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Sergio Canales: The Man Who Never Gave Up

Written by Alan Feehely

Dressed in a close-fitting, clean suit, Sergio Canales strides into the Ciudad Deportiva Luis del Sol to announce that he’s extended his contract with Real Betis until 2023. Upon his entrance, he is accosted by a mischievous group of players - “Guapo!” they shout at their besuited compañero, to which Canales responds with a trademark grin.

Once inside and delivering his speech, however, the significance of the situation hits Canales and he finds it difficult to keep his emotions under control. Most of the Betis squad are in attendance, as is his wife, Cristina, and his infant daughter. “Joder,” he remarks while hurriedly drying his eyes, unable to express himself without his usually jovial voice wavering.

This might seem a bit over-the-top for a standard contract extension, but it’s more than that for Canales. After a career spent battling sky-high expectation and successive serious injuries, the Spaniard has finally found a consistent vein of form that has led him to become a key figure for one of Spain’s biggest clubs and given him a belated bow with the Spanish national team. No longer is Canales a floppy-haired wonderkid, nor is he a lost boy condemned to injury. He’s a husband, a father and a man - and with good humour, kind eyes and a smart haircut to boot.

To fully appreciate his success, one must realise that the path of the once-vaunted wonderkid can be long and winding. Two examples of the same generation as Canales are Bojan Krkić and Alexandre Pato. “When [Bojan] broke through at Barcelona he was just 17 years old, and at that time Barcelona were having an awful season,” explained Vigo-based journalist Alexandra Jonson.

“That summer he was called up to play for Spain at Euro 2008 and he said no. Nobody could understand it, which resulted in him being misunderstood and getting a very hard time. What had really happened was that he wasn’t ready for everything that was happening to him and his body reacted by shutting down. He got anxiety attacks and some of that anxiety never left. He had an illness, and mental health wasn’t and still isn’t talked about enough in football.”

“Bojan came up through the youth teams as a golden child,” added Barcelona blogger Isaiah Cameron. “Given that he was rising at the same time Barcelona were beginning to flex its financial muscle and create the més que un club brand, it made sense that he became the focus of serious fan hopes. He was given the number nine shirt upon Zlatan Ibrahimović’s departure, but instead of being the heir to Romário, Kluivert and Eto’o, he scored just seven goals in 37 appearances. The club won the league and the Champions League, but Bojan felt like just a bit-piece to that.”

Bojan left Barcelona to pursue his dream in Italy, the Netherlands, England, Germany and now Canada, but was unable to find a true footballing home. Pato’s tale is a similar one. The Brazilian forward’s career got off to a lightning start with Porto Alegre club Internacional, quickly earning him a move to Europe with AC Milan. He failed to fulfil his perceived potential at the San Siro, however, and has since represented, to mixed success, Corinthians, São Paulo, Chelsea, Villarreal and Tianjin Tianhai, and is currently a free agent.

“I think [early expectations] can be very damaging,” opined Jack Lang, a London-based journalist with a deep knowledge of Brazilian football. “Those adolescent years are hard enough away from the spotlight, so I can only imagine what it can be like growing up under the glare of public scrutiny. Some will have the emotional tools and family structure to come through it unscathed. Others, inevitably, will come unstuck. Pato wasn’t someone who was overwhelmed by the fame and attention after coming to Europe. I don’t think the expectations were even that much of an issue for him. Did he achieve what many people hoped he would? No, but I think that was more down to the injuries than any great mental crisis due to hype.”

This last point is important when considering Canales’ story, for, as previously alluded to, he is a player afflicted by both potentially damaging high expectations and a succession of serious injuries. Born in Santander, the Cantabrian capital on the north coast of Spain, he began his career with local side CD San Agustín before joining Racing at ten. His debut came at 17 in a UEFA Cup victory over Finnish side FC Honka, after which he was gradually eased into the first-team setup at the Cantabrian club. It was a gradual crescendo that exploded, somewhat fittingly, on a January evening in Seville.

