‘Football is a scam’ – How the original Spanish Premier League wonderkid lost his love for the game
At 14, Jacinto Ela was one of the best players in the world in his age group. At 19, he joined the Premier League. At 26, he had left football at the highest level.
Few fans remember the former Southampton striker these days. There are very few highlights on YouTube, no skill compilations, no real records of his goals and fame.
Yet a quarter of a century ago he was the next big thing in the game.
It’s 1996 and Manchester is hosting the Nike Premier Cup, a competition between clubs from around the world, featuring players aged 13-15.
One of them immediately catches the eye, a young man on the books at Espanyol. Ela was born in Equatorial Guinea, but his family moved to Spain when he was young.
The 14-year-old certainly has the Iberian flair, the innate ability to do whatever he wants with the ball at his feet. Deployed on the wing, the two-footed No.10 is the focal point of his side’s attacks.
Espanyol wins the cup and Ela is named Player of the Tournament. As a result, for professional scouts, Ela is a marked man.
Yet, just 12 years later, Ela was on the books of CE Premia, an amateur club in Catalonia.
At the age of 26, when most top players are approaching the best years of their careers, Ela decided to quit and walk away from the game altogether.
On his website, he links to blogs he wrote about his football experiences, Amazon links to buy books he wrote, including one titled “Diary of a Poor Football Player”.
“At the age of 14 they named me the best child player in the world,” he wrote. “I knew it wasn’t, but it helped me turn pro.
After impressing at the Manchester tournament, Ela was granted a trademark contract with Nike. This earned him the nickname “El chico Nike” from his teammates, as he could not wear any other brand of sportswear.
He progressed through the youth ranks at Espanyol, winning both the junior league and Copa del Rey titles. However, he only made one senior cup appearance for the club and never played in La Liga.
“Only 0.2% of young players make their Primera Division debut,” he said. El Confidential in 2019.
“But they make kids think it’s a godsend, that it’s easy to find millions in the bank and in fancy cars. Football is a scam. It’s easier to win the lottery”.
Yet, it still seemed like Ela had won the lottery. He has represented Spain at Under-18 level, alongside the likes of Victor Valdes and Mikel Arteta, scoring five goals in 11 appearances.
Released by Espanyol in 2001, he still looked to have an exciting career ahead of him when Premier League side Southampton signed him.
Signing a three-year deal, he became the first Spanish teenager to sign for an English top-flight club. Before Gerard Pique and Cesc Fabregas, there was Jacinto Ela.
Yet things never worked out for Ela.
Struggling with the language barrier and breaking into a team too preoccupied with the constant fight against relegation to take risks on untested youngsters, he spent a frustrating three years stuck in Southampton reserves.
“I could erase from my CV that I was at Southampton FC and that wouldn’t lose its importance.” Ela wrote in a blog post.
“Of course, I would have to justify how I learned English and where I was in the years 2001-02 and 2003-04: in a black hole, off the radar of people who wanted to know more about me.”
“On the one hand, I felt privileged,” he said in another. “There are millions of players who would have liked to be in my shoes.
“But, on the other hand, I felt locked into phases of progression that I didn’t understand. In return for a salary, they tried to ensure that my dream of being a world-class footballer remained. in the background.”
His cultural issues were exacerbated by a knee injury that disrupted his first two seasons with the Saints – and which he went to great lengths to address.
“You don’t remember how you walk. You don’t see the possibility that one day you will run again,” he says of his injuries. “The pain is constant, the caution infinite.
“I was so desperate that, in order not to arrive cold in training, I decided to buy a wetsuit for surfers in an adventure sports store where I have only been once in two years. .
“I cut the upper part of the suit above the waist and used the lower part as leggings. The most logical – some would say – would have been to buy tights, but no, I needed something thicker; something that would keep you warm for hours.
“To achieve this, I went to training before the rest and I jogged to warm up and thus start the session with a warm knee.
“I couldn’t afford to waste the first hour of training warming up my knee while my teammates were on fire in just 20 minutes.”
These prolonged periods on the sidelines deepened a sense of boredom, isolation and disenchantment – that the world of football was simply not for him – and eventually led to his release from Southampton.
“One afternoon after lunch, Steve Wigley, the reserve coach, called me with his insurance salesman smile to talk,” Ela wrote.
“We sat down on the bench and started a questionnaire disguised as a conversation. “You are fine, we are happy with you, how are you feeling?
“Suddenly he put his arm around me and he was like, ‘Jazzy, we thought the best for you is that you’re looking for a team.’
“I looked at him with a face of cement and deaf at the same time; I didn’t know if I understood correctly. Seeing my face, he immediately added, “We’ll pay you an extra month.
“His cynical arguments (‘It’s better in Spain’) didn’t stop me from politely getting up and going to the shower.”
Ela returned to Spain, first on loan with Hercules and then permanently at Alaves. A brief foray into British football with Dundee was followed by a tour of lower league Spanish clubs.
Since quitting football at age 26, Ela has worked as a teacher for a train company, even creating a clothing line with his wife.
He has written several books and maintains his well-maintained blog, including open letters to several notable players from Ousmane Dembele to Mario Balotelli.
A far cry from the 14-year-old boy who was supposed to conquer the world.
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