"I thought I wasn't good enough. I'm no use; I can't be a footballer," Sergi Darder says.
The Espanyol midfielder isn't talking about the early days as a kid away from home, alone and trying to make it in the most competitive career there is, the doubts accumulating in his mind. He's talking about what he went through just 18 months ago, almost a decade after his professional debut; by then, he was captain of the club he left his family to play for. He doesn't want to call it depression, but it sounds a lot like it, as he reveals the pressure and the fear, how the game took over his life, how he locked himself away and eventually accepted that he had to look for help, the best way to hold on to let go a little.
"I wasn't in a good place," he says.
Today, he is. He is still working on it, but here he is, the place he always wanted to be and one so few reach. "I think I'm the only one," Darder says.
Espanyol's captain was 13 when he departed Mallorca to join the club's youth system, leaving his family to live in a residency with dozens of other kids hoping to make it as footballers, the most competitive career on earth. Fifteen years later, he's the only one left. Not just the only one playing at Espanyol, preparing for Sunday night's derby against Barcelona at Cornellá, but the only one left in Spain's first division. At least he thinks so, sitting in the stands and gazing across the grass at their training ground in Sant Adria de Besos, heading out of the city towards Badalona.
"Víctor Álvarez played in primera for years, but he's gone: he's in Cyprus. Germán [Parreño] the goalkeeper is at Ibiza, in segunda. Joan Ángel [Román] went to Barcelona B, Sporting Braga; he's playing in Poland now," he says. "I might have forgotten someone but playing in primera, I would say I'm the only one."
This is a place where youth development is impressive, where there is care and those coming through do get a chance -- which is why his choice eventually came down to here and Villarreal -- and Darder is where he started. But even he had to go away and come back again. The way he tells it, his journey is a reminder of how difficult it is to get there - and to stay there too. A conversation that takes in the humanity of a game and the inhumanity of it too.
Talent is not enough and nothing is inevitable; you need more. Fortune, for a start, which is why Aston Villa mean so much to him. Not because they were the English club that, along with Newcastle, came closest to signing him (although they were), but because a game against them was "the most important in my whole life," a preseason friendly in August 2013, having had to leave Espanyol before making it to the first team to join Málaga instead. That game, he says, "changed everything."
"If I had played badly, I would be playing in tercera now, for sure," Darder insists.
He didn't and he isn't. He was 19, and things were about to begin. "I hadn't been playing all summer but I did that day. You're 3-0 down after 30, minutes and you think 'I won't play here again'," he says. "But it was ok." Málaga reacted, coming back to 3-2, and Darder's career had begun, just as he thought it might be over. It wasn't the first time he had feared that, and it wouldn't be the last either.
"I left home in Mallorca for Espanyol at 13; you're just a kid. The first six months were very, very hard. I was crying every day, I wanted to go home. But I had come to Barcelona at 13 with one objective: to play in the first division. And Villa was the game that could open the door. From that day, [the coach Bernd] Schuster said: 'we can do ok with this player'. If not, maybe they would have signed someone else."
And that, he can't help thinking, would have been it, his fate much like all those other kids who grew up with him, not of his own making.
"I believe a lot in luck," Darder says.
Editor's Note: This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
ESPN: Luck always feels like an unsatisfactory explanation for success, but is it unavoidable?
You need to be ready, but a lot of players get only one chance: some take it, some don't. The level is so high, and so equal, that for the opportunity to come is almost a lottery. And that is always there, not just at the start: our manager [Vicente Moreno] has a phrase he uses: games hang by a thread.
I was here at Espanyol waiting for my chance and I could see: it's not coming, it's not coming ... I went to Málaga and it came, but that was chance too. I was in the B team when they were in the Champions League. But there were problems. If the owner had kept investing, maybe they would have signed more and I wouldn't have gone up to the first team. Does that depend on me? No. It's luck. I was the same player. Whether they put me in or not didn't depend on me.
Going to Lyon didn't entirely depend on you, either.
I had various options, but they were the club that "bet" most on me. And the thing is, Málaga were in a moment of crisis and they had sold part of my rights to an investment fund without me knowing. The investment fund could more or less decide my [transfer] price. Porto came for me, it had been accepted, and the fund said no.
I went to Lyon on the last day of the market. My official buy-out clause was €40 million, but then I found out that the fund had an agreement where if a €12m bid came and Malaga refused to sell, they could sell me [unilaterally]. It didn't happen until the last minute.
