Catalunya is synonymous with football in Spain.
The country’s first football association and first league were both formed in the fiercely independent, autonomous community on the Iberian peninsula and over the years, the region has given Spain a plethora of top flight professional sides; none more famous than FC Barcelona.
Given the area’s rich footballing history, it is little wonder that Rai Marchán was drawn to the sport at a very young age.
However, despite growing up in the shadow of the Catalan capital, his burgeoning love of football had little to do with the superstars of Barca.
It was born on the medieval streets of Vilafranca, the Catalunyan wine capital located 50km west of the Camp Nou. His early idols, his two older brothers.
The youngest of three boys, Marchán’s earliest memories of the sport are of looking up to his siblings, playing the role of makeshift goalkeeper as they peppered him with shots, or when not acting as target practice, spending his weekends watching their games.
In time, he would follow them in to the sport, leaving the goals behind and emerging as a promising young midfielder.
Despite drawing adoring looks from other local clubs, he dismissed their affections, content plying his trade for his hometown team.
Until one day, everything changed.
“I always played in my local village team,” Marchán tells Kick360.
“I had offers but not from Barcelona or Espanyol, other clubs from Catalunya but I always prefer to stay in Vilafranca. When I was 16, we made an international tournament that is played in Costa Brava. There we played against Brazil U19s, China U19s and I [had] a great tournament.”
Despite growing up in the heart of Blaugrana country, it would be their arch-nemeses Real Madrid, that came calling. Impressed by his performances, they offered him a place at their prestigious academy, La Fabrica.
“It was an opportunity to go to one of the best clubs in the world.”
With local rivals Barcelona and Espanyol showing no interest in his services, even after the approach of Los Blancos, Marchán made the decision to sign with Real Madrid.
Even though it represented an amazing opportunity and a chance to follow his dream of becoming a professional footballer, choosing to leave Vilafranca was not easy for a 16 year old Marchán.
“Here in Australia it’s a so different… The distances are quite far, every place is far from each other but for me, going from Barcelona to Madrid was really far away from my family, from my friends. I had to leave them.
“Yes, it’s only one hour by flight, but in that moment, for me it was hard. I remember those first few months there was hard… You are a kid. You are 16 and think you are an adult but you are not.
“But I enjoyed very much. I was lucky, everything went really well at the start. I started playing, I went to the [regional team] in Madrid, and these things made me feel really comfortable.”
It was in Madrid that Marchán would begin his transformation in to the disciplined holding midfielder we see today.
“I have always played as a midfielder. Maybe when I was younger, when I was six, seven, eight, nine, ten years old, I was one of the best players in my local team, so I had a more offensive role.
“Then when I went to Real Madrid academy, in that moment I became a defensive or holding midfielder. I specialised in being a little bit more defensive, keeping more my position, understanding more the game and giving balance to the team.”
While probably not the most exciting or fashionable position for many youngsters, the selfless nature, the tactical nous and ability to read the game and make vital decisions in real time quickly enraptured him.
“I think to play in that position, the most important thing is you have to be a team player. You have to know that it’s not the most impressive position in the club or to stand out, so you have to enjoy being a team player, not being selfish because you have to enjoy defending, you have to enjoy being ready if the team lose the ball to start pressing.
“I think the thing I most enjoy is thinking and trying to understand the game. I love trying to understand what [a rival] is trying to do, what is best to do as a team and of course as an individual. I think what I enjoy most is trying to understand what is happening on the pitch and finding out a solution.”
While Marchán was an ever present for the Real Madrid Castilla side, he would never manage to break in to the first team. Instead, like so many fellow Real Madrid academy graduates before and since, he would have to head elsewhere in search of his chance.
So began a “weird” career, one that would see Marchán picked up by a series of historic La Liga sides.
“It’s a little bit weird career in my case. I’ve always been, until Andorra, in the second teams of La Liga teams. It was a decision I made in that moment because I have always been a good player, with good technique and a lot of potential and I have always tried to play in the first division.”
While he never did get his ‘big break’ in the Primera Division, he insists he has no regrets.
“I think this career helped me in growing up as a player, [and being] capable of being a leader as I was always playing with young people. I have learned from the best.
“I’ve been training with the first team of Real Madrid, I’ve been training a lot of times with the first team at Valencia, in Celta Vigo as well. When you train with players like Aspas, Modric, these kind of players, you learn so much. Maybe I haven’t reached the top level in Spain but I have learned so much and I am proud of my career.”
“I was exhausted”
Marchán was finally lured away from the life of a La Liga journeyman by FC Andorra.
The hugely ambitious side, owned by Barcelona icon Gerard Pique, came calling in 2019, offering him the chance to play a pivotal role in their quest for promotion from the Spanish third tier.
Despite impressing in the heart of their midfield, his time there would ultimately end in disappointment once again.
“I’ve always been playing in the third division in Spain. I spent like 10 years in the same division.” He recalls.
“I had offers in Spain from Alcorcon, Cultural Leonesa, teams in the Segunda Division but for different motives, I wasn’t able to accept these offers.
