Javier Rico might just be the happiest man in Donostia today. The whole place has been waiting for this since the draw was made and the tickets sold out in hours, everyone desperate to be at another special match for Real Sociedad, the only team in the Europa League to have won every game. But no one is looking forward to Manchester United’s visit on Thursday and the chance to advance as group winners quite like the 26-year-old from Burgos who arrived in the city last night and is staying until Sunday. “He’s mad for it,” says his brother, Diego.
Diego Rico is the Real Sociedad left-back, playing in Spain again after three seasons in England, and Javi is his biggest fan. Three years younger, living with a neurological condition that has a profound physical and mental impact, having been through dozens of operations, Javier is also his inspiration. “Mine, my family’s, everyone’s,” the former Bournemouth defender says.
“My brother was born with his spinal column outside his body. The doctors said he was going to be in a vegetative state his whole life,” Rico says. “I don’t know what it’s called: doctors say it’s like he has part of two syndromes together, but the ‘best’, least damaging part of each. But through fight, sacrifice, he has grown, the spinal column has moved into place.
“There has been psychomotor training, swimming pool [rehabilitation], hours of work from my parents to brings us through it, keep us going. We thought he would spend his life in a hospital bed, so to be able to see my brother now – imagine it. Only me and my family know what we have all been through, yet he never complains about anything. It’s this huge problem to us, but to him it’s nothing: there’s a smile, energy, and that’s the inspiration. Any problem you have, it’s nothing.”
Javi goes to almost every game, Rico says. At full-time Diego seeks him out in the stands and brings him down to the pitch to be with the players. In their last European game, Uefa gave him accreditation so he could join them. “He always hangs around to take pictures with all the players,” Rico says.
“It’s all he thinks about and it’s all of them. Everyone who comes out, he waits, he asks. Real Sociedad are so good, facilitating it so he can be where the team bus is. My mum does an album for him. He has them going back to when he was very small: all the players, all my teammates, autographs, stickers, albums, everything. That’s what makes him most happy. He hasn’t seen Manchester United in person and he’s preparing everything. He’s got it all planned out.”
Although Javi visited Dean Court often and Diego has faced United before – indeed, has beaten them – it wasn’t always so easy for him in England. It wasn’t so easy for Diego either, perspective on his problems provided by his brother.
Rico’s signing in 2018 was completed in a hurry late in the transfer window and while he says it was a “pleasure” to play in the Premier League and that he would have “no problem” returning to England, he describes the shift in football as a “radical change: all up and down, duels, challenges, the faster you get into the area the better”. He started five league games in his first season and although he started 27 in the second it ended in relegation. “It wasn’t very positive for me, personally and professionally,” he says.
“I’m grateful for the opportunity Eddie Howe gave me, the advice, and I learned. I would have liked to have been used more, but those are sporting decisions you have to respect and he’s proving himself at Newcastle,” he says. “I think the word would be descolocado [roughly: out of place]. I adapted well at first then it was like I had to adapt again because I wasn’t playing. But that’s sport: be patient, don’t give any reason to think ill of you, no bad attitude, no bad training sessions, bite your tongue, keep working, make the most of any opportunity.
“He said his door was always open. And I did go and ask what he needed from me. He explained and every session I would stay behind doing those things. I was like that for a year, a year and a half. At the start he said what he wanted us to improve and then depending on training and games he would say: clearances, one on ones, bringing the ball out, long balls, whatever. I would stay every day 40, 45 minutes with staff, with him, practising. Never a bad face, never a bad gesture, just trying to do what he wanted.
“I don’t have a bad word to say about anyone and beyond the sporting side of it him and his staff are good people. There are players who got more opportunities, but that’s football.”
At the end of the second season, with Howe departing, Atlético Madrid were among the teams that came but Bournemouth wouldn’t let Rico go. “There are some opportunities that only come once. The manager, who was Eddie’s No 2 [Jason Tindall], said I was going to be important, I had to stay. He said one thing, then did something else.
“When we then missed out on going up, Real Sociedad came. I spoke to the sporting director and said I couldn’t turn down another chance. I told him the previous year they had taken a unique opportunity from me and I wasn’t going to let it happen again.”
For the family, for Javi, a return was good news. “For all of us,” Rico says. “There came a moment when I wasn’t comfortable, wasn’t happy. Because of everything really: not playing, the opportunity they made me miss out on, then things aren’t how they said they would be. That makes you feel bad, angry, so we all felt like leaving. And to be near home: instead of hours from Burgos to Bournemouth, it’s an hour and a half: that’s quite a difference. I’m very happy in the club, the city.”
Real Sociedad are fifth in La Liga and if they can can avoid a 2-0 defeat will go through to the last 16 in Europe, although Rico believes they won’t park the bus. Nor will he worry if United’s Anthony suddenly starts spinning in front of him. “I’ve never been there so I don’t know how I would react,” he says, laughing.
“Everyone can do what they want as long as they don’t hurt an opponent. That’s his way of playing. It’s in the blood and it’s not going to change however much people criticise him. And if he loses it, it’s as if it didn’t happen at all, so let it end like that.
“It’s a ‘final’, people are really excited. Everyone wants to play games like this, against the best and there’s first place to play for, which is what matters most.”
Asked who he would like to swap shirts with, Diego Rico smiles. “De Gea, Casemiro, Cristiano, Rashford … but any player who wants to is fine. Besides, it goes to my brother and he’ll love any shirt he gets. He’d like Cristiano or De Gea probably. But what he most wants is for us to win. Then he’ll be there waiting for all the players for a photo. He’ll be happy, he always is. ”