Football: Ferrer is happy to stay anonymous

Football: Gianluca Vialli's pounds 2.2m purchase from Barcelona could turn out to be the bargain of the season
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IF ALBERT FERRER had been told six months ago that he would be playing this season for Chelsea in the English Premiership, the little Spanish defender would have laughed at such a ridiculous thought.

He was Barcelona through and through, Spanish players do not play in England and he had a World Cup in France to look forward to, a World Cup in which, this time, Spain would do themselves some justice.

Yet here we are now in November and Ferrer, after yet another disappointing World Cup display by his country, can be found plying his trade with Luca Vialli's cosmopolitan Chelsea team, and doing rather well. To his surprise, Ferrer is enjoying every minute of his new life.

"Nobody knows who I am in England, and that's the way I like it," he said, as he sits in the restaurant of the Chelsea training ground and eyes up the pasta on offer. "Life is so different."

In what way? "Every game for Barcelona was pressure," he explained. "We were supposed to win the League championship every season, and the European Cup. If not, then we failed. If we lost one game, then it was a crisis. There would be 50 journalists at training every morning and, whenever I walked in the streets of the city, everybody knew me."

He sounded glad to be shot of Barcelona, but this is palpably not true. Ferrer supported Barca from virtually the moment he could first talk. He would follow his team religiously each week from high in the Nou Camp stadium. At 13 he signed for the Catalans as a schoolboy player, easing his way through the junior sides until becoming a permanent fixture for both Barcelona and the Spanish national team.

Coached by Johan Cruyff, and playing alongside the likes of Romario, Hristo Stoichkov and Ronald Koeman, Ferrer won 35 caps, together with a European and European Cup-Winners' Cup medal, as well as countless domestic honours. Then, last year, it all went sour as the new coach, Louis van Gaal, decided to exert his Dutch influence by importing five players from his own country.

"It was a terrible season for me," Ferrer recalled, his happy little face changing into a deep frown. "At the end Van Gaal asked to see me, De la Pena and Pizzi, all international players. He told us he wanted to bring in new players to replace us."

Was our man surprised at this sudden news? "I couldn't believe it," Ferrer answered. "I'd been a Barcelona players for 15 years, a first-team player for eight years. I'd played in nearly all the games, and won a lot of trophies. Now he comes in and tells me I can't play any more because he prefers someone else."

He shook his head at the memory. I wondered how the man who had dreamed of wearing the blue and red of Barcelona as a small boy had felt that night when he returned home to his wife. "I was very sad, and I was very worried," he said. "I could see no life after Barcelona."

But there was, and it came in the form of Chelsea FC. Vialli snapped him up for a mere pounds 2.2m which, in these heady days, is already becoming one of the bargains of the season, and Ferrer has since played in nearly all of Chelsea's matches - some achievement bearing in mind the rotation system at Stamford Bridge.

What made the 28-year-old plump for Chelsea, though? "Oh, it was not too difficult. I knew Chelsea had become one of the top clubs in Europe again, and I knew they had many world-class players. I think the most important thing for me, though, was that Gustavo Poyet was here, was happy, and was playing well."

The link between Poyet, the Uruguayan international midfielder, and Ferrer is not immediately obvious. "Gustavo speaks Spanish, and that makes a big difference to me. My English is not so good." I told him it is better than some English players speak. He laughed. "Maybe, but at first it was so bad. Gustavo was very kind to me when I first came to Chelsea."

Even so, it was a big move for a Spanish player. After all, the Italian, French and German-strewn Premiership is hardly awash with Spaniards. "I think I am the only one," Ferrer confirmed. It begged the obvious question: where are the others?

"Players in Spain still believe the Spanish League is very strong. I don't know why, but Spanish players always prefer to play at home. My colleagues and friends were very surprised to see me going to England. Now they are pleased. They hear that I am happy and playing well. I still speak to a lot of my former team-mates, friends like Sergi and Nadal. They are also thinking now that they can come to England. Others, I think, are not ready for such a move."

Ferrer, clearly, was. He reckoned it took him just a couple of matches to become familiar with Premiership football. "It's very different to Spanish football, that's for sure," he said. "In Spain there is normally a five or 10-minute period during a game where you can rest a little. Here it is non-stop for 90 minutes. The pace is so much faster."

Is this a problem? "No, no," he insisted. "I like it this way. I am a physical player, and it suits me. Also, I think I am becoming a better player, because it is making me have less time to think and make decisions."

Maybe his contribution to England's current form team will be noticed back at the Nou Camp? Ferrer shakes his head. "I don't think so," he says. "Van Gaal will not change his opinion of me. He is the type of man who is always right. Maybe, one day, I will return to Barcelona, in a non- playing role. But I am happy here, my wife and I like London, I have a five-year contract, and I will stay here until I am at least 33 years old."

With an apartment in London's swish Chelsea Harbour, and a burgeoning social life, Ferrer is happy to swap the Ramblas for the King's Road. "I have been to many shows," he told me. "My wife and I went with other players and their families to see Saturday Night Fever and Grease. And I also saw Beauty and the Best."

"Beast," I corrected him. "It's Beauty and the Beast."

"Ah yes, sorry, sorry," the likeable Ferrer said. "You see, my English."

Still, it works both ways. His nickname at Chelsea is "Chappy". I asked him why. "In Spain I am known as `Chapa'. It's the word for the top of the water bottle you push down." He slammed the palm of his hand down to show me what he means. "It is because I am small.

"Some of the boys here heard someone call me Chapa and they thought it was Chappy." He shrugged his shoulders, and let out a resigned sigh. "I think I should be Albert. It's better, yes?"

Maybe, but I just got the feeling that "Chappy" will stick with the little man who seems to be well on course to becoming a firm favourite at Stamford Bridge.