'When you come from nothing you want everything'

Champions' League: The gipsy boy from Seville is desperate to inflict further pain on rivals Chelsea
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The Independent Football

Thursday was supposed to be a day of relaxation for José Antonio Reyes. A day for enjoying Arsenal's comfortable 2-0 victory over Celta Vigo at Highbury the night before. A day for dreaming about adding to the two goals he scored against Chelsea in the FA Cup when the two teams meet again in the Champions' League quarter-finals later this month. A day for looking forward to his new club's exciting run-in to a potential Treble-winning season. But Thursday turned out to be one of the darkest days in the Spaniard's young life.

Thursday was supposed to be a day of relaxation for José Antonio Reyes. A day for enjoying Arsenal's comfortable 2-0 victory over Celta Vigo at Highbury the night before. A day for dreaming about adding to the two goals he scored against Chelsea in the FA Cup when the two teams meet again in the Champions' League quarter-finals later this month. A day for looking forward to his new club's exciting run-in to a potential Treble-winning season. But Thursday turned out to be one of the darkest days in the Spaniard's young life.

Forget the fact that he is only 20, Reyes is sensitive enough to appreciate the atrocity and consequences of the Madrid bombings. The plan for Thursday had been a trip into London with his girlfriend and a game of football on Playstation with an England-based Spanish journalist. Instead, the boy from Seville spent 12 hours on his sofa, eyes glued to the television. He was so numb, he did not eat anything all day. All he could utter was "terrible" and "unbelievable".

Reyes is no ordinary kid. Born into a poor gipsy family, he could neither read nor write when he joined the Seville Academy at the age of 12. Eight years and a £16.5m transfer to Arsenal later, the sole vestige of his underprivileged background is his strange, rural Spanish accent. "That and my desire to succeed," he said after Arsenal's canter into the Champions' League quarters. "When you come from nothing, you want everything."

Starting with the Champions' League, a competition Reyes could only admire from afar during his time with Seville. "It's a real thrill being part of this event," he said. "For me, it is the realisation of a dream; it's the beginning of something new in my life. I've tasted the Champions' League and now I want more." Judging by his early goalscoring feats, Reyes' wish should be granted when Arsenal face Chelsea over two legs for the right to play either Monaco or, in all probability, Real Madrid, in the semi-finals.

The Spaniard may only have arrived in England during the January transfer window, but he already has a terrific record against Arsenal's London rivals. "I will never forget the goals I scored against Chelsea in the FA Cup game," said Reyes, recalling the pair that turned a 1-0 half-time deficit into a 2-1 victory and thus qualified the Gunners for the fifth round. "It is not so much because the strikes came against Chelsea," he added, "but because they were my breakthrough in English football. It was from that moment on that I knew I could make it here. It gave me confidence."

Reyes has always been sure of himself on a football pitch. He made his first-team debut for Seville as a 17-year-old and won the first of his four caps for Spain when he was still only 19 last September. Not bad for the boy from Utrera, a small village in Andalucia. "I have been given a gift with football," he said, "and that has now enabled me to join a club that can win every competition it enters. It's my responsibility to fulfil my potential."

Reyes is as tough as oldzapatos, but that does not mean he does not enjoy the adulation. The reception he was given by the Highbury faithful when he replaced Robert Pires with 20 minutes to go on Wednesday would have pleased any Arsenal legend. "It was special," said Reyes, who knew Arsenal were the club for him because they wear the same red and white colours as Seville. "The ovation told me that the people here have taken me to their hearts. That will, I am sure, help me become a good player for Arsenal."

The "good" bit is almost done and, if his early appearances are anything to go by, the only question is whether Reyes will become an Arsenal great. "So far, the adaptation has gone better than I could have dreamt," he said. "The club have found me a house and taken great care of me, but also, I have been lucky enough to bring my family over [he has his mother, father, brother and girlfriend in England]. That has made all the difference."

Senior players, too, have been a help to the striker, with the likes of Lauren, who played in the Spanish League, and Pires, who has a Spanish mother, guiding him through the difficult first few months. "I'm fortunate to have come to a very open and cosmopolitan club," said Reyes, who is taking regular English lessons. "No one is forcing me to do anything and I'm being given exactly the right amount of assistance to settle in."

No doubt the Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger will be hoping that Reyes can ease his way into the English game and culture in the way Thierry Henry did. When he joined the club in 1999, Henry played most of his games as a right winger before finding his feet and, eventually, moving inside. Since then, Henry has become increasingly desperate for a regular scoring partner.

So, is Reyes el zorro en la caja that Arsenal have been searching for these last two-and-a-half years? "Yes, I think he will be the fox in the box we've needed," Pires said. "But he'll have to work hard. Francis Jeffers [who has returned to Everton on loan] is proof that talent alone won't make you an Arsenal star."

Like Henry before him, Reyes is serving his apprenticeship, in this case on the left of midfield, although he showed his striker's instincts with those two goals in the Cup against Chelsea. "I'm a centre-forward first and foremost," Reyes said, "but the key this season is for me to get used to the pace of the Premiership. I don't expect to be Thierry's partner overnight."

How about in the future? "Of course, that would be amazing," he said. "In Spain we have the word, galáctico, which means from another planet. It tends to be used when referring to Real Madrid players, but Henry is definitely the galáctico of England."

As for the young Spanish pretender, the aim must be to team up with king Henry to become the reyes of Highbury.

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