The baby hooligan
Jose Garcia was once a bare-chested child screaming on his team from the stands of El Sadar. Now the 16-year-old playmaker is the darling of the Osasuna fans he once stood among. Adam Bate was in Pamplona to witness the debut of yet another promising La Liga talent...
By Adam Bate in Pamplona
Last Updated: 14/11/13 8:28am
The Friday evening game at El Sadar was a vital one for hosts Osasuna and visitors Almeria. Both teams were already in a battle against relegation and everyone was aware how damaging a defeat to a fellow struggler could be. But despite the pressure of the situation, and with their team 1-0 down, there was only one man the home fans wanted to see. "Jose Garcia!" they chanted. "Jose Garcia! Jose Garcia!" Again and again.
"Feel the colours to fulfil your dream. Congratulations, Jose!" read the banner behind the goal. It was an extraordinary scene given that Garcia is just 16-years-old and had only trained with the first-team squad for the first time that Tuesday. But Osasuna supporters know all about the youngster christened 'the baby-hooligan' by El Mundo. Once a member of the youth faction of the radical fan group Indar Gorri, there is a now-famous video of an animated Garcia, aged seven, stood shirtless and urging his team on from the stands against Basque rivals Athletic Bilbao.
For the young fans chewing their sunflower seeds at El Sadar, annoying those around them as they playfully throw the remnants at each other, there is an awareness that Garcia is different. This is someone who stood among them until recently, only recently distancing himself from Indar Gorri once it became clear it would be prudent to do so given his imminent rise to prominence. He is one of them.
And so the brief journey to Osasuna first-teamer was complete midway through the second half on Friday. At a an age when such a diminutive figure might find himself cast aside in England, Garcia instead became the youngest player to make his bow for Osasuna in the top flight. By way of comparison, the team's next change was to bring on Patxi Punal, a 38-year-old midfielder who made his debut for the club in the year Garcia was born.
It is to the credit of coach Javi Gracia - who had described Garcia as "bold and technically good" in the build-up to the game - that he should turn to the debutant first. And it certainly raised the crowd, as he raced onto the field to a rapturous reception that verged on hysteria. It's an awful lot of hope and expectation to be invested in a player whose knees were barely visible between his socks and the unusually baggy shorts.
Even so, the impact was instant. The old cliche about young players not playing with fear has seldom seemed quite so evident. While the rest of the team, none younger than 24, were content to shift the ball from left to right ad infinitum before tossing in unconvincing crosses from deep, Garcia played with the confidence of someone aware his every touch was greeted with encouragement rather than groans.
He had 24 touches in his 24 minute outing, a level of involvement that only Osasuna holding midfielder Francisco Silva among the other players on the pitch could match. Immediately, he was the one who team-mates were seeking out, the spark that could make something happen. No Osasuna player attempted more dribbles in the entire match than Garcia embarked upon in his brief cameo.
Bustling around in the hole behind the forwards, Garcia threw himself into tackles, attempted first-time flicks and generally provided the sort of incision his team had been sorely lacking. One twisting and turning run from the inside left channel opened up space for a left-foot shot that the impressive Andres Esteban in the Almeria goal was able to tip over for a corner. More chances followed but the breakthrough didn't come and Osasuna dropped into the relegation zone.
The atmosphere in the post-match press conference was understandably tense. But there was one bright spot for everyone to cling to. "I think [the debut of Jose Garcia] is the only thing we can take from the match," an otherwise crestfallen Gracia told reporters. "He's excited to be a footballer. The only thing I told him was that you only get to make your debut once, so try to enjoy it."
Despite the situation, Garcia certainly played like someone who was enjoying it and it's impossible to imagine the imaginative playmaker being denied more action in the near future. His presence in the team provides hope for Osasuna fans that they can still claw their way out of the bottom three this season. And perhaps more significantly, the baby hooligan offers the prospect of rather more excitement beyond that as well.