There aren't many people who can claim they became a convinced Anglophile as a result of a brief visit to Margate, but the Real Madrid and Spain full-back Michel Salgado is an exception.
There aren't many people who can claim they became a convinced Anglophile as a result of a brief visit to Margate, but the Real Madrid and Spain full-back Michel Salgado is an exception. The 29-year-old, who will be doing his best to stop his club colleagues, David Beckham and Michael Owen, feeling too much at home when they lead out England at the Bernabeu tomorrow, says he fell in love with the country after a childhood stay in the down-at-heel seaside resort.
"I went to Margate when I was 14 to study English - I absolutely loved it," he chuckles as he reminisces over a cold beer and a few olives in the bar at Real Madrid's training base in Las Rozas. "I stayed with a family. It was a completely new experience for me. The man of the house was one of those typically English blokes. He worked in a factory that made shop signs and he always wore this tight white T-shirt with the slogan "Kiss my Ass" on it. He was an unbelievable figure. He had a party once at the house and I've never seen people drink so much beer in my life.
"But it was great fun. Each morning we went to classes to learn English and then in the afternoon we got together with the Germans and Italians who were studying there too, to play football on that huge beach - in the rain of course! Ever since I've been interested in England and learning English.
One of Real Madrid's so-called "middle-class" players - the ones that do the dirty work for the galacticos - Salgado has made the right-back berth in the national side his own in recent years, totting up 39 caps since his debut in 1998. For him, the international match against England is certainly not just another friendly cluttering up an already crowded calendar.
"It's a special game for us as it's the 500th game for the Spanish national team and because England are one of the big teams in world football. They play attacking football and let the other side play, too, and it could be one of those really attractive games for the players and the fans."
And, of course, he'll get the chance to face up to club colleagues Beckham and Owen, who will be exchanging the pristine all-white shirts of Real for those of England. "The presence of Owen and Beckham will add that extra spice to the game, especially as it's at the Bernabeu," he smiles, before adding that he now understands why the club president, Florentino Perez, was so keen to add the two England players to the Real squad. "What the president tried to do was to bring the best English players to the club. In David he's also got the most marketable player in world football. I've never seen a player like him - he's a salesman's dream. Oh... and he's also probably the best crosser of the ball I've ever seen. Owen didn't spark the same interest when he arrived. But he's progressed step by step and he's now notched up plenty of goals, so we're seeing his true quality now.
"If you want to play direct football then Michael is one of the best. He's got incredible pace and when he receives the ball in space he's very difficult to stop and he's a great finisher."
As to the third member of Real's English triumvirate, the injury-blighted Jonathan Woodgate, who has yet to play a match since his surprise move to Real in the summer, Salgado's face lights up at the mention of his name. "Obviously, I can't really comment on Jonathan's footballing skills as I haven't seem him play yet, but I've taken him out to eat and he's a great bloke. Of the three, he talks the best Spanish. He tries to fit in more and really wants to settle into Spanish life.
"Michael's always got his dictionary with him on the plane. He's always asking questions about Spanish. But David appears to find it really hard to learn Spanish even though he hangs around with us a lot." Despite turning down a lucrative offer from Chelsea at the start of last season, Salgado admits to being a big fan of English football. "I'm not only attracted by English football itself, but by everything that goes with it," he says. "The respect with which the players are treated, the atmosphere in the stadiums. If I ever left Real Madrid I'd only go to play in England. I often talk to Fernando [Hierro] and El Pelos, "the hairy one" [Ivan Campo] and they love playing in England."
Despite the differences in footballing culture, Salgado believes the two national teams have plenty in common. "I think we are very similar," he insists. "Both teams have got a big name in world football. We've got great players, competitive leagues and... we always get knocked out around about the quarter-final stage in big championships. We've won the European Championship once in our history and you've won the World Cup. We may have played some great games, but we always end up going out on penalties or in extra time."
But if the two countries share a similar record of disappointment on the big stage, the former Celta Vigo player admits the interest the two teams generate could hardly be more different.
"What we lack, of course, in Spain is the support for the national team, the spirit that you have in England. I saw some statistics about Euro 2004 which took place next door to Spain. For all the games that Spain played there were empty seats, but in the game between England and France there were 50,000-60,000 English fans. It was incredible. That's the difference.
"We've also got the problem of the different regions, many of whom want independence. Here Real and Barça have always been bigger than the national team. It's a big problem for us - there's just no national feeling."
Turning his attention to tomorrow's match, though, there is one thing worrying Salgado - Wayne Rooney. "Stopping him will be a really tough job," he grimaces. "He's got so much talent. He's quick. He's incredibly powerful and he scores goals. He's not just a footballer, he's so damn strong he'd make a great removal man as well. He never shies away from anything. You can see it in his face. He's one of the best players to come out of England in recent years."
And if there is one England player who he'd choose to join the galacticos at Real, then he sees no match for the injured Steven Gerrard. "For me Gerrard isn't a galactico," he says. "He's simply an incredible team player. I'd be the first to want him to come here. He would be good for any team, and that includes Real Madrid. For me it's far more of a compliment to be called a team player than a galactico."
He may be a fully fledged Anglophile, but Salgado still has a bit of time to indulge in some traditional Spanish bravado before heading off home. "It's a shame for Gerrard or any player to miss out because we want to beat the full-strength England side and that's exactly what we're going to do. Once the game starts there will no such things as friends, team-mates, I can assure you."Reuse content