George Saunders' incredible journey from Arsenal to Colombia via Barcelona

Midfielder is the only English footballer playing in South America

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The Independent Football

“Sometimes it’s just destiny – you have plans and you have dreams but things never turn out exactly how you think they will,” says George Saunders, in an accent that’s still far more Barnet than Bogota. 

The 27-year-old midfielder is bang on the money, though. After all, if someone had asked him his ambitions as a youngster, it’s unlikely that being the sole English representative in South American football would have ranked too highly on the list.

But there he is: this gifted, pugnacious and uncharacteristically calming English midfield presence is plying his trade for Envigado in the Colombian top flight, the club at which the precocious talents of James Rodrigues were nurtured. 

His is a career less ordinary in every sense. 

Saunders is the first Englishman to appear in Colombian football since the trio of Charlie Mitten, Neil Franklin and George Mountford were lured there with the promise of enormous wages in the 1950. But Saunders certainly isn’t in South America for the cash. 

That England team is a bunch of individuals. That’s why we’re not winning any trophies. We have great individuals but a bad team

George Saunders

What he is there for and what he has enjoyed for the last four years is a football education that’s second to none – and one that a great many other English players would do well to sample. Not necessarily in Colombia but almost anywhere away from their home comforts.

“I’m getting quite a lot of stick at the moment because Colombia are flying and England…well, they’re not, are they?” he says. “I’ve got the English characteristics – I’m very competitive and I put my foot in but at the same time, I’m very technical as well. I’ve got a great understanding of the game and I think that’s what helped me out here. 

“If you look at South American footballers, they’re very technical but they’re feisty as well. For me the best league in the world is the Premier League – it’s 100 miles an hour, it’s box-to-box, but if you watch it there are a lot of errors because of the pace of the game.

“I actually said to all my team-mates out here that England would struggle at the last World Cup. They all said that England had so much talent, so many gifted individuals. If you look at the English players, though, they only play in England, they don’t leave for whatever reason. That England team is a bunch of individuals. That’s why we’re not winning any trophies. We have great individuals but a bad team.” 

With Saunders’ background, it’s little wonder that he stands out in a technical sense. His father’s job in the construction industry took him to Spain when Saunders was just eight years old but his son stayed behind, living with family and spending three years with Arsenal’s academy. 

On a break to Spain, Saunders was then spotted by Villarreal during a summer camp and stayed with the Spanish club for four years. Further spells at Espanyol and Levante followed, with Saunders’ reputation growing to such an extent that he became the first English player to earn selection for a Catalonian age group side.

“I made history, I think,” he says. “I ended up playing in the same Seleccion Catalunya team as the likes of Jordi Alba, Bojan Krkic and [Thiago] Alcantara.”

Saunders eventually found himself in Spain’s Segunda B side Eldense before opportunity knocked in East London.  

“I got a bad injury when I was 21 and it took me a while to come back,” he says. “I was training with the first team at Levante when I got it and they let me go. I really ended up trying to rebuild my career with Eldense. I was flying at the time and then Leyton Orient showed an interest in me because a mate of mine was friends with Russell Slade.

It turns out they’ve been in Colombia for longer than me! They couldn’t believe it when an English bloke ran out for their adopted club

George Saunders

“I was there for three weeks and all the boys were saying  ‘yeah, you have to sign this kid. I was playing really good football, different to what there is at home. Just before the league kicked-off, Russell Slade pulled me in and told me he knew I could play at that level all day long but that he wasn’t looking for that type of player. 

“He was looking for a holding midfielder. He told me he could help me and said he could get me in at Woking. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I told him not to worry about it.” 

Step forward Colombian lawyer, Luis ‘Lucho’ Valero, whose sons Saunders had struck up a friendship with during his time with Villarreal. Valero secured Saunders a trial with America de Cali, a club that had been on the slide since 1995 when they were included on the so-called "Clinton List" as a result of their alleged ties to the Colombian drug trade. Then in the Colombian second tier, the 11 times national champions offered Saunders a chance he has since grabbed with both hands.

“I’m now at my fifth club here,” he says. “It was funny, there was a game at the start of the season and I could hear a group of people who sounded English going crazy every time I touched the ball – they were singing my name all match.

“It turns out they’ve been in Colombia for longer than me! They couldn’t believe it when an English bloke ran out for their adopted club.” 

Saunders is now one their own – and Colombia’s very proud to claim him too.