“I have as well played in three Play-Offs, the way to get promoted to the second division of Spain, and I have lost all of them, the last one with Football Club Andorra against Real Sociedad B, who were promoted last year with Xabi Alonso as coach.
“After the defeat, I remember I was exhausted. I was tired of every year trying to [win promotion] to second division, to win the league and then winning in the Play Off… I needed something different.”
That ‘different’ would come in the form of a move Down Under.
“I remember speaking with Andreu (Guerao), my manager, and telling him ‘I need a change.’ He used to play here in Australia and under the boss (Tony Popovic) and he said to me, it would be perfect.
“He spoke with the coach here and the team in Australia, I had an offer in Romania and different countries, but when the coach called me, it was perfect. It was the right opportunity for me to come to a great country, a great league and a team that is always fighting to be at the top of the table, that has the best fans in the country. It was all perfect. I had no doubts from the first moment.”
After extracting himself from the remainder of his contract with ‘Els Tricolors’, Marchán soon found himself on the other side of the world.
After spending his whole career in the familiar surroundings of his homeland, one could be forgiven for taking some time to adjust; but the Victory midfielder has already made himself very much at home in Melbourne.
“I am settling really well. I am delighted, really happy. The club is spectacular, they have nice facilities, the stadium is incredible, the fans are awesome, the city is lovely, I can’t complain about anything. I am really comfortable here. My partner is here too, she has a job, we are really happy.”
That comfort is clearly visible on the pitch.
He has slotted seamlessly in to Tony Popovic’s new look Victory team, starting both A-League Mens games and winning plenty of admirers amongst the Big V faithful for his marshalling of the midfield.
Despite having seemingly taken to the league like a duck to water, he has been incredibly impressed by the standard.
“I knew it was a top level. I spoke with a lot of people, firstly my manager (Guerao) but also Sergio Cirio who played here, Alan Baró, a lot of Spanish footballers that came here, and all of them advise me that here the level is really high.
“ When I came here, I had this advice but you think maybe it’s not the level that they think or… but from the very first moment I realised there are a lot of good players in my squad, there are players here that are unbelievable. There are players that have played in the Premier League, the Bundesliga, the first division of Italy, Holland… you know that you have to have a lot of [talent] to play there. Training, the level is so high.
“I am happy beacuse that the style of play, I think it fits preferably for me. It’s a style of play that have a lot of change of possession, a lot of losses and recoveries and I fit there because I think that I can give the team a bit more calm with the ball and a little more control of the game. I think I am in the right place.”
For Marchán, it is this style of play and tactical similarities that make Australia such an attractive proposition for Spanish players and goes some way to explaining why so many Iberian imports go on to thrive.
“In Spain, our football, the football we have grown up [with] is tactical football. Most of the Spanish players, we are used to understanding the game, we are disciplined tactically and I think here in Australia… from the games I watched last season, there is a lot more freedom, less disciplined tactically and Spanish players give you this kind of thing. I think that’s why Spanish players fit well here, we give an extra to the game, to the team, to the squad, to help and be more disciplined. Obviously players change, a winger, say Sardinero is different to me, but I think this is the main reason.”
While many will look to the significant off-season investment and an overhaul in both playing and coaching staff to explain Victory’s successful start, Marchán instead credits a complete change in mentality at the club.
“I think that of course the club know that the last two seasons weren’t good. This is a winning club, they are used to winning things and being at the top of the table. Seeing yourself in the position of the last two seasons, it is a bad thing.
“I think know we have changed our mind[set] as a club and I think we are going to be a very competitive team. We are going to be a team that makes things difficult for the opponents and we know, if we want to be a team that wants to fight for big goals we have to be solid and we have to concede little to our opponents. This is the key this year.
“We want to be a team that controls games. If we can do it on the ball, better of course but we are not going to feel uncomfortable without the ball. We know that we can be behind the ball controlling the game because maybe we want to let them have the ball in areas where we can press and we are going to steal and hurt them there. The proper definition of the team will be we are going to be a very competitive team.
“The boss, he has done unbelievable things. He has won leagues and has won the Asian Champions with an Australian team, the only one who has succeeded in this. He is an excellent coach.
“He looks at everything, all the tactics of every game and bring that to us. He demands a lot but he prepares us to perform. I think tactically he is incredible, a motivator, I think I am so lucky because I am going to learn, We, the whole squad, is going to learn from him and a player who can learn and improve is perfect.”
When Marchán’s signing was first announced, there were plenty of sceptics.
Some clamoured for more information on the man from FC Andorra, gauging what they could from a sparsely populated Wikipedia page and his Footballer Manager statistics, while others took the opportunity to put another boot in to the ‘down on their luck’ Victory for signing someone who had spent his time in the Spanish third tier.
However, reminiscent of his playing style on the pitch, Marchán has quietly gone about his business. Always learning, growing and improving, developing a football intelligence and an understanding of the game befitting of a former Real Madrid and Valencia player.
Given his age, ability and how quickly he has adapted to life in Australia, it is becoming abundantly clear that Rai Marchán could be a mainstay of A-League Men’s midfield for many, many years to come.
Image Sources: Melbourne Victory – Defensa Central – FC Andorra