How Spaniards José Callejón and Suso reinvented their careers in Italy

How Spaniards José Callejón and Suso reinvented their careers in Italy

Surrounded by 22 other Spanish trailblazers, Iker Casillas ecstatically took his rightful place at the centre of the podium as the all-conquering hero, discovering an uncharted world and raiding it of its riches. As each of his compatriots nervously made their way through the queue, the anticipation of what was still to come engulfed the FNB Stadium like a thick fog.

With slow and bated steps, Sepp Blatter eventually reached La Roja’s long-serving captain and handed him the elusive yet non-imposing golden trophy. Taking a second to snap back into reality and recollect all feeling in his body, Casillas raised it to the heavens for all the of the world to see. In that moment, a trophy-deprived nation cried out in jubilation, accomplishing the once unthinkable task of drowning out the monstrosity that was the vuvuzela.

In the end, Spain had survived, persevering past Nigel de Jong’s best Bruce Lee impersonation and the daunting reality of Arjen Robben all alone in a 1v1. The rightful World Cup champions were crowned, further validating their triumph two years prior at Euro 2008, becoming only the second nation – along with France – to win both tournaments successively.

Most now expected their hunger for victory to finally be satiated but the Spaniards had other plans, furthering their dominance once more by becoming the first side to ever win three consecutive major tournaments with another European Championship win in 2012. This revolution of prominence was spearheaded by a truly unique core and continued with most of the old guard playing distinguished roles, led by the magisterial midfield of Xavi, Andrés Iniesta, David Silva and Xabi Alonso.

It was indeed the golden era of Spanish football, as the peninsula seemingly spit out talented players faster than McDonald’s does hamburgers. While the trophy hoarding seemed to have no end in sight on the international stage, it has also extended to the club level, as Real Madrid and Barcelona have seemingly taken turns as lords of the pitch.

Naturally, most of Spain’s brightest talents would ply their trade at one of these behemoths, rendering most of the world’s attention seeking microscope solely on the duo. While in recent years Atlético Madrid have had something to say about their rivals respective hegemony, many spectators on the periphery of Spanish football have failed to truly recognise the Spanish talent being cultivated under Diego Simeone’s watchful eye.

Beyond the big three, many players at other clubs have sneakily gone under the radar as well, forced to etch their legacies at other locations sprouted around the globe. This has served the benefactors of their contributions just fine, especially in Serie A, a league once notoriously barren of players hailing from the eastern side of the Iberian peninsula. The past 10 years have seen a dramatic shift in the globalisation of football, as leagues would sign massive television contracts and clubs would begin to market themselves beyond their own countries borders.

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Unfortunately, this paradigm shift caught many in Italy by surprise, subsequently leaving the league behind and bereft of its many financial rewards. This forced two of the league’s most storied clubs to get creative with their finances and seek a piece of the abundance of Spanish talent now so readily available on the cheap. The first of the two clubs to pounce and take advantage of this phenomenon was Napoli, a side that once basked in the unmitigated greatness of Diego Maradona but had failed to recreate similar magic ever since.

Nestled some 69km away from its much more famous neighbour Granada, Motril is a town most known for its sugar cane and the site of King Baudouin of Belgium’s shocking death. Although its popularity has steadily risen in recent years, football in Motril was often seen as an activity of leisure, played by boys to stay active and mingle with friends. This recent change in attitude was spearheaded by a set of twin brothers, Juanmi and José Callejón, whose fulfilment of their footballing dreams has in turn given hope to all those who look to follow in their hallowed footsteps.

As the sons of a local fruit shop owner, the siblings captivated the unsuspecting crowds of their hometown with their sparkling play as children, eventually leading them to the famed youth ranks of Real Madrid in 2002. Steady progression and a chemistry that would make Robert Boyle blush would see the duo rise through La Fábrica, eventually landing them spots in the B team in May of 2007.

