Everyone has that one person they have come across during their lifetime who tends to stand out, regardless of how close they were to the person.
It was sometime in the fall of 2001, during my usual weekend trips up to the University of Wisconsin – Green Bay to visit friends, I came across Gonzalo Rodriguez Garcia. I had driven an hour up to the university to watch a Spanish foreign exchange student with extraordinary talent that I had heard so much about. The lad did not disappoint however that’s a different story in itself.
While watching this group of international students rip apart their opponents, I noticed the keeper – a tall fella with glasses on. It was nothing usual but one thing struck me about this man – he was always smiling, laughing and entertaining others around him. That was Gonzalo. And that is what I remember about him during that single semester I had known him. There existed a brief language barrier in terms of communication however his ability to walk past you wearing a huge smile at any given time of the day is what I remember of the man.
Fast-forward to current times, he is in Brazil assisting in Iraq’s attempt to land a medal via their Olympic football team. So much had changed since 2001.
Gonzalo being Gonzalo was kind enough to take some time from his hectic schedule to have a brief chat on his journey so far. I was also able to connect with a few people that could more an additional insight on the man – through the eyes of those who follow Iraqi football closely.
A professional handball player during his earlier days, the experienced fitness trainer broke rose to fame within the industry after being selected as part of the team that made up Rafa Benítez’s backroom staff at Liverpool in 2008 with his capability taking him through clubs across Spain. But he was not the first.
The opportunity to move to Iraq came across with a call in 2012, while he was working at Albacete.
“At the beginning one agent called me to work for a club called Erbil FC. And after speaking with my wife, I said yes to the agent.”
While many tend to stay away from security sensitive regions like the Middle East, Gonzalo took the courageous step to move towards it for the sake of football.
Four time Iraqi domestic title winners Erbil FC, located in Erbil – the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan in the north of the country, had been and continues to be relatively safe from the daily barrage of assaults that we hear about in Baghdad. He had his concerns over the security situation, however he was willing to take the risk.
During his time at the club, he helped Erbil to a fourth league title in 2012 with a staggering goal difference of 43 and their highest finish in Asia’s AFC Cup finishing runners up behind Kuwait’s Kuwait SC. Gonzalo was amazed by the core group’s vigor in supporting one another for the betterment of the club. This instant impact on arrival led to an eventual call-up to help out with Iraq’s national team.
“Immediately after winning the league and finishing second in Asia’s second tier club competition, officials from the national team called me. I was really surprised but happy at the same time with the possibility of achieving more not only for Iraq but for the people.”
Laith Al Naeme, an Iraqi football aficionado managing Soccer Iraq, having spent some time with Gonzalo while he was in Qatar last year, provided a few words on what the role meant to Gonzalo.
“Gonzalo is terrific in my opinion. He said to me that when he hears the national anthem, it hits him hard! The way it would to an Iraqi. This just shows you that this is more than a job to him. Fitness and conditioning coaches have always been a big problem over in the ME. Especially in parts of the game where Arab coaches struggle to help improve. So to bring in a Spaniard with an impressive pedigree like Gonzalo, has really helped Europeanise the Iraqi outfit.”
Gonzalo had no intentions of staying for more than what his contract had stipulated with Erbil but he ended up spending a year with Erbil and two with the national team, eventually announcing his resignation from his duties with Iraq’s FA, a few months ago, for a new challenge.
“I had liked and enjoyed the challenge Iraqi football had provided me, and after these three years, its time for a new challenge along with looking after the interests of my family.”
But his excitement to work with the Iraqi players and vice versa was evident, though a barrier in communication existed.
“My interaction with players was very good. At the beginning we would communicate primarily in English, however after learning some basic Arabic, the process was easier. In the end, when two people want and are willing to understand each other, language is not a problem. And that football is football and it is an international language. They were really happy to have a Spanish coach.”
His time in Iraq led to visits to quite a few locations within Iraq except for one – which was added as a clause in the contracts he had signed. He would not travel to Baghdad (for obvious reasons).
