Mikel Arteta: 'It's a long way from San Sebastian...'

Mikel Arteta made his Barça debut at 16 and has played alongside Ronaldo and Figo. But, he tells Andy Hunter, he is very happy with life at Everton - especially as he is playing football in the same city as his childhood friend Xabi Alonso

The moment the Milan goalkeeper Dida caught sight of Vladimir Smicer's rasping shot towards his right-hand corner on 25 May, Mikel Arteta spotted the neon lights of a roadside bar, en route to a holiday in Catalonia. For the first time in the Everton midfielder's life, Barcelona would have to wait.

"I was listening to the game on the car radio," the Spaniard recalls. "Two-nil, 3-0, like everyone else I thought it was over, but then 3-1, 3-2, and at that point I had to pull over." Yet the quickest change of direction that night was occurring in Istanbul.

The television image that confronted Arteta as he walked into the bar was of Xabi Alonso submerged beneath a mass of red shirts as Liverpool celebrated their third goal inside six minutes. True to his association with Everton, the 23-year-old immediately ordered a drink.

Contrary to those instincts, it was non-alcoholic (he was still over an hour's drive away) and the emotions he felt as Alonso crawled free were not anger and resentment at the astonishing comeback of a bitter rival but camaraderie with the man who sealed it.

"Yes, it was strange to watch Liverpool win the Champions' League as I was trying to become an Everton player," he says, "but it wouldn't have made me happy to see my friend lying there on the floor in tears," he explains. "They won it, good luck to them, but I was just happy for Xabi."

There is more to Arteta's platitude than patriotism or professional appreciation. He shares a friendship with the Anfield playmaker that dates back to a childhood spent dreaming of European Cup success in San Sebastian, one that has shaped their respective careers, that encouraged the celebrated member of their boyhood team to sign for Everton and one that shall remain immune to the divisions of the city they now call home.

In the growing Spanish enclave formerly known as the city of Liverpool, it is the midfield rivals who are the closest companions, and the irony of May's Champions' League final did not escape Arteta as he watched replays of that spot-kick while on the road to Barcelona. Before his appearance in European football's showpiece Alonso had reached only one other cup final.

Again he took a penalty, again he missed, though this time it was not the rebound off Dida that came to his rescue but an 11-year-old Arteta, who provided the £10.7m Spanish international with his first piece of silverware by converting the winning goal in a penalty shoot-out.

"I remember that final - he missed his penalty but I scored mine and we won," Arteta recalls without hesitation. "We went to different schools but we both played for Antiguoko every weekend. That was a good team.

"Me and Xabi grew up together, our homes were about three minutes apart. We played together for nine years before I went to Barcelona and he went to Sociedad, and now we are back in the same city but on different sides. It is very strange.

"When we were boys the idea was for us to play together for Sociedad, and that was also the chairman's idea when he bought me from Rangers, but as soon as I arrived Liverpool signed Xabi so it never happened. A few months later Xabi was recovering from an injury back home in San Sebastian and I had just heard that Everton were interested in me when he walked into the Sociedad dressing-room to see me. I asked him what he thought and he told me it was a great opportunity. He was right."

Though the only member of Liverpool's thriving Spanish community to represent the blue half of the city - and there were strong rumours he could have swelled Rafael Benitez's Iberian ranks before personal terms were improved by Everton in the summer - Arteta has shown no signs of alienation from English football.

He could not afford to. Initially signed on a six-month loan deal in January from Real Sociedad, where injury and a dispute with new coach Jose Amorrortu had consigned him to the sidelines, the midfielder was asked by David Moyes to provide the ingenuity Everton required to hang on to the final Champions' League qualifying place following the loss of Thomas Gravesen to Real Madrid.

His success ensured that negotiations commenced on a permanent transfer before the loan arrangement expired, although Sociedad had to reduce their asking price from £2.8m to £2.2m before a compromise was agreed on Arteta's wages in August.

