Interview: FC Pune City's Rafa Lopez talks about the ISL, Indian defenders, Ranko Popovic and playing against Lionel Messi
FC Pune City has been a breath of fresh air in the Indian Super League this time around. Breaking it into the playoffs for the first time in their history, the Stallions have been brilliant to watch this season. Understandably, when a team has the likes of Emiliano Alfaro and Marcelinho up front, it is bound to be amongst the goals.
But for the first time in four seasons, it was the defense that actually held their fort and did a stunning job which sadly has gone unnoticed. The mainstay of this Pune City defense is Spanish center-back Rafa Lopez who made his debut in the ISL this season and was one of the best defenders in the league phase.
A Real Valladolid product, Lopez has marshaled the backline and has been a leader on the field. He is positionally aware, makes ground quickly, is strong in his tackles and has formed a brilliant partnership with Gurtej Singh. Lopez is the FC Pune City player who has gone under the radar but has played consistently well, week in week out.
Statistically too, the 32-year-old has piled up some good numbers. He has played every game for Pune this season and has helped his side keep joint highest seven clean sheets. Lopez has also made 21 interceptions and 53 tackles in 19 matches and has 749 passes to his name - the second highest for the Stallions.
Ahead of the all-important second leg of the semifinal between FC Pune City and Bengaluru FC, we caught up with the man in focus and had a discussion about varied topics from his views on the Indian defenders in the ISL to his time in La Liga. Here are the excerpts:
Q: How has been your experience so far in the Indian Super League?
Lopez: The experience has been fantastic till now and the level of football played in the league has impressed me. FC Pune City has been doing an amazing job by providing us all possible facilities, the young players in the club are promising and we aim to learn and grow every passing day while training.
Q: What was the first thing that caught your eye after arriving in the country?
Lopez: I was in India before ISL, so I did have an idea what I can expect here. But I must say that the people, food, and culture are good here. The Indian lifestyle is completely different from my home and after so many months I feel like home here.
Q: What are your thoughts on the quality of competition in the ISL and the overall football infrastructure in India?
Lopez: The best thing about the ISL is that the teams are equally competitive so undoubtedly the games are unpredictable, I have seen big upsets since the beginning of the league and that impresses me a lot because it keeps us motivated towards our aim. Being a four-year-old league, ISL has been improving its standards every year.
Q: What are the areas that you would like to be seen changed in the league in the coming years?
Lopez: I believe when a league work towards the development of football everything falls into place. But it has to keep growing to develop in every way. I will say, the league should keep being creative like now in all aspects so that there is always something new every year.
Q: Which player/s have impressed you the most this season?
Lopez: In this season according to me, there are many young players who have been impressive. If I start mentioning everyone individually I am afraid I might miss someone on the list. But frankly, all the players in the league are giving their 100% in every way to stay strong and perform well.
Q: You are statistically one of the best center-backs in the league this season. How difficult was it for you personally to adjust to the demands and the physicality of the ISL?
Lopez: Firstly, thank you for that, I believe at the end of everything you are playing in the football field which is same everywhere in the world, there are variations geographically but as a player, we are adaptive to all the situations. So it wasn't much difficult for me to adjust to football is a beautiful game and my life.
Q: Your views on the Indian center-backs that you have seen in the league this season?
Lopez: I am very impressed with the kind of defenders we have in the league, I believe we play an important role as we are the wall protecting the post. The center-backs in the league are improving every day, they are doing a very good job on the field.
In our squad, we are developing game by game, we make sure communicate with each other all the time which helps us during the game. An important thing is that we understand each other and language is never a barrier for us.
Q: How has it been playing under Ranko Popovic? We know he is an animated character on the touchline. How is he in training and off the field?
Lopez: Our coach Ranko is someone who is known to develop young players and we have a very young squad this season which is a good thing. As a coach, he plays many roles and makes sure that he develops and helps us grow in every aspect of the field. Every time we step on the field he makes sure that he helps us improve and guide us to bring out something new in us.
Q: Pune has qualified for the playoffs for the first time in their history. Where do you think has the team excelled this season and what are the areas to improve upon?
Lopez: FC Pune City is a new team this season, the players except Vishal and Lucca are new to each other and the way team has developed with every passing day is a good sign. We have a plan and we work according to it, so no one in the team thought too far from the next game. I will say that since the first training together we have improved every day.
Q: Coming through the ranks at Real Valladolid, how was the experience of playing for your local side in the first division?
Lopez: Playing for my local club first division with Real Valladolid was really a great thing for me. When I started playing football, I always wanted to play for Real Valladolid and the day I got the opportunity it was the greatest feeling ever. When I was 6, I used to make sure that I go and watch their game every 15 days. As the time passed the day came when I was gearing up the Real Valladolid jersey.
Q: How was your overall experience in La Liga and how was it playing against the great Lionel Messi?
Lopez: La Liga is the best league in the world to play for and, I am proud that I got an opportunity to play for eight seasons. The surrounding and the fans in the league is way beyond my imagination, it was really a dream come true for me to play for La Liga.
Playing against Messi was the best and the most challenging thing but I am proud of it. Playing against Messi is something I will always remember and also tell my kids in the future.
Q) You have played in the Bundesliga and in La Liga too. How different was it for you to adjust to the playing conditions and styles in Germany compared to Spain?
Lopez: I will say that we are professional footballers, we travel around the world to play and every time we do, we adjust and adapt the situations there. The football culture is different but I enjoyed playing there as it was a learning to me.
Q) Last question...who do you think will win the Champions League this year?
Lopez: This year I see Barcelona as a big favorite.