The Spanish press have been having a field day with Quique Setien's surprise appointment as head coach at Barcelona. When he was unveiled at a Camp Nou press conference last week, they picked up on a phrase he used to sum up how quickly things can change in the world of football: "Yesterday I was walking amongst the cows in my village and today I'm training Barca."
The following morning, the country's biggest-selling sports newspaper, Marca, splashed a photo across its front page of a herd of cows in Setien's native Cantabria with his now-famous quote alongside a small inset photo of him holding a Barca jersey flanked either side by club president Josep Maria Bartomeu and sporting director Eric Abidal.
El Chiringuito de Jugones, which is Spanish TV's most popular football talk show, sent a roving reporter to Liencres, the Cantabrian town where Setien lives, to commune with the cows there. He reported back via a live link—debating with panellists in the studio whether the cattle were being farmed for milk or beef—as if he was a foreign correspondent on site at a major world event.
Liencres is a seaside town of about 3,500 people, perched some 10 kilometres up the coast from Santander. It's a popular retreat for the nearby city's workers, or as a suburb for them to live in, as the coastline is peppered with several spectacular beaches. It has a sleepy feel to it, with hotels boarded up for the off-season and the sound of bleating sheep carrying off into the Atlantic Ocean. The media focus on Setien, and his connections with Liencres, has left the town's inhabitants bemused.
"The thing about 'the cows' is only a foolishness," says Eloy Fernandez, owner of Bar Eloy, a pub in Liencres.
"It was just an expression Quique used to show that life can change in a flash," he adds. "It's a dream come true for him. The picture [Marca used] of cows in a field is not even from Liencres—it's from San Roman de la Llanilla, another town up the coast. They must have got it from the archives. Forty years ago, every second family here used to have cows, but not now."
Brendy Boyle @BrendyBoyle
‘Football is the milk,’ (the dog’s bo!!ox) proclaim Marca on tomorrow’s front page. A nod to Quique Setién who mentioned how yesterday he was strolling by the cows in his village before becoming Barcelona manager 24 hours later. Classic portada by Marca😂 https://t.co/Uyx65TNpdz
Setien's appointment came as a surprise to his neighbours. "I'm not a football fan, so when I read the news last Monday night on the online edition of El Diario Montanes [a daily newspaper published in Santander], I didn't realise it was Barca in the premier division. I just supposed that he was made manager of a Barcelona team in the second or third [tier]. I'm really happy for him," says Yolanda Fernandez, Eloy's niece, who runs a tobacconist shop next door to the pub.
Setien doesn't come burnishing a glittering CV. He has put down over 1,000 games as a player and manager in professional football in Spain, but he's never managed a top Spanish team or coached in one of Europe's big leagues outside his home country.
As a player, he was a creative midfielder who spent a few seasons playing with Atletico Madrid in the 1980s and was capped three times by Spain. As a coach, his most notable achievements have been the attractive brands of football he got going at Las Palmas and Real Betis, but he has never won any silverware. At Barca, however, great things are inevitably expected of him. It won't be easy.
"Barcelona needed to make a [managerial] change," says Jonas Fages, a stonemason who has lived in Liencres for the last 20 years and drops into Eloy Bar on Sunday night to watch Barca's match against Granada.
"They needed something to change the dynamic, to shake things up. Setien has good experience, but not with a big club. It can be complicated. Look what happened to Julen Lopetegui at Real Madrid. Sometimes at those clubs you need the natural authority that someone like Zinedine Zidane has."
Jose Manuel Portilla is the mayor of Liencres, a voluntary job he holds down when he's not paying the bills with his carpentry business, which is run out of the basement of his house, 200 metres or so from Setien's home. Portilla is one of Setien's oldest friends in the town. Their sons are the same age and grew up playing in each other's houses and went to school together. Setien's son, Laro, is a professional footballer with Sant Andreu, a team, as it happens, that plays in Barcelona.
Laro played with Racing Santander, as did his grandfather. His father, of course, also spent most of his playing career with the club, which is one of the 10 founding members of La Liga but is now languishing at the foot of the second division. The club's green and white colours are prominent in the bars of Liencres.
Portilla was caught on the hop, too, by the news that his friend was made manager of Barcelona. "I was talking to him during Christmas. He was here, very relaxed. I said to him: 'Let's see if they allow you to spend Christmas in peace before you go to Real Madrid or Barcelona.' We were just joking. I'm a Madridista. He's always been a Barca fan. We tease each other. And now look where he got the call from—Barcelona.
"It's fantastic news because he's a muchacho [top bloke], an exceptional guy. Any favour you ask him for, he's there to do it. He's great. When he comes back here in the summer, he won't be showing off that he's working at Barca. It won't go to his head, as it does with other people. He's very down to earth.
In Liencres, Setien lives a normal life—riding his bicycle up the hill to the town centre to get his bread, or out walking his dog Juanete, which is the Spanish word for bunion or the swelling on a big toe. Setien's neighbours Isabel and Pablo, a couple who moved to Liencres from Seville, say Setien can sometimes be seen cutting the tall hedge that surrounds some of his house. He's fit. People still call him "El Flaco" (The Skinny One).
There is one notable thing about his house (besides its small chapel): Instead of a garden, Setien has a seven-a-side grass football pitch—perfectly manicured with goalposts—as well as a smaller, five-a-side artificial grass pitch alongside. Setien, 61, still plays football with his friends on the homemade pitches. When Setien says he loves the ball, he means it.
"He plays in a veterans' beach football league," says Portilla. "He's as good now as he was 30 years ago. He has the same level of skill. When you see what he can do with the ball, he'll leave you with your mouth open. Football is his life. It's his great passion. Whatever match is on, he wants to watch it. He already knows so much about the game, but he's always looking to learn more."
Setien has sent Lionel Messi and his Barcelona team-mates back to school for a refresher course in tiki-taka football. As a former player who Setien coached at Logrones remarked in an interview last week, Setien is "more Guardiolista than Guardiola." Although he's only a week in the job, Setien is living up to his reputation.
In his first game at the helm—against Granada at the Camp Nou on Sunday night—Barcelona hogged the ball, registering over 1,000 passes and accumulating almost 83 percent possession (compared to an average possession rate of 65 percent for league games during the Ernesto Valverde regime).
Everything changed, but nothing changed. Barca still required Messi to score late on to win the game against a Granada team that finished with 10 men on the pitch. There were, however, encouraging signs for Barcelona's fans. Barca ended the game with seven players from their youth academy on the field, including Riqui Puig, who was Setien's first substitute and chipped in by playing a crucial role in Messi's goal.
Puig—a slight, mercurial midfielder in the mould of Andres Iniesta and Xavi Hernandez—is a cause celebre among Barca's fans, who are keen to revive the glory years of Pep Guardiola's homegrown, possession-based team of a decade ago.
"To win was important," says Eloy. "If Quique failed to get the three points, it would have put huge pressure on him straight away, but they won't win trophies playing like that or beat the likes of Liverpool or Juventus. They still don't have the pim-pam speed on the ball they had when Iniesta and Xavi were in the team. It will take time.
Time, though, is a commodity in short supply for Setien. The games will come thick and fast. This weekend, there's a stern test against Valencia at the Mestalla. Next month, Barca will be on the road against Napoli in the UEFA Champions League. Barcelona's board—in an unedifying spectacle—took a big gamble in sacking Valverde midseason. They'll be hoping they hit the bullseye in replacing him with Setien.
Follow Richard on Twitter: @Richard_Fitz