You’ve helped Spain win the World Cup, you’ve won a Champions League title, and you’re now here playing for Real Madrid. You’ve had a pretty good career to date…
Yes, I would say that. At the moment I’m happy, but still in… I don’t know if it’s the middle, but I’m still fighting to win great things in Madrid. My goal at the moment is to win and lift trophies with Real Madrid.
You moved to Madrid 18 months or so ago. How’s that transition to living in Spain again been for you?
It’s been good so far. At that time I felt I needed a challenge and, of course, coming to Madrid is one of the biggest challenges you can have in football. I’m not completely happy because we didn’t win a title last season, but we’re hopefully on the track to winning one of the trophies we want this year. That would make me much happier than I am at the moment with the time I’ve spent in Madrid.
Personally, has living close to your family again been good? You can just drive up to San Sebastian whenever you want…
It’s good, but I spent five years in Liverpool and I really enjoyed it because it gave me the chance to experience another culture, to be in a very passionate football city as Liverpool, and playing in Anfield was really special. Madrid is a really nice city. I am now close to friends and family, which is very important now that my child is growing up. It’s been really good so far.
You learned another culture in Liverpool, but I believe you learned English in Ireland. As an Irishman I am very interested in knowing what your experience was like in my homeland…
Yes! I had a basic level of English when I was studying in San Sebastian and I spent one month during one summer in Kells when I was 15 or 16 years old. I stayed close to Dublin and really enjoyed the month I stayed there, getting to know Irish traditions and Gaelic football. I really enjoyed it.
There is a very big Irish connection in Liverpool…
Yes. There are many Irish Liverpool fans. You could see many Irish flags in every home game. The Irish connection is very strong and flights between Liverpool and Dublin are so frequent every day…
What does playing at La Concha mean to you?
It means a lot because it is where I started to play my first games in school. We had to wake up very early in the morning because we played on the beach. We actually had to take the posts and crossbar and build the goals right then and there. That’s where I started to play with my classmates and I have great memories of those days.
You come from a family of footballers and you have a little kid yourself. What does it mean to you to come from a family like that?
It’s important because I’ve always been related to football. My dad was football player and he later became a manager. Our connection with the sport has been really strong. I’ve been playing football since I was a kid, when I played with my brothers and friends. I’ve always watched football. We’ve never really been pushed to become football players, but we’ve always been influenced by the sport.
Are there any signs that your young lad may continue this tradition?
Well, at least he likes the ball. I don’t know if he will eventually get into this. Whatever he ends up doing, I want him to be a good child, a good boy and, if he decides to become a football player, I will naturally support him.
You made your way up the ranks in San Sebastian and played for several teams. John Toshack came into your life and gave you several opportunities. What does he mean to you?
He’s meant a lot in my football career and is one of the key figures in it. He gave me the chance to play those first minutes as a professional, in which you need to build your confidence, to learn how it goes, to get used to the pace of the first team and the First Division in La Liga… He gave me a lot of confidence and a lot of responsibility as well. The opportunity he gave me was very important to me.
Everybody knows you are very good at passing the ball. Did he help you develop those skills?
Yes, but not just those skills. He also taught me how to understand the game, he encouraged me to learn how to give the team what it needs at any given time… I believe the latter is one of the great qualities of a midfielder: learning and reading the game to know what the team needs.
That obviously helped you take the next step, which was moving to Anfield, where you had some great success. You won the Champions League with Liverpool. How important was that final in Istanbul for you?
I think it will be an unforgettable night both for my career and for Liverpool. It is called the ‘miracle of Istanbul’, ‘the greatest comeback in football history’ and many other things in Liverpool. The feelings we experienced during the game were unbelievable and the celebrations in Liverpool that followed were fantastic.
What was it like playing in England? Did you see the difference of playing there?
It was really… Well, not difficult, but really different because the game is more physical and has more pace, the atmosphere on the stands is fantastic… I really enjoyed each of my five years in Liverpool. It was a fantastic experience and I will forever be a Liverpool fan.
I’m sure people in Liverpool are delighted to hear that. You’ve played at great stadiums like Anfield. What was it like to come here and play as a Real Madrid player at the Santiago Bernabeu Stadium?
The Bernabeu is one of the most impressive football scenarios in the world. You know you are in a football cathedral when you’re there. The atmosphere is great whenever you play well because fans appreciate good football. That’s what they like. They are very passionate whenever we play.
It’s been said that the team isn’t the same when you don’t play. Do you feel a certain level of responsibility?
No. So many things are said whenever someone doesn’t play… I don’t take it seriously at all. You have to cope with injuries and suspensions. I really don’t take what’s said literally.
Real Madrid are obviously a very young team and you’ve had a lot of experience compared to some of your teammates. What has actually impressed you most about them?
Well, as you say, we are quite a young team. I’m 29 and I’m one of the eldest in the dressing room, but it’s good because it means we are building a very strong base. It will be important for the future. We have many young players that are carrying more experience on their shoulders, which means they will hopefully become better players. It’s great news for Real Madrid as a club to have all that potential for the future.
You’ve worked with some great managers in your time and Jose Mourinho is obviously quite special. What makes him different from the rest?
He is very complete. As a coach he’s great as he prepares for games, he makes good decisions during the game –which is very important to me-, and the training sessions are also really good. But, what makes the difference is that, from an emotional point of view, he is really strong. He really connects with players. He has the skills to motivate the team. Those qualities are really special and really important in key games.
You’ve achieved a lot in your career already. What do you want to achieve still?
I now want to win with Real Madrid. I am very committed and focused on this season, and I want to be successful here in Madrid. I want to go to Cibeles, to win championships, to hold trophies… That will make me much happier than I am now with the way things are going at the moment.