Mersey maverick

Luis Garcia enrages some in the Anfield stands, but won’t change for visitors Arsenal on Tuesday

His rates might be expensive but if you are looking for entertainment for a Christmas party, you could do worse than hire Luis Garcia. To relax, the Spaniard learns magic tricks and keeps a catalogue of jokes people send him stored in his mobile phone. He plays guitar. “English style, not Spanish. I can do Lenny Kravitz,” he says, smiling. “At school I got together with friends and did a concert for 100 people. There’s a friend who’s got a pub with my shirts on the walls and the summer before I came to Liverpool I did a concert there, me playing acoustic guitar, him singing.”

In football, supporters say they want entertainers yet focus on expediency more than they admit. Anfield cherishes Garcia when his impishness bears glory, as with his volley against Juventus in 2005, yet on those occasions it doesn’t work out for the Spaniard, the stadium can seethe. Perhaps no player in the Premiership divides his public more. When the Kop sings the Luis Garcia (He Drinks Sangria) song, the second verse is sometimes jeers. A misjudged flick or misplaced pass sets the critics off. “It’s not that I’m going to change,” Garcia sighs, but he knows his rough and smooth are never going to be accepted equally. “I hear everything the fans shout,” he says. “I don’t like it when they blame or boo me, but it’s something I have to live with. I understand they get frustrated when my pass doesn’t go through. I get frustrated myself, I hate it when there’s a backheel which doesn’t work or a pass which is cut out. But I can’t stay frustrated long. This is the way I play and I have to get on with the game.

“I want the fans to understand I am trying, that if something I do doesn’t work, if I give the ball away, it’s not because I don’t care. Every play I do is because it’s the best thing I can think of at that moment, and, as a player, you’ve normally got to follow (instinct). It’s not because I want to show off.”

At first glance, it looks jarring that Rafael Benitez, the arch logician, includes such a variable as Garcia in his team. But Benitez is faithful to pragmatism. “Luis is capable of the best and is also capable of the worst,” says the manager, making the calculation that while he will hardly ever lose a game through a Garcia mistake, a Garcia masterstroke can be match-winning, and often on the big occasion. On Tuesday, Arsenal will beware the player whose strike divided the teams in their last Anfield meeting. Garcia goals were decisive in Liverpool’s FA Cup and Champions League semi- final victories over Chelsea.

“I’m trying,” the player says, “to close that big gap between the best of me and the worst. If I’m playing it’s because the boss thinks my best is greater than my worst, that the best things I do can change something and the worst is not so bad he cannot have it on the pitch. But sometimes people make me feel it is. People like a player who doesn’t lose the ball and also like a player who does something that’s nice to see, but how many players do both? Zidane . . . not many others. That’s why you need different players, someone like Xabi (Alonso) who can keep the ball, and someone like me who sometimes loses it because I’m trying the more difficult pass.”

That Garcia’s Premiership record is moderate, yet he is Liverpool’s third top all-time European Cup scorer, and adamant he plays the same way in both competitions, illustrates his eccentricity. Benitez says he has given up trying to change this footballer — “I tried at Tenerife, but you just have to accept him” — though Garcia still gets lectured about there being a time and place to attempt the left-field. “I’m trying to learn when to do it and I think I’m much better than in my first season,” he says.

He sees comparisons with Cristiano Ronaldo. “We’re different players but I identify with him because sometimes I’ll read in the papers people blaming him for doing tricks, and two weeks later it’s astonishing because the same people say he’s doing a great job.” Not that Garcia expects perceptions to change. “I have a past in my bag,” he says. “That’s why if I do a brilliant game but I lose one ball, one stupid ball, I know the next day that some newspapers I read will be talking about the ball I lost. So I’ve got something in my bag I’ll never get rid of.”

Yet mavericks can appeal. Alonso was a killjoy when he was the only one not in fancy dress at last week’s Liverpool squad Christmas party, but Garcia stole the show, donning a purple suit, zebra-patterned shoes and a zebra “Pimp” cane. Umbro has just chosen him to pioneer its new hybrid SX boot, developed in conjunction with Michelin and tested by Liverpool John Moores University, which uses tyre technology to impart extra swerve on the ball.

The whole “Benitles” thing — the nickname given to Garcia, Alonso, Josemi and Antonio Nunez, Benitez’s first Spanish signings — started after Garcia popped up in a Liverpool music shop to buy a guitar. More than the club’s other Spaniards, he is regularly seen around town in Liverpool. He spoke minimal English upon his 2004 arrival from Barcelona but is fluent, now, and is studying for a language certificate. “My two-year-old son is going to nursery and learning English,” he says. “He doesn’t even know one word in Spanish, because I speak English with him. I love hearing him talk. For the first two years our family missed the Spanish weather and food, but now I never feel the desire to go back to Spain. This part of the year is the worst in England; you don’t see the sun for days and miss Spanish Christmas. In Spain you also get 7-10 days off football. Here, we’re playing on Saturday (December 30, against Tottenham) and again on Monday (New Year’s Day, against Bolton). I don’t think I’ve done that ever! But I’m happy here.” Given this, how does he explain stories claiming he wants to return to one of his former clubs, Atletico Madrid? “That’s because I was speaking with one of my friends in the national team and he said, ‘How long have you got on your contract?’ I said, ‘Three years’ and he said, ‘What are you going to do in three years?’ I said, ‘I don’t even know what I’m going to do tomorrow!’ He said, ‘Would you like to come back to Spain’ and I said, ‘Why not? It would be nice to come back one day and play for Atletico.’

“So I think the story came from there and got changed a bit. I never said I want to leave here this year or next year. I don’t see myself going anywhere for the next two years. I’d be 30 then and it might be time to go back, but football can change in two months so I’m not thinking too far ahead.”

Garcia’s critics would boot him through the Shankly Gates tomorrow. Liverpool would miss him more than they realise.

Copyright 2006 Times Newspapers Ltd.

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