Few would dispute the wisdom of that deal at Goodison Park now. Arteta has been one of the few players to uphold last season's form in what has been a galling campaign for Everton, becoming arguably the most consistent of all the Spaniards performing on Merseyside and a representative of the more fluent style of football that Moyes has sought to introduce. Not that there is a hint of personal pride in his softly spoken voice as he dissects a campaign in which Everton have exited three competitions before the end of October and only adjourned the inquest on their League form with seven points from the last three games.

"I have felt positive about my form this season but when you lose nothing else matters," insists Arteta, who travels to the Hawthorns tonight in search of a third successive victory that would do much to reaffirm Everton's belief. "It is difficult to understand why the results were so bad until the last few weeks because we had played at the same level as last season. The statistics prove there is not a big difference between this season and last.

"But when you are down at the bottom every problem becomes much worse. Last season winning seemed nice and easy, now it is much harder and we felt we had to play even better than last season just to climb off the bottom."

It is Europe, however, that has encapsulated Arteta's fortune. He was Everton's pivotal performer against Villarreal in the Champions' League qualifier and Dynamo Bucharest in the consolation prize of the Uefa Cup, only to leave both competitions in varying degrees of distress.

Inspired by a return to Spain against Villarreal, he almost conjured a comeback as remarkable as Liverpool's against Milan, executing an immaculate free-kick to bring Everton level in the second leg and then creating a goal for Duncan Ferguson that would have salvaged the tie but for the controversial intervention of Pierluigi Collina, in what proved to be his final game as a referee.

"Get away, you are talking to the best referee in the world," the Italian told an irate Arteta as he sought an explanation, though his and Everton's European adventure would only deteriorate.

Arteta says: "I thought we had done it, we deserved it, it was in our hands and then it was taken away.It turned out to be Collina's last game as well, maybe he should have retired earlier. That was a bad night but the 5-1 in Bucharest was just terrible."

The second leg against the Romanians left Everton with only pride, though even that was forgotten when Arteta was carried from the field in convulsions following a sickening challenge by Bucharest midfielder Mihaita Plesan that left him under observation in hospital for a neck injury. "I remember jumping for the ball and then the next thing I was leaving the ground," he said. "Bucharest sent me a letter apologising and I accept it. It was a horrible moment and I would like to thank the supporters, because I received so many letters wishing me well.

"Everyone was singing my name in the stadium and many supporters waited in the street to sing my name as I was taken into the ambulance. That meant a lot. It was hard for my family too. The game was not on television so they went on to the internet to find out the score and discovered I had been taken to hospital. They were trying to call me, it was really worrying for them, and my dad got on the next plane and was at the hospital the next morning."

Europe may have developed into a fraught experience for Everton but it has not altered the conviction of those who believed they had joined a club that had arrested its decline last season, a perception supported by improved turnover in the past 12 months, plans for a new training ground and youth academy and the £24m spent on new players since January, albeit a sum offset by the loss of Wayne Rooney.

"What has happened is disappointing but that is our fault as players, it is not the fault of the club," he says. "We are to blame and we have to accept that. Of course I would prefer to be in the Champions' League and comfortable in the League but that is not the situation and it is down to us to change it."

Arteta's search for improvement is understandable, for it has not always been this way for a player at the forefront of the prodigious generation of talent to emerge from the Basque country. If the penalty he scored for Antiguoko 12 years ago was indicative of his standing among his peers, then the need for guidance last season from Alonso, who has eclipsed his friend both in terms of European and international success in the past 12 months, reflects the path of a career that has been expected to meet the most exalted of expectations from the moment Barcelona called. A rich education at the Nou Camp, regular Champions' League football at 19 with Paris St-Germain and a double at the end of his debut season at Rangers are cherished memories, but a second, homesick season in Scotland and a demoralising experience at Sociedad had stalled the midfielder's progress before the Premiership beckoned.

