Manuel Almunia: 'I always wanted to be a striker – but I couldn't run'
Arsenal goalkeeper Manuel Almunia tells Jonathan Wilson how asthma shaped his career, and why losing Touré was such a shock
Saturday 08 August 2009
For Manuel Almunia, a visit to Great Ormond Street hospital to promote Arsenal's charity link-up for this season brought the memories flooding back. "It reminds me a lot of my childhood," the Spanish goalkeeper said, "seeing children with apparatus in their mouth, trying to breathe."
Until his early teens Almunia suffered badly from asthma. The condition "disappeared, fortunately", but it did have one lasting legacy. "I'm a goalkeeper," he said, "because I couldn't run anywhere. I wanted to be an outfield player, but my father did not allow me to run a lot, so I was between the sticks all the time. All children want to score goals and I wanted to be a striker, but from the time I first played football, when I was six or seven years old, I was a goalkeeper."
He has proved a fine one, too, despite the misgivings four years ago after an erratic first season in which he was widely blamed, among other things, for the 4-2 home defeat to Manchester United. It is a sign of how established he has become since replacing Jens Lehmann as the first choice in 2007 that, amid the great clamour for new signings at Arsenal, the goalkeeping position has barely been mentioned.
Almunia himself is sympathetic to the demands of fans, and suggested that Arsène Wenger's great youth experiment is probably reaching the point at which it has either to deliver results or be reconsidered. "I understand the fans being impatient," the 32-year-old said, "because Arsenal won a lot of trophies before. In life, when you bet you have to put down money: sometimes you win but sometimes you lose. If the boss sees that his gamble is wrong, he will change the policy. He will go to another way like Chelsea or Real Madrid."
One of the faces of Arsenal's campaign with Great Ormond Street is Jake Peach, a 12-year-old former patient who has now recovered from leukaemia. In a promotional video, he urges people to give money for redeveloping the site because "to be the best in the world takes a lot of money".
That is something Wenger seems to have been trying to disprove since Arsenal last won the title in 2004. Over that period, Arsenal's net transfer spending sees them around £25m in credit, while Manchester United have a deficit of £64.5m, Liverpool of £83.8m and Chelsea of £106m.
Arsenal's figures have been improved significantly by the £39m recouped from Manchester City for Emmanuel Adebayor and Kolo Touré.
Losing Touré, Almunia admits, came as something of a shock. "He was part of Arsenal," he said, "one of their greatest players over the last few years. He had a great moment in Arsenal a few years ago, winning the league and being part of the 'Invincibles' [in 2003-04]. But when you are a long time in a place, sometimes you need to change your way of life, and you have to change the city where you live, the team-mates you see every day. Maybe he was a bit bored – tired to be with the same people all the time, in the same atmosphere. He was not really, really happy last season."
Is there, then, a danger that others – Cesc Fabregas, for instance – might feel the same way, particularly if the trophy drought continues?
"With Cesc it could happen the same, but he still has more to offer to Arsenal," Almunia said.
There is an emotional impact to losing a player as popular as Touré, but there are also more practical concerns. "When you are with some players for some years you know them very well," Almunia said. "The communication with him was really good. Now we have to work with different people. We have to cope with this."
The other big issue Almunia is considering is whether, having completed the five-year residency requirement last month, he should apply for British citizenship, which would make him eligible to play for England, although he insists his primary motivation would be simply that he and his wife like Britain, and in particular "the respect people show you".
For now, his focus is less on potential international ambitions than on a winning start at Everton next week. "Let's see how we start," he said, "and then maybe we can believe."
Champions League: Wenger gets Celtic tie
Arsenal have been drawn to face Celtic later this month to reach the Champions League group stage. It is a great reward for the Scots, following their victory over Dynamo Moscow. The first leg will be the week after next. It is the first time the two clubs have been drawn to meet in Europe and the prize will be a group place.
Arsenal play Valencia tonight in a pre-season friendly and Arsène Wenger will field a strong side. "It will be as close as possible to the team which will start at Everton," Wenger said. Tomas Rosicky will not play, though, as he will be out for six weeks with a hamstring injury.
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