“They were both great goals,” remembered San Sebastián-based journalist Phil Ball. “Most people forget the second, which was also excellent for its cool-headedness.” The performance Ball is referring to is the two-goal salvo that Canales delivered to help Racing beat Sevilla 2-1 at the Ramón Sánchez-Pizjuán at the beginning of 2010. For the first, he plays a neat little flick to a teammate at around the halfway line before running from deep to be played in on goal. The 18-year-old then collects the return pass before steadying himself and carefully lifting the ball over opposing goalkeeper Andrés Palop and into the back of the net. The second is equally impressive - he’s played in on the right side, but shows the speed of thought and the sleight of hand to bring the ball around Palop before again steadying himself, pulling away from a covering Sevilla defender, and rolling the ball into the empty goal.

“Curiously enough, he’s not been a great goalscorer since, either in quantity or in quality,” Ball continued. “That first goal is still his best, and maybe this twisted people’s expectations of him. If you watch that second goal, he’s in a striker’s position - he hasn’t done that much since, preferring to do his damage from deep. The hype was pretty massive - [Racing’s supporters] knew he wouldn’t stay.”

Indeed, he didn’t. Just over a year after that night in Andalusia, Real Madrid announced that they had signed the teenager to a six-year contract for a fee believed to be around €4.5 million excluding incentives. Madrid won the Copa del Rey that season, but Canales played just 518 minutes of football - the emergence of Mesut Özil as a creative force encouraged coach José Mourinho to choose him instead of the younger Cantabrian.

“He wasn’t ‘a Madrid type’,” opined Ball. “What they like are big, shouty personalities who impose themselves on the scene. There haven’t been too many quiet ones - Butragueño and Zidane are exceptions to this template - and the ones who have remained, like Benzema, always raise suspicions that they’re not ‘ballsy’ enough. [The same thing] happened to Illarramendi too - a quiet and polite kid like Canales suddenly thrust into the demanding arena of the Bernabéu - looking back he had no chance. Ten games in two years at Madrid? It’s crazy. Madrid had Gago, Alonso, Özil, Granero and Khedira - that was a difficult midfield to establish yourself in.”

As it turned out, Canales was unable to. Less than a year after making his debut against Mallorca the young Spaniard had left Madrid for Valencia, initially on a two-year loan. In late October of his first season at Mestalla, however, he suffered a serious injury - tearing his knee ligament against Athletic Club and missing six months of action. He worked hard to return as safely and efficiently as possible, but just five appearances into his return his injury relapsed against Atlético Madrid - in the semi-final of the Europa League no less - and he was ruled out for another six months.

Despite his injuries, Valencia signed him on a permanent deal that following summer for a fee in the region of €7.5 million. The following season, however, he was deemed surplus to requirements by new coach Juan Antonio Pizzi, and was sold to Real Sociedad. “Valencia had signed Canales as one of the biggest prospects coming out of Real Madrid,” recalled Valencia-based journalist Paco Polit. “He was 20 when he arrived and had done great with Racing, but his two knee injuries - career-ending problems for many players - were extremely unfortunate and Valencia were never able to squeeze the potential from him. He was able to come back from both injuries, but then the traditional turmoil within Valencia brought his progress to another halt - Đukić was sacked and the new manager, Pizzi, didn’t give him the chance he needed.”

Canales signed for Real Sociedad in a €3.5 million deal in the summer of 2014. He enjoyed an injury-free first season in the Basque Country, but in his second campaign with the club, in an away tie at Real Madrid, he suffered yet another knee injury, this time in his left leg. “He became popular here once he bedded in, and it’s the side he’s played most games for to date,” remembered Ball. “People from San Sebastián don’t like santanderinos in general, considering them to be right-wing espanyolistas, but Canales seemed to cut through that with his modesty and work rate."

“He played 36 games in that first season, maybe in the wrong place, with [David] Moyes seemingly considering him to be a winger, but then he got seriously injured again. When he came back, in his third year, Eusebio got it right and played him as a deeper-lying left-sided midfielder, sometimes letting him roam. In that last season, as he got his fitness and confidence back, he suddenly looked awesome, and I think it was a questionable decision to let him go. I had a chat with him once in Zubieta - there’s something very boyish about him. Very normal, polite sort of bloke, intelligent too.”

