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Trips to Gijón are always a special occasion for Luis Enrique. Although he is manager of FC Barcelona, a club that will always have a very big place in heart, it has never been a secret that the club that lies closest to the centre of that heart is his beloved Sporting Gijón.
Last May, on the day that Barça paraded around the Catalan capital to celebrate the Liga title, the biggest smile on Lucho’s face came when he learned that the red and whites from Asturias had avoided relegation. He even tweeted a picture of himself wearing the famous striped jersey.
It may seem strange for a manager to so openly don the colours of a rival club, but in Luis Enrique’s case it’s understandable. It was in Gijón, on the northern coast of Spain and home to a quarter of a million people, where the Barça manager was born in 1970.
A Sporting chance
At the age of eleven, Luis Enrique joined the Escuela de Fútbol de Mareo, a soccer academy that is to Sporting what La Masia is to FC Barcelona. However, long before the modern facility was opened in 1978, the club was already renowned for producing world class players, including the great Quini, Liga top scorer on five occasions and who was at Barça from 1980 to 1984.
From the ages of 14 to 18. Luis Enrique spent four years at another club in the city, CD La Braña. There, he shared a dressing room with a friend who was just 19 days his senior and lived just two streets down the road: Abelardo Fernández. The duo were hugely promising youngsters, and in the 1988/89 season, the dream came true for them both when they lined up with the Sporting first team for the very first time. But even greater things lay in store.
Friends for life
Luis Enrique left for Real Madrid on 1991, although he and Abelardo were able to continue their friendship whenever they wore the Spanish national jersey, and were together in the team that won gold at the Barcelona Olympics in 1992.
Abelardo would be heading for Catalonia on a more permanent basis in 1994, when FC Barcelona came calling. And two years later, he’d be joined at the club by Luis Enrique.
Both players spent a total of eight seasons wearing the famous Blaugrana shirt, and when their careers were over, they went into management.
Abelardo has spent most of his coaching career at Sporting and in 2014 became first team boss. And via Barça B, AS Roma and Celta, Luis Enrique has ended up back at the Camp Nou in one of the hottest seats in world football.
When he walks out at El Molinón on Saturday, and looks up at the Mareona, or ‘big tide’, of red and white Sporting shirts, there’s sure to be a lump in Luis Enrique’s throat. That’s what homecomings do. And when he greets Abelardo, rather than a formal handshake we can expect a heartfelt embrace. That’s what true friendships do.
But for Luis Enrique, this weekend is not just a chance to catch up with friends and family. He may be Sporting through and through, but when the referee’s whistle blows at 4.15pm CET on Saturday, all emotions will be put to one side.
He has a job to do. And it’s a job he does well. And FC Barcelona also has a cherished place in his heart, and for 90 minutes, that’s the only part that will matter.
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