How did you feel when you found out you weren't even "owned" by who you thought you were owned by?
It's jodido -- messed up. When you don't know who you belong to, it's pretty hard. From the outside it seems players are in a bubble, but we're people. It affected me. I was a kid. You think 's---, they're playing with me. I'm a puppet and they will do with me what they want.' I want to decide my future. Look, I could still refuse to go. And in a way it helped: without the fund, Málaga might have refused to sell at all. But you're in a situation you don't control.
It can seem sometimes like we don't have feelings. We're exposed to that, and we know how the world works.
That was some team ...
A hell of a team: Samuel Umtiti, Mouctar Diakhaby, Alexandre Lacazette, Nabil Fekir, Mathieu Valbuena, Memphis Depay, Corentin Tolisso, Maxime Gonalons ... madness. I got there and, forgive the phrase, I was s---ing myself. I was very young, I didn't speak the language, it was a team that was already settled. I was the first player in when they started to invest again. I learned more in those than 10 years in Spain.
Umtiti now plays for Barcelona, your opponent on Sunday.
The Barcelona-Espanyol rivalry means you can't meet up much... he has his life and I have mine, but we do speak. He's having a difficult time of it now, but he's very, very good.
People forget how good?
That's the problem. People see the player who has struggled the past two years, but talk to people at Barcelona -- I have friends there -- and they see him train and they say he is at the level he was at before. The thing is: once you have that label, it's hard. Once you have that label? Go, because you won't get rid of it.
You grew up playing Barcelona in the youth system. Was the rivalry always significant?
It was different then, more even. There were no fans, but it was big in the dressing room, among the players. It was one vs. two in the league, competing for the titles. [At senior level] the gap is bigger and the fans feel that even more than the players.
Being an Espanyol supporter in this city is very difficult. You go to school and there are 17 Barcelona fans, one who likes Espanyol. That kid -- let's not call it bullying, but it's hard because they're alone. Everything leads you to Barcelona: the size of the club, the front page of the papers, the environment.
Why would you support Espanyol? Why be alone? Soy raro, soy del Espanyol: you're the odd one if you support Espanyol. But you're Espanyol because you love Espanyol. And Espanyol fans are more faithful than other fans because it's hard here: if you support Espanyol, you really support Espanyol.
It's very easy to become a Barcelona fan. I'm from Mallorca, and everyone there supports Madrid or Barcelona; they're not Mallorca [fans]. There are very few Espanyol fans compared to the magnitude of Barcelona.
But Espanyol is a big club.
It's a gigantic club. The thing is, it feels less at times because everything is about them.
What can Espanyol do to close that gap, to make this derby more like the one Atletico Madrid have with Real Madrid, say? To be more like Atlético ...
Well, Atlético have a budget of €300m, it's closer. Barcelona at their worst moment -- their worst moment -- have spent €50m on a player. Are you going to compete with that? God willing, yes, and I am the first that wants to, but the reality is that it's hard to grow.
[Espanyol] had been growing a lot and a bad year, relegation, halted that development. We had to spend €40m to try to avoid relegation, which we didn't manage. That ruins everything. That's our fault. You have to start again, from further back. We're in a good place, we're growing again and in the future we can be stronger -- maybe not Barcelona [level] because almost everything channels towards them.
You said the rivalry prevents you and Umtiti being together ...
You can see each other, yes, but you have to be careful. If you lose and you go out to eat with a Barcelona player, pffft...
It's easily forgotten that we're people as well as footballers. If a fan has a bad day at work, he's not going to stay at home and cry; that's the day when they most feel like eating with their friends. If I play badly, if I lose, don't make me stay at home. But I used to do that, eh: if I had lost to Eibar, let alone Barcelona, that was two days I wouldn't leave home. Not out of fear, exactly, but people say things.
Of course you don't go out partying after a defeat -- you have to be sensitive to people's feelings -- but how can it be a problem to eat with my son? But it's like if you lose, you have to lock yourself up at home, and I did that.
So when Espanyol were relegated ...
I don't think I ate out five times that whole year. But it's also true that at the time my head was in a bad way and I didn't want to see my family, my friends -- anything. I didn't feel like doing anything because of my personal situation at the time. Someone says something and to avoid that, you stay in. But it was more than that with me: it was a very, very, very hard year psychologically. It was me.
Because of something outside football?