It may have been his first taste of the professional life, yet it was here where José began to distance himself not only from his brother but from the competition as well, netting 21 goals in 37 appearances the following season to finish as the top scorer in the Segunda División. That summer would see Madrid’s first team shake up the footballing world, splashing a mind-numbing £232 million on transfers with the arrivals of Cristiano Ronaldo, Kaká and Karim Benzema fetching most of the headlines. Barcelona’s treble-winning campaign had left for little patience within the Spanish capital, forcing many of the club’s promising youngsters to look elsewhere for consistent playing time.

With that in mind, the brothers came to the tough and frightful decision that their careers could only truly blossom if it were somewhere else, thus requiring the pair to face a challenge they had never experienced before – separation. Juanmi ultimately decided to take his talents to Mallorca while José relocated to Catalonia, signing a four-year contract with Espanyol.

Significant expectations accompanied José’s arrival, as is often the case with any academy player hailing from Real Madrid. His first season with the club was mostly uneventful, as he laboured to replicate his once scintillating goalscoring form, managing just four over 30 appearances, with the first not arriving all the way until March.

The appointment of Mauricio Pochettino midway through the following year proved to be a Godsend table-wise, rescuing Los Periquitos from the threat of relegation, but the Motril man continued to underwhelm. Despite making seven more appearances, his goal tally fell to two and his value began to be questioned.

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Now at a crossroads, Callejón went into the new season with a reinvigorated focus and heightened sense of personal worth. He would be repaid with his finest season yet, scoring six times while gaining the reputation as a player willing to contribute anything to the cause. The opportunity to step into the star man’s role at the Catalan club was now his for the taking, yet deep in the bowels of his soul, Callejón felt he had unfinished business.

A modest fee of €5 million is all would it take, and with it came the return of a player who never truly wanted to leave in the first place. Callejón was back at Real Madrid, the place of his professional berth and suddenly immersed amongst one of the finest outfits world football had to offer. In the grand scheme of things, many supporters looked upon Callejón as somewhat of an afterthought but he was the prototypical José Mourinho player – efficient, loyal, selfless. “Callejón is motivated every minute he plays. I like his attitude very much,” Mourinho remarked.

Given the role of super-sub by the Portuguese coach, Callejón exceeded everyone’s expectations in his debut campaign, amassing 13 goals across all competitions. His flexibility saw him deployed in a myriad of ways; to the right, on the left, sometimes in a defensive position and even once as his manager’s personal riding horse after a goal against Valencia. José was proud, directly assisting his boyhood club of Madrid to once again become LaLiga champions, breaking numerous records in the process, including 100 points in a single season, 121 goals scored, a goal difference of +89, a record 16 away wins and 32 overall wins.   

Barcelona’s return to dominance would ensue the following campaign, as they captured the title by a staggering 15 points. Leaks amongst Mourinho’s rebellious white ship would soon begin to sink his tenure, as a fractured dressing room and a media war with Casillas forced many to pick sides. Beneath the all-encompassing clouds of drama, Callejón continued to go about his business but would come to the stark realisation that he would likely never be a regular starter for Los Blancos. Mourinho would ultimately resign before returning to Chelsea that summer, riding the Spaniard of one of his fiercest allies at the Bernabéu. 

Over on the Italian peninsula, the 2012/13 season saw Napoli finish second in Serie A, their best performance since winning the Scudetto in 1990. Edinson Cavani’s 29 goals captivated the masses, putting many of Europe’s elite clubs on high alert. Paris Saint-Germain’s newfound Qatari wealth brought them to the head of the queue, resulting in an eventual bid of £57 million being accepted by the Partenopei.

As new boss, Rafa Benítez preferred to spread the money around instead of splashing it on a singular replacement. The perfect partner would come calling in Real Madrid, for they were transfixed on the acquisition of Gareth Bale even if the record for a transfer fee paid would need to be broken to get him. In order to fund such an expedition, Real would need to sell and sell they did, letting the trio of Gonzalo Higuaín, Raúl Albiol and José Callejón swap Madrid for Naples.