His best memory of his time in Iraq, “finishing fourth in the Asian cup and qualifying for the Olympics games,” are only tainted by the horrific incident that took place during the Asian Cup that took place in Australia last year.
“It was tough on the ears and our hearts to hear the news of thirteen children who were blatantly executed by ISIS just because they were watching us play.”
Referring to the moment when Daesh (ISIS) publicly executed thirteen teenage boys who were apparently watching the match between Iraq and Jordan on TV in Mosul, which is under Daesh control. The group had executed the teens in public via a firing squad reason being the broke their version of Islamic law.
Hassanin Mubarak, a freelance reporter on Iraq’s football musings, pays homage to Gonzalo’s contributions in last year’s Asian Cup placing an emphasis on the significance of fitness trainers in the Iraqi set-up.
“The Spaniard (Gonzalo) was able to come in and raise the fitness levels of the team which was one of the factors why Iraq reached the semi-finals at the Asian Cup. His presence has been a minor revolution in the Iraqi game, however Iraq has seen this before with the two Brazilian fitness coaches Carlos Alberto Lancetta and Fernando Soares. Lancetta was part of the 1986 World Cup set-up in the run-up to the finals. His name is part of Iraqi folklore and then there was Soares during the 2007 Asian Cup victory, some of the players from the team believed the work of the fitness trainer was the major difference.”
Having endured the highs and the lows of Iraqi football, Gonzalo is thankful for the experience but has his concerns on the progress of the sport in the country.
“It has been an incredible experience. I am really happy to be here working with the players and been more than happy to give it my all as the people from Iraq deserve nothing less. However, because of the current situation, the capability to draw up a long-term plan does not exist. People just live by the day and work hard to just get by. Also, corruption is a big problem. The entire country is corrupted. But the average people including the players are fighters and the support has been incredible so anything can happen.”
Gonzalo’s impact within the national set up has earned him a lot more fans that he would have expected. And this, of course, had to do with his professionalism, according to Laith.
“The players react to an organized coach who conducts sessions, whether it be warm-up or fitness drills, in an structured fashion. He definitely does that. Yaser Kasim, Justin Meram, Aldin El Zubaidi and Ahmed Yasin, players who play in leagues with A+ coaches rate Gonzalo very much so. And that says a lot. As well as that the national team as a whole have fell in love with him.”
He is hoping to finish off his time with the Iraq’s in a high – which means winning an Olympic medal for the Iraqi’s in the upcoming Rio Olympics expressing content with the level of preparedness of the team.
“They are doing a really good job. For the past two months, we have been working intensely, just preparing for the Olympics. We just want to do as much as we can; but we know that our group with Brasil, Denmark and South Africa is really hard, probably one of the hardest group in the tournament.”
The team had beaten the likes of United Arab Emirates and Qatar to finish third in the AFC U-23 Championships, which also doubled up as qualifiers for the Olympics. And Gonzalo believes that there is a very good reason for Iraq’s opponents to be varying of them, given the crop of young and exciting players that have stood out during the campaign.
“We have a good talented mix of foreign and domestic players like Ali Adnan, Ali Faez, Ali Hisni, Dhurgham and Saad Abdul Amir who play abroad and those who play in Iraq’s first division (Hammadi, Mahdi, Mohanned, etc.)”
But if had to choose one player who is projected to stand out during the Olympics?
The influence of Gonzalo’s techniques in improving the game in Iraq is yet to be measured, but those within the domestic scene can attest to the difference in fitness levels they witness when it comes to comparing local with foreign-based athletes realizing the potential and importance of an experienced fitness expert. Yet, one thing is certain. He is among the few respected foreigners who had placed themselves in the hearts of the many Iraqis out there with some even claiming him to be one of their own. That’s the legacy Gonzalo will be leaving Iraq with. And that’s the legacy of the man I have come to respect and admire.