Interview: George Saunders - The 'Liga's' Londoner
For every Gareth Bale you’ll find ten Ravel Morrisons, and for every Ravel Morrison a thousand who wouldn’t even consider it. British footballers abroad are about as successful as the national teams of this insular isle, and usually a lot less plucky.
Every now and then someone will give Spain or Italy a go for a season, Scandinavia at a push, but Latin America might as well not exist. Historically we’ve struggled enough with World Cups staged across the Atlantic. With the heat, thin air, weird food and loud locals – your average British footballer shys away from the madness of somewhere bonkers like Colombia where the 2016 season got underway at the weekend, but then, George Saunders is not your average British Footballer.
Currently on the books of Envigado, a modest top tier team from Medellin - the city made infamous by Pablo Escobar – I ask George what he loves about Colombia - matter-of-factly he replies “everything.”
At 11 George was forced to give up his academy place with boyhood heroes Arsenal when his parents relocated to the Valencian municipality of Puçol. A difficult move for any child to make but Saunders prospered, picked up the lingo and won a place amongst Villarreal’s youth system.
He played with El Submarino Amarillo through to under 15 level then spent time at a couple of youth-specific teams in the area before finishing his education of the game with Espanyol. Away from his family while in Barcelona, it was here he was instilled with maturity beyond his years.
George returned to Villarreal, receiving game time with their C team, before playing regularly at Levante B, then moving to CD Eldense in the third tier. By 2013 his entire professional footballing career had been spent in Spain, but still, you don’t see many Spanish players heading the way of their conquistador forefathers at the tender age of 23.
“Where I was living I made friends with a Colombian family from Cali, a lawyer, who at that moment was working for America de Cali and they asked me if I wanted to go for a trial. They said they’d spoken to the owner of the club and had sent a video of me, and they said they were interested.”
America are one of Colombia’s most famous clubs, winning 13 national titles, and four times runners up of the prestigious Copa Libertadores, but they were plunged into financial difficulties in 1996 when the US placed the club on the notorious Clinton List, a blacklist devised to strangle businesses profiting from the narcotics industry. Their target was owner Miguel Rodriguez Orejuela, head of the Cali Cartel, even though they already had him behind bars. After 15 years of sanctions Los Diablos Rojos succumb to relegation in 2011. The lawyer George told me about, Luis ‘Lucho’ Valero, was working to get America removed from the Clinton List, and would eventually do so a couple of months after securing Saunders his move.
“I went there for two weeks on trial. The first week was a bit uncomfortable, especially coming from Europe to Colombia, it’s a big change, but after the second week I started finding my feet, and they offered me a six month contract at America de Cali.” It must’ve been a bit of odd for the other players - Saunders is the first English player in the country for over 60 years. He tells me he’s received a bit of media attention for that fact.
Saunders’ career in Cali started slowly. “The first six weeks, like I said, I was finding my feet. I was training but I wasn’t getting called up for any games.” However he bided his time and was eventually given a chance to prove himself. “Then I got called up for a cup game and it went really well for me, I got player of the match. After that I got called up for a league game, had a really good game, made a goal, I was winning loads of balls, and the fans really got to like me.” With his change of fortunes on the pitch he started to settle in his new country too. “After that I was really comfortable, the city was great, the club was great and I was really enjoying myself.”
His first setback was just around the next corner though; suspended from an upcoming match for receiving three yellow cards, the Londoner saw no problem in having a glass of wine one evening with his tea. “The next day I had to go to training. I trained perfectly well, I’ve literally had a couple of glasses of wine, but we trained in an indoor centre. Well, I smelt a bit of alcohol. They made a big problem of it saying I wasn’t looking after myself, which was all lies because I’m a professional.” When it was leaked to the press, Saunders suspected the club had an ulterior motive. “You know, here in Colombia you can only have four foreigners. I was the fourth and the owner of the club wanted to bring in a Brazilian kid. He wanted me out, so that was really the reason why I think they made it a big thing.”
Most people probably would’ve jacked it in then, I know I would have. Returned to Europe content I’d given it a go, happy to have played for one of South America’s biggest football clubs. Not George. “They jogged-me-on to Fortaleza which was probably the best thing that ever happened. The trainer really liked me, we were a small club, a team of battlers”.
That season Fortaleza’s main battle rival was America. “We ended up playing America five times. We beat them three times and drew twice, and ended up being [play off] champions. We were a really competitive team. It went well for me.”
During the 2014 season, George Saunders became the first Englishman to play in the Colombian top tier since 1950 when, against the demands of the FA, Independiente Santa Fe signed three British players, including England international Neil Franklin. Colombia was already expelled from Fifa as a newly formed professional football association in the country had rattled the cage of the existing amateur one, resulting in the ever forward-thinking governing body stepping in. This period became known as El Dorado – the golden age – with clubs not having to pay transfer fees to Fifa leagues, they could afford to offer unrivalled wages and tempted players such as Alfredo di Stefano. Franklin was on around £60 a week, five times as much as the English FA’s £12 salary cap and included a £2,000 signing on bonus, though he never played for his country again after returning to England after just one season.
Obviously times are much different, Saunders isn’t playing in Colombia because he’s one of the world’s top players, nor is Colombia enchanting Saunders as one of the world’s top leagues, but for me that’s much more commendable. You often hear about how difficult it’s become for free-agents to find clubs here in England, and many players released from the top academies often end up leaving the game altogether. Something tells me a fair whack of those players aren’t looking outside their comfort zone.
George’s first season in the top flight was hampered by a groin injury he’d been playing with during Fortaleza’s promotion campaign, and once he was fit he was sent out on loan to Colombia’s Caribbean coast. “I played games with my groin injury, I did really well even though when you play with pain you’re not really at the level you can be. The next season I was still in pain, but I recuperated myself and they sent me out on loan to a club called Union Magdalena, which is on the coast. I was there for six months. I couldn’t really handle the heat, it was so, so hot, but it was a good experience you know, football’s all about experiences. Life’s all about experiences.”
At the end of the 2014 season Saunders was on the move again and he joined Patriotas de Boyaca. A team founded as recently as 2003, in the town of Tunja, but by 2011 they had reached the Primera, ironically sealing promotion by beating America.
“I was there for six months as well. I’d played a few games, done well, then this other club, where I’m at now, called me up.” Saunders’ perseverance with a career in Colombia has rewarded him with getting to see a lot of the country, but he told me Medellin is his favourite place. “I’m really comfortable at the moment. I live here with my girlfriend, with her daughter. I’m playing decent football, I’m doing well. Hopefully [this] season will be a very good season for me. Touch wood. I love the life here in Colombia.”
I ask him how the league there holds up to here and he tells me that “Colombian football is growing. It’s very fast with lots of very good individual players. English football is very fast but because of the pace of the game, there are more errors.” He assures me he is content with life there at the moment but stops short of ruling out ever playing in England. “You never know where football’s going to take you, but I’m really happy and enjoying life.”