Much of the fanfare surrounding their subsequent arrivals centred around Higuaín, but it was the club’s scout, Marco Zunino, and Benítez himself, who had made a personal call to Callejón to convince him to join. Benítez lauded Callejón for his phenomenal work rate and commitment to the team, even going as far to predict his compatriot’s competence to bag 20 goals in a season. Met with flabbergasted smiles and torrid cynicism from many, Benítez and Callejón were left as the last ones laughing, as the Spaniard found the net exactly 20 times in all competitions, while also helping Napoli claim the Coppa Italia.

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Beníitez’s eventual departure in 2015 led to the appointment of everyone’s favourite chain-smoking ex-banker, Maurizio Sarri. At the time of his hire, many questioned if Callejón still had a place at the club as Sarri deployed a 4-3-1-2 formation while at Empoli, a setup devoid of the presence of a winger.

Any doubts over his future would quickly be extinguished, as the Napoli boss switched to a 4-3-3, in part to suit the talents of Callejón and keep him firmly amongst the starting line-up. With now less to worry about at the defensive end, the Spaniard would become the Robin to Higuaín’s Batman, as his impeccable service would help the Argentine break Serie A’s long hallowed goal-scoring mark of 36 by Gunnar Nordahl

Over his tenure at the San Paolo, stars have come and gone and bridges have been burned, yet one man has remained constant. Blessed with an unmistakable engine and the dependency of death and taxes, Callejón has made over 200 appearances, scoring and assisting at a staggering rate. It is easy at times to overlook his contributions when matched alongside the flash and pizazz of a Lorenzo Insigne or Dries Mertens, yet his consistency and ability to adapt his strengths to his teammates has been one of the chief reasons Napoli possess one of the most feared attacks on the entire continent. 

Sitting as the favourites to lift the Scudetto by season’s end, Callejón’s immortalisation in Napoli lore is there for the taking. For a man once viewed as nothing more than a glorified substitute, his relentless will to succeed has slowly sculpted a spot deep into the heart of Napoli supporters that won’t soon be forgotten. 

With lungs full of the remnants of ocean mist and a name longer than most Saudi princes, an 11-year-old boy gathered his belongings and headed for his first day of training with his hometown football club. Crafting his skills and maturing into a man over the course of six years, Jesús Joaquín Fernández Sáenz de la Torre, better now known as Suso, would undoubtedly become the star of Cádiz CF’s academy.

Blessed with a wicked left foot and the ability to invent magic seemingly out of thin air, scouts from various clubs began to hover around the training pitch like vultures jockeying to get a taste of the prized meal. Most assumed one of Spain’s elite would ultimately land his services, yet it was an English club that was particularly enthralled with his potential.

Initially joining Liverpool’s academy on loan because he was not old enough to obtain a permit to play for them professionally, Suso was headed for a club in dire need of ingenuity that could help restore their once lofty standing amongst the elite of the Premier League. On the heels of winning the Under-19 European Championship with Spain, Suso would sign his first professional contract with the Reds on his 17th birthday. In an effort to get his feet wet, new manager Brendan Rodgers would have the inexperienced Spaniard prove his aptitude with the reserve side for the next year and a half.

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His transition to this new and foreign land was practically seamless, and life on Merseyside abounded with endless opportunities. With his stunning displays eventually becoming too much to ignore, Rodgers had little to no choice but to give Suso his debut under the bright lights of the first-team.

In the starting line-up against Young Boys in the Europa League, Suso would go the full 90 minutes before earning a glowing review from his manager after the game. Three days later, a half-time cameo against Manchester United would see the Cádiz prodigy complete every single one of his passes despite Liverpool playing a man down. Strong performances would become the norm over the next few weeks, prompting the Liverpool hierarchy to come to the conclusion that a long-term investment was already worth pursuing.

Signing the deal almost before the contract literature could meet his delirious eyes, Suso was now not only the future but the bonafide present. Unbeknownst to him, Liverpool would not rest on their laurels long, eventually continuing the youth movement by signing Daniel Sturridge and Philippe Coutinho that January.