Not that 23 is an age for regrets."Barcelona spotted me when I was 15. To go from Antiguoko to a Barcelona with Ronaldo was like a dream, I remember asking, 'Me? Really?' I couldn't refuse," Arteta reflects. "I have never been afraid to move somewhere new and that comes from my parents. They have always told me not to be afraid of leaving the family because the family will always be behind you and my dad has been to Everton three times this season already.

"I played my first game for Barcelona at 16 when I came on as a substitute for Guardiola. I found myself playing alongside Rivaldo, Figo, Kluivert, Luis Enrique, all superstars, but they were brilliant with me on and off the pitch. I had supported Barcelona as a boy because of the way they played and Guardiola was my hero, as he was to a lot of people in Barcelona because of his personality and character, as well as his ability as a player. Laudrup was another hero of mine.

"It was disappointing to leave but sometimes it is more important to have your feet on the floor, to take a look around you and realise that with Guardiola and other, more established midfielders ahead of me, I would need to wait another three years before I got in the team, so I decided to go Paris and play in the Champions' League and maybe come back in two years."

One year later Arteta was a £5.8m player at Ibrox where, despite a League and Scottish Cup double, the lack of international recognition promoted discontent and his eventual departure.

But it was far from a wasted episode in Scotland. "People are amazed that I can understand the Scouse accent so well but it is very easy after Glasgow," he declares. "I must have played in the two cities with the hardest accents in Britain and now, when I go on holiday to the United States, for example, I cannot understand what they say over there, although I still struggle with the young lads who wait outside the gates of the training ground at Everton shouting, 'Eh lad!"

Arteta's Scouse impersonation confirms he poses no threat to Harry Enfield, though with five different clubs in the last five years he accepts he must continue to become assimilated into Liverpool life and contain his wanderlust for the sake of his career. "It's important for me to settle down now," he admits. "I've had a lot of clubs for a 23-year-old and, hopefully, I can stay somewhere special like Everton.

"Even though we are at the wrong end of the table, the atmosphere at the club is incredible, and the manager pointed that out the other day - he said we had something special to build on. There has been no fighting or blame within the squad, we have stuck together and now the results are coming back. We have a nice group of players here, there are no back-stabbers, and we support each other."

Along with his girlfriend, former Miss Spain and television presenter Lorena Bernal, Arteta is becoming an established part of Merseyside's developing Spanish scene, only without the attention of San Sebastian - "We do get followed by the paparazzi more back home, but we are not the Spanish Beckhams," he insists - and with a more low-key friendship with Alonso.

"We still socialise and now we live very close to each other in Liverpool, but I don't think people like to see an Everton and Liverpool player together too often," reveals Arteta, with an appreciation of the fact that, should he wish his friend well in a European Cup final again, an isolated bar off a highway in northern Spain would be the safest place to do it.

Four foreigners to shine at Everton

* THOMAS GRAVESEN Walter Smith paid £2m to bring Gravesen from SV Hamburg in 2000 but it was David Moyes who saw the best of the Dane. It was only when Moyes used him as an attacking midfielder that he found the form that catapulted Everton towards the Champions' League.

* ANDERS LIMPAR

Mike Walker's reign as Everton manager produced few highlights, yet the capture of the mercurial Swede from Arsenal for £1.6m in 1994 was one of them. Under Joe Royle he played a major role in Everton's 1995 FA Cup final success.

* ANDREI KANCHELSKIS

The finest foreign player in Everton's history, though for one season only. Joe Royle paid £5.5m to entice the Ukrainian from Manchester United. Outstanding after recovering from a broken shoulder, with two goals in a win at Anfield the highlight, but the lure of lira from Fiorentina saw his form slump during his second season.

* TIM CAHILL

A place at the World Cup continues the remarkable late career rise of the Australian international. Moyes' £1.8m gamble has paid dividends. His goals were a key part of Everton's fourth-place finish last season, though he has yet to reproduce that rate this term.

* DAVID GINOLA

Slaven Bilic was the greatest waste of money by Everton on a foreign talent but, for sheer inertia, Ginola's five-match Goodison career stands out. Dispensed with once Moyes took over.

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