When Xavi Hernandez, one of the finest players of his generation, describes one of his former Barcelona team-mates as being a cross between Michael Laudrup and Lionel Messi, it causes your ears to perk up.
In a recent interview with the French magazine So Foot, Xavi was effusive.
"There was another Iniesta at Barca," he said. "I will always remember his name: Mario Rosas. If you saw how he played at 15, 16 or 17, you would say: 'When this guy makes the first team, the Camp Nou will hallucinate.'"
Rosas grew up in Malaga in the south of Spain. He enlisted at La Masia, Barcelona's famed youth academy, as a 13-year-old in 1993. At the time, the city of Barcelona might as well have been on the other side of the moon. It took half a day to drive back home to Malaga, but Rosas didn't have time for homesickness or for missing his two brothers, one of whom is a year older than him and the other a year younger. He was in his element and was on his way to becoming a professional footballer.
"I'm a person that adapts to the situation," he said. "I've lived in all kinds of environments. Inevitably, I missed my family. I know there were 'companeros' like Iniesta who had a worse time with homesickness, but I adapted well. I had good friends. Jofre was like a brother for me. He was the same age. We went to school together. I was a very happy person at La Masia."
Rosas played alongside Xavi from the moment he arrived.
"I always played with Xavi—on every team," he said. "If we advanced two categories, we went together. We were called to train with the first team at the same time. He played behind me in midfield, the position where Busquets plays. He was a total player. He organised the team. He could bring the ball forward. He was the player who could play the final pass, and he could score a goal. He never changed much in his style of play."
Rosas and Xavi were part of an exciting new wave of players that La Masia nurtured in the 1990s. The midfield diamond the pair played on for Barcelona B, the club's reserve team, was enough to make the eyes water: Xavi in the pocket, Rosas pushing forward, Gabri wide on the left and Carles Puyol wide on the right.
"The biggest surprise about Puyol was his position," Rosas said. "He played on the right wing at the time, or sometimes in the interior. He was all heart like you've seen him always, but he benefited a lot from later retreating to his position in defence. There, he could flourish."
Rosas, like many Andalucians from the south, grew up as a Real Madrid fan.
"My family were devoted to Real Madrid—my brothers, my mother. But now I love Barcelona," he said.
He particularly recalls two end-of-season games Barcelona B played against Real Madrid's reserve team, which featured Esteban Cambiasso, over eight days in June 1998.
In the first, Barca trounced Real Madrid 5-0 in Barcelona. For the second encounter, 30,000 fans filed into the Santiago Bernabeu for a fiery encounter, per El Pais (in Spanish). Four Barcelona players were booked, including Puyol, while Real Madrid's Rodri got a red card early in the second half. Barca won 2-0, which secured promotion.
"Barcelona's first-team trainer Louis van Gaal was at the game," Rosas said. "He celebrated the goals in a famously euphoric way."
Rosas was on Van Gaal's mind. The Dutch manager—who had won the Champions League title with a youthful Ajax team in 1995—took over at Barcelona at the start of the 1997-98 season. He again invested in youth at Barca. Rosas was giddy with excitement when Van Gaal first summoned him to train with the club's senior team.
"When they told Xavi and myself that we had to train with the first team, well, I lived just beside the pitch," he said. "Xavi lived in Terrassa. I remember Xavi phoning me and saying, 'Wait for me. I definitely won't go along on my own to the dressing room. We'll meet somewhere else first.' What an embarrassment! The two of us didn't dare arrive on our own.
"Then, the truth is, they treated us very well. When you see from outside people like Figo, Guardiola, Luis Enrique—that guy was an amazing man—Abelardo, of course, you have your own idea about them, right or wrong. But when you meet them personally, it's different. I think that was one of the friendliest dressing rooms I've been in during my career."
Rosas got the nod for his first La Liga game in May 1998, several months before Xavi debuted in La Liga. Barcelona were at home to Salamanca in the final game of their league campaign, having already wrapped up the title, finishing nine points clear of second-placed Athletic Bilbao.
