Joan Verdu ready to tackle challenge of playing overseas with Baniyas

Barcelona academy product chose UAE after staying close to home for years

Baniyas forward Joan Verdu, 31, has previously enjoyed a fruitful and varied career in Spain.

The Barcelona-born player turned professional with Barca’s B team in 2002, after rising through the youth ranks at the club’s famed academy.

Although a Barca B regular in Spain’s third division for four seasons, the step up to the first team was too much, as it was for many in that side.

His captain at Barca B, Arnau Riera, said: “Joan was a very talented player, serious and committed. He was too good for third division football but not quite special enough for Barcelona’s first team – there was a gap in the speed of thought between B team and first-team players.

“I saw Ronaldinho do things with a football when I trained for the first team which I didn’t think were possible for a human to do. It was spectacular, but also a little depressing because you realised how high the standards were.

“We had players come past us like Andres Iniesta and Lionel Messi, who were stand-out stars. Both could change a game in an instant. With Joan, he was dependable and hard-working – 8/10 most games, where Messi and Iniesta would be 10/10.”

Unlike Arnau, Verdu did play a couple of games in Barca’s first team, but by the summer of 2006, the pair sought a future elsewhere.

Arnau went to England with Sunderland while Verdu weighed up his offers before choosing Spanish Primera Liga outfit Deportivo La Coruna, where he enjoyed three seasons in a side that finished 13th, ninth and seventh.

He operated in a deeper playmaking role, frequently replacing the ageing Juan Carlos Valeron. Deportivo fans valued him, but Verdu was happy to move to Espanyol when his contract was finished in 2009, living back at home in Barcelona and joining former Barca players Victor Ruiz, Raul Baena, Sergio Garcia and Ivan De la Pena in the squad.

Verdu has only been tempted to leave Spain once before, when he received a lucrative contract offer from Greek champions Olympiakos in the summer of 2013.

The Catalan striker was out of contract after a four-year stint at Espanyol and his free status made him more attractive to the Greek suitors, who were managed by fellow Spaniard Michel.

Verdu and his partner visited Athens and were shown around the city and the club by attentive club officials. They were shown where they would live by the sea and the impressive club stadium in ­Piraeus.

Sevilla, Villarreal and Real Betis were all interested in the Catalan, but the Olympiakos offer was the most lucrative.

There was also the offer of Uefa Champions League football as bait. Verdu was prepared to sign and his agent came to Athens to conclude negotiations.

But after further consultation with his partner, who was not as taken with the idea of moving to Greece, Verdu had a change of heart and decided to remain in Spain.

He joined Real Betis on a four-year deal, and it seemed to be one of the more intelligent signings of the close season for the Sevilla club.

Verdu was a proven and experienced performer in Spain’s top flight with almost 250 games.

He had started almost every game in four seasons at Espanyol, playing best as a No 10 behind the leading striker.

Espanyol fans were sad to see him go, Betis fans were impressed when Pepe Mel signed him as their marquee purchase.

Unfortunately, they could not foresee what happened next. Instead of playing in an Olympiakos team that would qualify from their group stage and go on to beat Manchester United at home in a last-16 tie before losing on aggregate, Verdu struggled in a Betis side who were injury-hit and rooted to the bottom of the table all season.

Injury and mediocre form limited Verdu to only 20 starts, his lowest amount since he had turned professional with Barcelona’s B team in 2002.

With Betis relegated and shedding 12 of their more expensive (and best) players, Verdu looked for another new challenge.

This time he was ready. For the first time in his career, his challenges moved outside Spain with Baniyas in the Arabian Gulf League as part of the growing and successful Spanish diaspora of players playing in more than 50 countries around the world.

sports@thenational.ae

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