BARCELONA, (Reuters) – When Spain play Russia in St Petersburg tomorrow, Real Betis midfielder Javi Garcia will watch from home in envy as his former international team mates tread on the turf he never got to grace.
The globe-trotting midfielder, who has won league titles in Spain, Russia, England and Portugal, left Zenit St Petersburg for Betis in August, just before the team played its first game at the shiny new Krestovsky stadium, which will host seven games at next year’s World Cup, including a semi-final.
Now he has returned to La Liga and quickly become the anchor of a revitalised Real Betis side, however, he has renewed hope of returning to Russia as part of Spain coach Julen Lopetegui’s 23-man squad. “Returning to the national team was practically impossible while I was in Russia,” said Garcia, who has two caps, in a telephone interview with Reuters.
“But now I’m back in Spain everyone watches Betis matches, so why not? While things are going well for the team you never know what could happen on a personal level.” Dislodging Barcelona’s Sergio Busquets as Spain’s first choice holding midfielder is a significant challenge, but if Garcia continues in the form he has shown this season, he has a shot at joining him next year.
Betis are one of Spain’s biggest clubs, one of only nine teams to have won La Liga, but have spent the last two seasons hovering above the relegation zone after years of financial mismanagement.
However, have made a flying start to this campaign, sitting eighth in the standings and two points from the European places. In September, they pulled off a shock 1-0 win at champions Real Madrid, Garcia’s former side, becoming the first team in 73 games to keep a clean sheet against Zinedine Zidane’s men.
Garcia has been key to their rise, giving the team a stability they glaringly lack when he is absent. In the 173 minutes he has not been on the pitch this season, Betis have shipped nine goals, one every 19 minutes.
“Betis have changed many things this year. We have a director of football in Lorenzo Serra Ferrer who was a top coach in his day and knows a lot about football,” Garcia said. “We have a top coach in Quique Setien who we all know loves his sides to play attractive football. When Quique came here and I saw the type of footballers the club was signing, I really wanted to come here. “At first I thought I’d take time to re-adapt because the pace of the game in Russia is very different to Spain, but everything has gone well from the start.”
Garcia, 30, came through the youth ranks at Real Madrid but needed to move abroad to Benfica in 2009 to make a name for himself.
After three years and four major trophies with the Portuguese giants he was snapped up by Manchester City, collecting another league title as his side pipped Liverpool in a thrilling finale to the 2013-14 Premier League season.
A move to the freezing temperatures of St Petersburg to play with Zenit might not have seemed a logical next move but he thrived on and off the pitch in Russia’s second city, reuniting with former Benfica team mates Axel Witsel and Ezequiel Garay and winning a fourth career league title in his first campaign.
“I was a little concerned as I didn’t know the culture at all but I soon realized it was nothing like I had imagined,” Garcia said.
“The Russians love football. The city is spectacular and Zenit are the best club in Russia. The fans supported me in the good times and the bad, I could always feel their warmth on the streets.
“In Spain people always want to go to the beach on their holidays but I encourage everyone to go to the World Cup and visit Russia, it will change how you think about the country.
“This is a historic moment for Russia. They are getting ready, they have built some spectacular stadiums and it’s going to be an incredible World Cup.”