Because of football. In my head, football was above family, friends -- everything. If things were going well in football, I was happy. If not...
The year we went down, and not just because we went down but because of the way I was, I realised and accepted that I wasn't right. I'm not going to use the word depression because there are people who have a bad time of it, who are ill, but I needed help. I could see this wasn't right. I wanted to be a footballer, I wanted a house, a car, a family, kids... I had all that and I wasn't happy.
Because football weighed too much?
Much too much. And I thought: I have to change. I can't be in a situation where I have everything I ever wanted, where I'm the luckiest man in the world, and I am not happy. And my friends work eight hours a day picando piedra ("digging stone"), have no money, and they're happier than me.
What's wrong with me? For about a year, my mum, my wife, my agent, were saying to me you're not right, don't lock yourself in your room, go and seek help. And I was like: 'What? How am I going to go to a psychologist? I'm fine.' It was very difficult for me to accept that but when I did, I saw: I had no will to do anything. I wasn't looking forward to playing or training. Everyone was better than me; I felt I wasn't worthy. I was 26 and I said: 'I have 10 years of football left, I want to enjoy them, make the most of them, not suffer them.'
I can now say that I'm enjoying football, which I wasn't two years ago. The first thing I did was to go to see a psychologist about ordering my life away from football, to have a [good] relationship again with my partner, with my kids. I was always angry.
That damages them, too.
That's it. I wanted to get back the joy for life. I would have a bad training session and I didn't want to talk to anyone. They would say something and I would snap at them. I was in a bad way; football had taken over too much. Football ate me up; it overwhelmed me. I looked for help. I did the work alone, but he would show me ways of being receptive to my family. He would say 'ask your wife to do this,' 'do this with them', but it was for me to find ways to be receptive and help them be.
My relationship with [my wife] wasn't broken; it was that I didn't talk because I would be locked in my room. It was my fault, not theirs, and so it was my role to make us happier, and he helped me be closer to them again.
When I started to get that part of my life back, I could then go onto mental work more geared towards football. You go from a psychologist to a mental coach. 'You lost, let's talk,' or 'let's find techniques to manage that, to not lose concentration, to not let small things become so important.' And that's where I am now.
I'm young, 28: I still have a career and I can still improve, get better every year. It was the opposite: I signed for Lyon at 20 and my career got worse every season. I don't want to play in tercera at 30. I want to be in the Champions League at 30.
Luis Enrique, the Spain manager, said footballers have to have the memory of a goldfish, the ability to forget fast.
That's one of the most important things. When I was little, my coaches would say that if I got the first pass right I would play well, but if I lost the ball, they might as well take me off there and then. Because if affected me. I have always been a weak person. Maybe not weak, but shy, quiet, things affected me.
That's not the typical footballer profile ...
No, no, although there are more [like that] than people realise. Often when people criticise you, they think they are helping. 'Pull your socks up!' [They think your response is going to be:] 'Oh, ok, yeah, I'm on it.' No. Often that's not the case at all. What you do is kill him.
The criticism -- however constructive -- did more harm than good. If someone tried to give me advice, I would think 'I'm doing something wrong' and it would bring me down.
Is it still a bit taboo to talk about mental health in football? Do you talk about it with teammates?
You don't stand before the team and say 'I'm going to a psychologist.' Maybe you speak to the three or four you're closest to. But it's much less of a problem to be open about it than it was. And the mental coach side of it is common: everyone seeks help, a guide. If you don't look to improve and grow, you drop.
Do you feel a responsibility, as captain and a senior player, to share these lessons with the younger players? To warn them, almost.
I am very much focused on my own [well-being], on myself, because that is what the psychologist recommended. And I wouldn't swap with the younger players. I wouldn't want to go through those early years again as things are now.
Social media, for example: now, everyone has a phone and it's very easy to write a message saying: 'you're so bad.' It can be very hard to manage that. The thing is, you can read 100 good things and it's the one bad thing that stays with you. The access is easy and there are lots of people who aren't necessarily bad people, but who have nothing else to do, or don't think anything of it. That can hurt you. Before that hurt me a lot, but now I'm not allowed to look.
I read interviews, the news, I want to know what's going on. But I'll read a journalist, not someone on Twitter. Comments about me: zero.
When Espanyol get relegated, that pressure is intensified.
