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'Guardiola told the captain to pick the team!' - Ex-Barcelona wonderkid Assulin on Pep, Man City and being a football nomad

09:00 BST 23/10/2021
Pep Guardiola Gai Assulin Barcelona GFX
In an exclusive interview with Goal, the Israeli says that leaving Barcelona was like being becoming homeless after living in a mansion for 20 years

As Barcelona fans steel themselves for what could be a chastening Clasico experience against Real Madrid – with the unpopular Ronald Koeman in the dugout and a playing staff shorn of its brightest stars – they will think wistfully of the days Pep Guardiola was guiding them to 5-0 victories over their eternal rivals.

Guardiola learned how to become arguably the world's greatest coach at Barca – but before he even coached Lionel Messi, Xavi, Andres Iniesta et al, he honed his unique style of managerial methods on the B team, which included Gai Assulin.

Assulin has had a career in football with enough events, hype and controversy to fill five careers. He became the first and only Israeli to play for Barcelona and the youngest player to win a senior cap for his country, was signed by Manchester City before playing literally across Europe – from Spain and Italy to Romania and Kazakhstan.

Through all of that, however, he is a Barca man at heart, having signed on to their La Masia academy aged 12 and learned at the knee of Guardiola in the youth and reserve teams. He has a fair few tales to tell of the now-Man City boss, including the time the old adage of the team picking itself becoming rather more literal.

Speaking exclusively to Goal from his home in Manchester, the 30-year-old attacking midfielder says: "We were in the promotion play-offs, and I remember the last game... We drew the first leg away, so then, the second game at home, everyone was so nervous. Getting promoted or not depended on that game.

"In the last training session, [Guardiola] said to the captain, 'You choose the team, you guys pick the players, I don't care which of you plays because I trust you 100 per cent and I know you will win. You choose the team, I will be sitting and enjoying myself.'

"It's something that stays with me, as I never heard that from any manager since. In the end, all of us wanted to play, so he had to choose in the end, but it's an experience that stays with me. If there's one thing coaches like, it's choosing the team!"

Under Guardiola, Assulin appeared destined for the very top. In 2007, aged only 16, he graduated to the Barcelona B team.

With superb dribbling ability paired with a naturally stronger frame than Messi, Guardiola clearly rated Assulin, who was given a three-year professional contract with a €20 million (£17m/$23.5m) buy-out clause.

When, at the end of the 2007-08 season, Guardiola was promoted to be senior Barca boss, it was reported he would take Assulin with him. However, a serious knee injury halted Assulin's progress, and when he returned, he struggled to even get into the B team under new boss Luis Enrique.

He left Barca, moved to Man City but failed to get into the first team under Roberto Mancini, and thus started a nomadic career featuring clubs even the most ardent football hipster would struggle to tell you about: Racing Santander, Hercules and Sabadell in Spain, Israel's Hapoel Tel Aviv, Kairat of Kazakhstan and Romanian outfit Politehnica Iasi. By February 2021, he wound up with Serie D club Crema.

For Assulin, leaving Barca and then Man City was like being kicked out of the Garden of Eden. He was soon exposed to the harshest realities of the journeyman footballer.

"After leaving City I was in the second division in Spain, and that's when I see what real football is," he says. "When you grow up at Barcelona and Manchester City, things are completely different, everything is like a dream.

"When I went to other clubs, I won't mention names as it doesn't really matter, but I had some tough changing rooms. I saw the changing room at war, I could feel tension between foreign players and Spanish players, it's something I hope doesn't exist anymore but I think will always exist."

Assulin is particularly scathing of his experiences in Eastern Europe, and has a firm warning for young players tempted to get creative in their search for first-team football.

"If I had to give advice to younger players – stay in [Western] European countries. Football-wise, stay in England, go to Spain, go to Italy, Germany, France – do not go to others, especially when you are young. I've experienced a lot of unprofessionalism in different clubs, a lot of corruption.

"Maybe for me it was more difficult, as I grew up with what I'd call the best club in the world. It's like living in a mansion for 20 years, then becoming homeless."

The circumstances around Assulin's departure from Barca in 2010 – after just 56 minutes of senior football – are disputed; Assulin says he declined to sign a new deal, Barca claimed at the time not to have offered him a contract.

Whatever happened, he was a free agent and was not short of offers – but chose to move to Man City rather than take guaranteed football elsewhere.

Assulin signed a two-and-a-half year contract at Man City, but in that time, the only seven senior league games he played were during a loan spell at Brighton in the Championship. He says his reasons behind the move, and turning down firm offers from elsewhere, were solid – but admits, with hindsight, it was a big mistake.

"Of course I would have wanted to stay, it was home for me, but the situation was not ideal with Luis Enrique," he explains. "There is no point in staying where you will have no more chances to play in that team. Barcelona was one of the best places I have lived, but I had to leave because I wouldn't have played, so I did the right thing.

"If I regret coming to Manchester City? It was a massive thing, I thought I would be part of the first team but things did not go this way. I don't like to blame people, I have to look at myself and what I did not do, but I did not get chances.

"Man City were developing, at the stage when they were buying so many great players, expensive players, and as a young player it was not the right time to be there. It wasn't the best place to come.

"I had a few clubs in Spain interested in me, I remember talking to the manager of Numancia [former Barca goalkeeper coach and future assistant manager Juan Carlos Unzue], he told me 'You'll come here and you'll play.' He really wanted me to join, said that he believed in me and my potential.

"It was difficult, the offer from Manchester City was very tempting, it was a matter of what project do I think is best for my future, and I thought City would have been. And I wanted a change after so many years in Spain, to get the mindset of a different country, some different football, and hoped it would work out. I didn't realise I was never going to be in the first team."

There was one good thing that came out of his time in Manchester: he met his wife, and future mother of his child. Assulin remains based in the north-west, showing Goal the heavy grey skies outside his house via Zoom as proof he remains firmly in Britain.

After travelling Europe for his career, Assulin is determined to remain based in England for the next step of his career, to be close to his family. After such a turbulent career, he wants to finally discover some stability – for himself, and his child.

He adds: "I met my wife when I was at City – Charlotte, she is from Cheshire – but as soon as we met, I moved to Santander. We tried to move there, we had our baby in Santander, and after that she went with me to Israel. I went all over the world. I was fortunate that I got to experience so many places, but we thought about what things were going to be after my daughter grew up.

"I want the best for her, and not to be moving around like me, I don't want her to do that – I want her to be stable. I played in Italy last season and it was very hurtful for her, as she was used to me being there. We've decided she should be based here, this is home, and I will do whatever is best for her.

"If I find a club somewhere else I will have to go, it is work, but I am talking to a few clubs here in England, trying to create a profile here. I have been everywhere but this is home. If I can find a club in England in the next couple of months, I will stay here and everything will be perfect."

You can check in on more of  Goal's  Forgotten Men here.