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LAS ROZAS DE MADRID, Spain — The handle turns, the door opens and Saul Niguez bursts into the room. There’s just enough space to slip quietly past, out towards the training pitch and up to the players’ residence for lunch, but he’s not about to do that. He’s been listening in from a small office covered with hundreds of old portraits of footballers at the Spanish national team’s Las Rozas HQ, 25km northwest of Madrid, and he’s grinning.
“Joder, qué inglés, loco!” he shouts as he bounds through, giggling. Roughly, it means: Bloody hell, what English, man! It’s loud; it’s also true.
When that’s put to him, Rodrigo Hernandez — who was halfway through saying something about football players being humans too when his former Atletico Madrid teammate interrupted — says softly: “Well, I try.”
Rodri is from around here, playing just down the road at Rayo Majadahonda before joining Atletico at the age of 11. He has no English family and had never lived in England until this summer, when he became the most expensive player in Manchester City’s history, but he learned the language.
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There’s something in that fact that, while simple, does feel as if it says something about him. In fact, it’s probably the thing that comes through most clearly as he talks; only twice does he check a word, not once asking for a clarification. When the tape rolls and the transcript is written up an hour or so later, “learn” appears over a dozen times: way more than any other word, apart from “play” (and things like “the,” “and” or “at” of course).
Every time he mentions learning, it feels genuine. Rodri has learned. Always has, always will. He once admitted that when he was a kid, he was more interested in understanding football than enjoying it. Even then, when he was 11 or 12 years old, coaches recall having tactical discussions with Rodri in a way they didn’t with anyone else. He wanted to know how it all worked. He didn’t just watch players; he studied them. The way he plays reflects that; in his position, he’s the only player, he says at one point, with time to think. Even if in England that time shrinks, even if the cerebral doesn’t negate the need for the physical. He is, he says, like a big sponge, soaking everything up.
It shows, too.
Atletico released Rodri at 17, and so he went to Villarreal, learning from Bruno Soriano, the thinking man’s midfielder. While he was there, Rodri studied business at university and lived in a students’ residence. When he left to return to Atletico for €25m, by then a Spain international, it didn’t seem to make a huge amount of sense. He wasn’t a great fit for the club stylistically, but, he said, that was precisely why he went: he wanted to learn from a manager who would teach the things he didn’t have, not the things he did. Someone who would show him something different, give him something else to soak up. He wanted to play in a team that would chall
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