Yes, all the more so in a team that you feel like I do [for] Espanyol. You go down at another club and you might think: 'I'll move on, no pasa nada.' You're upset, but it's OK, you can escape it. Here I was pissed off and on top of that I can't go; I feel indebted, it's my responsibility. On the one hand, you think: I want to play in primera. But you think: I can't. It affected me more because I'm from here. There were a lot of us from here, so it really affected us.
You went down with a defeat against Barcelona, although there were no fans so did that mean it wasn't quite as bad?
It would have been really hard. But we had been a second division team for weeks, really. If it had been the last match, with a chance of survival... but we already knew the team had hit rock bottom.
How do you play on knowing you're going down?
You play for yourself, for pride -- nothing else. For what the club represents. You think: millions of people would pay to wear this shirt one game, so let's give everything. The problem was that everything you could give, the way we were, still wasn't enough. The players are good players, but we looked bad. People said 'they're walking because they don't [care]'. No. We wanted to but we couldn't. Why? Because your head rules.
Was it better that there were no fans when you went down?
Those last months, I was thinking 'with fans here, they'd put five past us every game.' They would be whistling us, and rightly so. I would come off the pitch having played badly and think 'and I gave everything.' It was impotence. Your legs aren't going, there's no confidence, you've got nothing. Having no fans didn't help in football terms -- we went down -- but it did psychologically because if they come to have a go at you... and they would be right to, the way we were playing.
We were going down by 15 points. How can I say to the fans: 'Don't whistle me'? You should be mad at me!
You came straight back up!
I thought we would find it hard to come back but actually it was like a new start, fresh air, and wooosh! We started well; I think if we hadn't, we wouldn't have come up, we would have been sunk, properly sunk.
What role did Diego López, your veteran goalkeeper, play in that? In this whole process, in fact?
I am lucky that he has been through moments similar to mine: very good moments, signings with top teams, but very low ones too, like relegation with Villarreal. However strong your head is, when you have been in the Champions League, it's hard to go down. Your mind says: 'bloody hell, what am I doing here?!' The year in the second division, he helped us a lot: he had been through it, he had seen it. He was also the one that told me about the psychologist. He knew him, the coach did too. He has helped me a lot personally.
You came back so fast that you did it without fans, too. They never actually saw you play in segunda.
You win games without your fans and you think 'who do we celebrate with?' 'Well, yeah, we won, but...' We didn't enjoy it as much as we should. We felt an obligation to win. The day we went up against Zaragoza, I didn't enjoy it. It was a sigh of relief. I thought: 'pfff, now it's done.' It was more a liberation. We should try to enjoy those moments more.
In football, you lose a game and you're dead, useless; you win a game and you're the best. We have to find a way to enjoy the journey, not get on the win-lose-win-lose-win-lose roller coaster. In a year that we could actually win a lot of games, we couldn't enjoy it as we would have liked.
Now you're back in primera, with the fans, and in a better place emotionally, are you enjoying football again?
Much more than ever before. Well, maybe the first year in primera: I played without fear then, without wondering what people would say. I was a kid, I had pressure but I wasn't conscious of it ... Now I can enjoy it more than I had since then. For me, a good performance wasn't enough: I wanted to be the best every game, but you can't. You have to have bad days but I wouldn't allow myself that. Now I do. Afterwards, that is.
While you're working, football has to be the most important thing in the world. But then it finishes, you have to disconnect from it. Today for example if I train badly -- I didn't, by the way, hahaha - I go home thinking: 'that can't happen again' and next time will be better. I don't go home thinking: 'I'm not good enough at this, I'm no use playing football.' I used to. Before nothing was enough, I thought I wasn't worthy. Now I set the limits.
So now what? Is there a plan to follow? And can talking about your experience help fans understand?
I would go [to sessions] every week before, now it's maybe once a month, and a shift from psychologist to mental coach focused more on the football itself. If I need something, if things aren't good, I call. 'Can we chat five minutes?' The advice is more specific now. He helps manage my emotions on the pitch, giving me three or four very basic rules that have helped. It's like football itself: control, pass, that's the most basic thing of all, but if you get it right everything else benefits. Fans live in the present, and so do I, but maybe it can help.
Sometimes it's hard to understand that we're people, that you can have a bad day, that luck plays a part. I consider myself an optimist; I see the good things, when before I didn't. At all. I only saw the bad side. I used to be a pessimist, now I am an optimist. I started with a psychologist because of need, now I stay with him because of the desire to grow, to be better.