"People think that with footballers it's all gold and roses; here, you see the crude reality for a lot of players."
Rodolfo Bodipo, a former first-division striker in Spain and an international with Equatorial Guinea, is a football manager with a difference: he's trying to get rid of all his players. Every single last one of them, and as quick as he can. He has just 10 more days to do it. And at the end of that time, what he most wants is to have no players at all, to be standing there on the touchline with no one left to manage.
For many footballers, the winter transfer window is an opportunity; for the majority of those working with Bodipo, it is a necessity. It is -- no exaggeration -- their livelihood.
Bodipo is the manager of the AFE team, put together by the players' union. At 39, having played his last professional game almost four years ago, it's his first coaching job. The players he's working with are all determined that they have not had their last playing job; their hope is that by the time they have finished working together, there will be a place waiting for them in a team somewhere. Any place, any team. There are 27 players and they are all unemployed. Their situations are bad -- in some cases very bad -- but there's hope. There's talent here and, in the summer, 36 players came together and all of them found teams.
The AFE put together a team every summer and every winter, selecting footballers from all over Spain who haven't got a contract and trying to help them back into work. They find a coach, too: this is as much an opportunity for Bodipo as well. Having earned his coaching badges, he had been working with Barcelona and Sevilla and spent time in Australia "teaching... and learning especially." Now he's putting that into practice with his staff, the coach of the AFE team for a month, leading tactical briefings and training sessions, preparing matches.
He has good players to choose from. You may remember Miguel Pallardo, who played in the first division for Valencia, Getafe and Levante. Or Lolo, who was at Málaga, Sevilla and Osasuna in the top flight before playing for Zaragoza. Toni Moral played for Racing Santander in the first division, José Manuel Rueda played one game for Barcelona in 2007-08, José Marques was with Espanyol and Atlético but also spent time with the New York Cosmos. Daniel Cifuentes was at Real Sociedad; his most recent club was Gibraltar's Lincoln Reds.
Mostly, though, the truth is that you probably haven't heard of them. But then, that's football too. As the Osasuna striker Oriol Riera, a man who made his debut on the same day and in the same team as Lionel Messi, puts it: "Kids see Barcelona, Madrid and Atlético, but the reality is very different. What you see on television isn't the reality, what people see on Twitter or Instagram. This is a world full of a lot of crap and you have to know how to live with that." And yet Riera hasn't been through anything quite like this. If it can be hard for a first-division player, imagine what it is like for these men.
Many of the players in the AFE team started in the academies of first-division clubs but didn't make it to the first team. Eduardo Valle was with Spain at the U-12, U-15 and U-17 level but never reached higher than the third division. Most of them have played the immense majority of their careers at similar levels, in the country's regionalised Second Division B (made up of four divisions) or the third division, comprising over 350 teams spread across 20 groups down where salaries are very rarely over €1,000 a month and often a lot less.
Bodipo calls them "labourers." This is their job, their livelihood. They will go wherever they can to work. And wherever means wherever. While Iker Zarate, for example, has barely left the Basque Country, among his teammates are footballers who've played in Cyprus, Albania, Azerbaijan, Island, Scotland, Greece, Russia, Italy, the U.S., India, Morocco, UAE, Bolivia and Malta.
Bidari García went to Cyprus, an important market for Spanish players, and then to Indonesia. In Cyprus, he didn't get paid and faced threats when he spoke out. When he got to Indonesia, the league folded, so he got a job as a model and became a bit of a celebrity. But one day he was robbed by someone carrying a scythe and stabbed in the shoulder, so he returned. Besides, he's a footballer, and that's what he wants to be. So here he is, looking for a way back.
This winter, as usual, the AFE brought their players together near Benidorm, on Spain's south-east coast. They are treated like a real football team with a full 14-man coaching staff, plus doctors, physios and a psychologist. They work with the players to try to help find them teams, giving them legal advice. English classes, too. They eat together, train daily and play matches.
Being based here has its advantages. There are dozens of teams around at this time of year: this is the preferred destination of many European teams on their winter breaks. The AFE team came together on Jan. 10 and they have already played games against a Second Division B team Jumilla, plus the top-flight Belgian side Charleroi and Halleschen FC, from Germany's third division, although a game against Murcia was cancelled. In the past they've played teams from Switzerland, Russia and beyond.
Scouts are invited; clubs, too. Rarely has the old cliché "shop window" been more apt even if crowds are small. They have to be visible and they have to be ready. "When opportunity calls at your door, you have to be at home," Bodipo says.
For some, it's simple. It is survival; there are players who can't pay their mortgage, players in debt, players struggling to make ends meet. "Society sees footballers, but they're not [all] Cristiano [Ronaldo] or Messi," Bodipo says. "They're workers without work, like lots of people in the country. They're trying to be bread-winners, take something home. You have to feed your family."
There are players who have been released by their clubs this winter or who were on six-month deals, but there are others who haven't had a club since the start of the 2016-17 season. "Some have been training alone or working with personal trainers, which shows how committed they are," Bodipo says. That dedication is fundamental but it's not the same as being with a team, training and playing matches. Emotionally, above all. Bodipo's role is a professional one and a pastoral one as well. For some players, the most valuable thing about the AFE team is to be part of a team again -- even if it is for just one month. It's important to escape the isolation and loneliness.
"A lot of it is about the psychological work," he says. Beyond tactics, he says that "empathy" is the most important skill he can have. He will try to ensure that players do not feel any shame in unemployment or in seeking work. "You have to be a person above all else," he says. "You have to feel empathy for them: I will give them confidence, I want them to enjoy it. And if a team doesn't come [for them], life goes on. You want them to feel important: to disconnect from life, debts, everything."
Above all, though, they want to reconnect: to get back into the game, find work, feel useful. The level of play is good and there has been some success already. Alex Mañas, the second to depart, has gone to Greece. Yet for others, there is anxiety and even if they find a job, it's likely to be a temporary one. Contracts longer than a year are rare, and it's not like there will be a wide choice of clubs. Some will return; some will need help again. Toni Moral, who was on the books of Madrid and Barcelona as a kid, is one of a handful of players with the AFE team for a second time. He's been the United Arab Emirates and back since he was last here.
But there's always hope. And in Benidorm there is help, too -- another chance. There are only 10 days left in the transfer window but they trust that clubs will arrive with offers. A job. Because make no mistake: that's what this is: a job, an identity, a life.
"There are good players here," Bodipo says. "Good people too."