Canales joined Betis in the summer of 2018 after two seasons uninterrupted by injury with La Real, and immediately hit the ground running. “[He’s] probably the most important player in this team after Joaquín in terms of philosophy and leadership,” explains Betis writer and supporter Andrew Miller. “He has an understanding of what’s expected of him, both from the manager and the club, and his positional versatility has been a huge asset. Last season in particular, under Rubi, he was deployed in various different roles within the team. He’s more of a playmaking creative midfielder, but was asked to drop deeper into a more defensive role. It didn’t always bear fruit, but it was evident that Canales was trying as hard as he could to make it work."

“He’s looked like a new man under Pellegrini this season - the passing is a lot sharper, and he looks more of a threat going forward having finally found that sweet spot between his defensive duties and contributing to the attack, similar to his first season under Quique Setién. Three ACL injuries have robbed him of almost two full years of his career, but he’s been able to adapt his game to accommodate that loss of pace and agility that’s come with each surgery. But his impact on this squad runs far deeper than just on-pitch performances. He’s a humble and dedicated guy, very friendly and very well-liked amongst his peers.”

This new iteration of Betis, with Pellegrini steering the ship, has a different feel to it. They’ve won both of their first two games of 2020/21, keeping clean sheets against Alavés and Real Valladolid and lifting themselves to second in the table. It’s early days, clearly, but Pellegrini is someone with the gravitas and the serenity to withstand the pressure that comes with the top job at the Benito Villamarín, and he also has the coaching ability to coax the best out of what is a highly talented squad. Canales, in particular, seems to be thriving in his deeper role, utilising his fitness to get around the pitch swiftly and his technical ability to control the pace of their play and to fashion opportunities in the final third.

With this in mind, how do we consider Canales’ career? When a player is so highly touted at such a young age, there’s an inevitable danger that we judge them as world-class or bust, but this binary metric discounts the fact that footballers, no matter how talented, are human beings first and foremost. Canales deserves the utmost respect - he recovered from his initial failure at Real Madrid after being ordained as the next top Spanish talent, as well as three potentially career-ending injuries, but building all the while a beautiful young family and retaining a seemingly universal likeability that’s evident whenever you speak with someone close to him.

“I think Canales won’t ever be able to reach the potential he was meant to have if he had been injury-free during his career, but that doesn’t mean his work in the last ten years has been bad,” remarked Polit. “Actually, it’s quite the opposite - physical problems might have reduced his speed or explosivity, but his technical quality and intelligence on the pitch were empowered when he started playing deeper. As a fully-fledged midfielder, his effort and performance levels have been top class with both Real Sociedad and Real Betis.”

Jonson agrees, and underlines the wisdom of the career path Canales chose in forging his development as a person as well as a player. “[Canales] decided to stay in Spain, and he’s been at clubs, especially Real Sociedad, where they focus on developing the player as a person and not just as a commodity. One main thing, I believe, when it comes to young players, and especially those with the biggest talent that can’t maybe live up to expectations, is the support system they have around them.”

Whatever the reasons, Canales has managed to build a career and life that can only be admired, and has shown rare strength of character in doing so in the face of the obstacles he has faced. “There were moments during the recoveries where things were not going well and I never gave up, I refused to give up,” he told Marca in March 2019 after receiving his first senior call-up to the Spanish national team. “What I did was look for another solution, and, in spite of that, I never lost my smile. I always look for the positive things in everything. They have made me mature, grow, realise the importance of looking after yourself, appreciating everything. If [the injuries] have served as anything it’s [a reminder] to extract the good things [from life].

“I never had that feeling [of wanting to throw in the towel]. I’ve always wanted to fight. I feel fortunate to be able to play football and I was not going to turn back at the first hurdle. Of course, there were very difficult moments when I thought I wasn’t going to get back to the level [I was at when I came through at Racing and went on to Real Madrid]. To turn it all around and feel better than before the injuries gives me a lot of energy and strength. [The best] is yet to come, because I am not afraid to improve and to be a better footballer. There is no fear of challenges, or big goals. When you have a major challenge, you get over the other little ones on the way. There’s no fear of failure.”

With his talent, his determination and his belief that the best is still yet to come, he will certainly be one to watch for years to come. While the man himself may have no fear of failure, opponents will certainly be shaking in their boots at the prospect of facing Real Betis with a fit and firing Canales.

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