It was a sultry night at the Camp Nou. Looking at the match on YouTube, there are several tell-tale signs that the game was played two decades ago, including the Salamanca bench's cavalier attitude to nutrition. They passed the game furiously sucking on sugary lollipops.
Rosas—or Mario, as the commentator referred to him—was wearing No. 31, so far down the squad's pecking order that his jersey didn't have his name on it. He was unafraid to take on players, however, and he linked well with full-back Michael Reiziger on the right flank.
Barcelona lost 4-1 on the night, and Rosas was withdrawn at half-time. That was it for his La Liga career with Barcelona.
Rosas, who was a week away from his 18th birthday, never played another league game for the club.
He was in the pre-season mix that summer. France had just won the FIFA World Cup. He made the starting XI, for example, for a friendly against Boca Juniors down the coast in Alicante, but he picked up an injury that kept him out for a month-and-a-half and caused him to lose momentum, per Panenka (via Historias de Segunda, in Spanish). He featured in a Champions League tie but couldn't break into the first team. He tried knocking on Van Gaal's door for an answer.
"Van Gaal was a guy who had a lot of confidence in me," he said. "He gave me my debut at 17 years of age. I had a conversation with him. I told him I thought I should be playing more minutes. He said, 'Yeah, you should, but who do I drop? Rivaldo? [Patrick] Kluivert? [Luis] Figo?' He said I was a very good player but I was young and still had a lot to learn.
"I was the star player of La Cantera—the youth academy—and the star player of Barca B, and I couldn't see that. I was impatient. I also probably didn't get good advice at the time, so I took a decision. I thought I could play with another team in the first division and then return if I had a very good year."
Rosas left to join Alaves in the Basque Country in the summer of 2000. The club was about to embark on a magical journey. They came up just short in a classic UEFA Cup final that season, losing 5-4 in extra time to Liverpool, but it was a wasted experience for Rosas. He couldn't adapt to their more direct style of play. At 5'5", he lacked the physical heft to nail down a starting place. He moved on.
His career became a succession of staging posts around Spain's second-division clubs. He enjoyed a fruitful four-year mid-career spell with CD Castellon in Valencia—it was where he met his wife—and a colourful adventure in Azerbaijan towards the end of it, playing with Khazar Lankaran. The club was based in Lankaran, a small city on the Caspian Sea about 60 kilometres from the Iranian border. Its nickname is "The Shipbuilder" after its owner, a shipping magnate. Rosas said the club's bosses rarely appeared in public.
"They always went around with bodyguards, trailing security cars," he said. "One day, we trained just before the derby with the other strong team of the country—it was like Real Madrid vs. Barcelona—and the owner of the club appeared and stopped training. He told us that if we won the derby, we would get a very high bonus per player."
On the day of the match, the owner showed up. His team lost 5-0.
"It was a terrible match," Rosas said.
After the game, the owner called the team into his office and cut their wages by 50 percent.
"Some of the players had international commitments and family engagements," Rosas said. "He said nobody was to take any flights; that everybody would remain in Lankaran and go to the Sports City for training. We had to cancel everything and train morning, afternoon and night for a week."
Rosas hung up his boots a few years ago, but he can't escape the game he loves. He's toying with coaching and already has his national coaching licence. He's in Colombia at the moment, advising a Colombian team and weighing an option as part of a syndicate that is looking to buy a club in Spain.
Rosas was lucky in many respects. He had a long career as a player and avoided serious injury. He made some money, but there will always be doubt about why he never took off after such a promising start. Fine margins, a few wrong turns.
"There are intrinsic feelings about how [my career] went," he said, "but maybe more with my family—my wife, my mother, my siblings—that I am not what I should have been. It's true, I would love to have played 15 years in Barca. But first of all, I am very happy for my ex-colleagues and friends like Xavi, Pujol, Andres, Gabri. I am very happy I shared the pitch with them and that some of my friends achieved what they achieved.
"When you do things, it's because you think it's for the best. Of course, now that I'm older, I would do things in a different way. That's for sure, but I don't have a regret or sad feeling about it. You know much more when you are 37 than when you are 17."
All quotes and information obtained firsthand unless otherwise indicated.
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