in a country that was uncomfortable; Louis van Gaal's management wasn't to his taste either, and then his house was burgled.
But most of all, Manchester just isn't Madrid.
"For me," wrote Gary Neville in the Telegraph last March of Di Maria and Ozil, "it is as though leaving Real Madrid has been like a bad divorce for the pair of them—a messy end to a relationship that will take maybe 18 months to two years to overcome. You cannot ignore the effect that leaving Madrid has had."
It's not just the politics, though. If you've never been to the Bernabeu or the Camp Nou, it's the magnitude of them that grabs you and enchants you; knowing what they represent and what they've witnessed stirs something within you.
"You float like you are an angel out on to that pitch," wrote Michael Owen for the Telegraph back in 2013. "The Bernabeu is the best stadium in the world. I felt like a king. It is the history, the tradition, the sheer scale of the place. It is special."
Letting go of that is an immense psychological challenge. For Ozil and Di Maria, letting go took time, but let go they have. At Arsenal and Paris Saint-Germain, they've found there's life after the Spanish giants.
Yet it's not just glamorous destinations where that life is found, either. And for some, getting away is exactly what they need.
At the unlikely site of the Britannia Stadium, Bojan has found new life at Stoke.
A childhood prodigy, Barcelona's youngest-ever debutant and a talent once spoken of as the "next Lionel Messi," Bojan saw his career in Catalonia flame out after an incredible start. A change of manager in 2008 from Frank Rijkaard to Pep Guardiola hurt him, but it was more than that. It was the sudden expectation. The pressure. The problematic aspects of fame. The suffocating world that football can be for those unprepared for it.
And he wasn't.
"Overnight, I couldn't even walk down the street," said Bojan to Sid Lowe of the Guardian. "I couldn't go to a birthday party or to the cinema."
Johan Cruyff always referred to the storm that surrounds Barcelona as the entorno, and it's very real. In an interview with John Percy for the Telegraph, Bojan said:
It's not easy. I remember when Thierry Henry signed for Barcelona, after 10 days he was like: "f***." He said in England it was easy, the people never came to the training ground and the journalists visited once a week. At Barcelona it's completely different.
There are 5,000 people at training and journalists there every day.
For the Catalan, getting away was necessary, but that was complicated, too. First there was a stint at Roma, then a loan spell at Milan, before it was back to Barcelona and a subsequent loan spell at Ajax.
"It is like you have a cable connecting you to Barcelona," he told the Guardian's Amy Lawrence. "So you are in Rome and play there but still feel connected to Barcelona. Then I played in Milan and was connected to Barcelona. That is why after Ajax I said: 'Look I want to cut this cable. I want to feel like I am only in one team.'"
Deulofeu would concur.
During the Catalan's loan stint at Everton in 2013-14, it was always expected he'd return to the Camp Nou. He did, of course, but not for long.
Soon after returning, the Barcelona academy product was loaned out to Sevilla, and though there were regular glimpses of his potential, the move didn't work out. At the Ramon Sanchez-Pizjuan, manager Unai Emery is relentless and extremely demanding; Deulofeu's work ethic didn't seem to convince him despite obvious gifts.
In the league, he made only 10 starts all season and only two in Sevilla's triumphant Europa League campaign. When last summer arrived, his career felt as though it had stalled. Not now. At Everton again—and at Everton properly, having been signed rather than loaned—the 21-year-old has sparkled under Roberto Martinez to remind everyone of why he was considered one of La Masia's hottest talents.
Like Bojan, Deulofeu just needed to cut the cord.
For others, meanwhile, simply escaping the negativity can be their release.
At Madrid, Higuain was never loved despite his strong domestic record. To the fans, he was profligate and underwhelming in Europe; to president Florentino Perez, he was an unwanted obstacle to marquee signing Karim Benzema.
At Napoli, the mood toward him couldn't be more different, and at Chelsea, Fabregas has experienced something similar since moving from Barcelona despite the idealism the Catalan club represents to a player raised in its ethos. "Leaving the second time was much worse," he said not long after his move to west London, and others have shared his pain.
Having followed Fabregas' path, Pedro recently called his exit at Barcelona "tough." Yaya Toure once called his a "sad decision." Ahead of his departure from Madrid, Khedira admitted that leaving would be "hard"; like Ozil, like Di Maria, leaving wasn't what he wanted. Years earlier, it hadn't been for Arjen Robben or Wesley Sneijder, either.
And yet most of those men have found life away from La Liga's giants isn't too bad at all.
For Robben, you sense his Madrid exit fuelled him like it once did for Samuel Eto'o. To the Cameroonian, his departure from the Bernabeu was an injustice that lit a fire within, driving him into an I'll-show-you mentality that erupted in 2005 when he clinched the league title with Barcelona. "Madrid, bastards, hail the champions," he chanted at the Camp Nou.
That sense of sin has almost certainly played a motivating role in others. At Arsenal, it's hard not to feel Alexis carries a degree of that with him, the notion that had existed of him being somewhat stylistically and systemically incompatible with Barcelona contributing to his ferocity.
Perhaps Fabregas has felt something similar; Higuain, Di Maria and others, too.
The counter-argument, of course, is simply that in stepping away from Real Madrid and Barcelona, life gets easier because the competition gets easier. Moving elsewhere is a step down, after all; shining at Stoke, Everton, Napoli, Arsenal or PSG is considerably easier than it is at Madrid or Barcelona. Some even need that step down, but it's important to recognise that some don't; some belong but are pushed out anyway.
The emotional blow that presents shouldn't be underestimated. The immediate realities away from the game's pinnacle can be harsh for those who've spent their lives getting there.
And yet this season has shown those realities can be overcome. It's shown that La Liga's giants aren't the be-all and end-all.
"There is life beyond Barcelona," said Deulofeu to Lowe of the Guardian. He's right. There's life beyond Real Madrid, too.
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