Whether a drop of confidence ensued or just a simple lack of opportunity, Suso’s Liverpool tenure began to end faster than it started. That summer, the club would loan him back to the nation of his birth, latching on with newly promoted LaLiga side Almería. Twenty-six appearances, three goals and seven assists later, his contributions did enough to ensure the Andalusian club’s first division salvation, finishing a solitary point ahead of 18th-place Osasuna.

By all intents and purposes, Suso’s return to Liverpool for the 2014/15 season was little more than a waste of time. The belief that Rodgers had once felt for the Spaniard had dissipated, in part snatched away during his one-year hiatus by the Reds’ academy darling, Raheem Sterling. A single appearance is all Suso would receive before January, replacing Lazar Marković in the 98th minute of the League Cup. His first and only goal for the club would come 11 minutes later, helping the Reds eventually advance 14-13 in the penalty shootout. 

With the writing on the wall now staring at him in bold and bright neon font, Suso began to allow his eyes to wander. Languishing in eighth place in the Serie A standings, Filippo Inzaghi’s AC Milan were desperate to bolster their attacking options and decided to place a call. On 12 January 2015, Suso signed a four-year deal with the Italian club, effective upon the expiration of his contract with Liverpool that July. However, with the departure of Riccardo Saponara to Empoli just four days later, Milan agreed to pay a €1.3 million compensatory fee to Liverpool in order to terminate the Spaniard’s contract with the English club early.

Despite his perceived regression and the apparent lack of sparkle on a once glittering prospect, the general feeling around his signing was positive throughout the streets of Milan. Cheap, young and promising, Suso was everything that the Rossoneri lacked. Unfortunately, the pressures of a fed-up fan base, bloodthirsty for change would leave little room for developmental projects, rendering Suso to a lowly six appearances the rest of the season.

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Inzaghi’s eventually sacking would pave the way for the appointment of Siniša Mihajlović, but his preference for a more defensive-minded profile rendered the Spaniard to more bench warming duty for the first half of the campaign. With no clear idea on how to move forward, Milan CEO Adriano Galliani decided to loan the former Liverpool man to Genoa until the end of the season.

Now in the capital of Liguria and amongst the frenzied stands of the Marassi, Suso understood that the opportunity presented to him could very well be his last to impress the Milanisti faithful. Tasked with being the creative engine of the side, he began to once again feel important and regain the confidence that was once such a vital aspect in his success.

Despite scoring just one goal in his first 12 games, the turning point would come in a 4-0 win over Frosinone as he would score a hat-trick, leaving many back in Milan to ponder if they had made a mistake loaning him out in the first place. Although his spell at Il Grifone was brief, Suso was able to showcase his talents to the world and, most importantly, himself.

Another lacklustre season at the San Siro would see the coaching carousel at Milan continue to spin without impediment, this time landing on ex-Sampdoria boss Vincenzo Montella. The Italian’s preference for a 4-3-3 formation was music to Suso’s ears, for it allowed him to play as an outlet to a primary striker, while also possessing the ability to cut in the from the right and inflict damage with his devastating left foot.

In no match were these skills more apparent than the Derby della Madonnina against Inter a few months later, as Suso would score two goals of the sublime variety. The performance was a watershed moment in his Milan career, for scepticism was now replaced with belief and aloofness supplanted by leadership.

Since then, Suso has cemented himself as a face of one of football’s most storied clubs. Milan’s massive spending spree last summer brought a host of big names and even larger expectations, yet the team’s scoring issues have seen them become incredibly dependent on Suso to decide matches or just flat out save them a point. This weight of responsibility could have broken a lesser player, but Milan’s number 8 has taken the reins and elevated his play accordingly.

With a new long-term contract signed in September, amid widespread rumors that some of Europe’s finest were interested in his services, Suso has shown himself to be a loyal devotee, steadfast until the resurrection of the Rossoneri is consummated before the eyes of the world.

By Justin Sherman @JShermOfficial

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