Jeffrén interview: A Belgian bloom for the Barça boy – Eupen forward and the rhythm of rediscovery
The sight of an ecstatically exuberant Jeffrén Suárez celebrating Barcelona’s fifth goal in an El Clásico thrashing of Real Madrid was beamed around the world in November 2010. It has been an often-changing image for the Venezuelan international since his career’s infancy under Pep Guardiola and you currently find him in Belgium, where life has left him appreciating an altogether truer essence.
Although he would come to wear the colours of La Vinotinto on the international stage, Venezuela-born Jeffrén’s childhood had a Canarian backdrop, with his connection to the game and natural talent seeing him progress to the youth team of his island’s professional club, CD Tenerife. Spotted by FC Barcelona and signed at 16, he learned as both a player and a young man on his way to graduating to the first-team picture at the prestigious Catalan club.
With a solitary appearance during Frank Rijkaard’s reign, it was Pep Guardiola who introduced the young attacking player to the senior side at the beginning of his first pre-season in charge, in 2008/09. The one-time Barça B standout would play some part in three separate La Liga-winning seasons and at one point, Jeffrén’s potential was reflected in his receipt of a new contract, with the inking of the two-year deal in February 2010 leading him to describe it as one of his happiest ever days at the club.
The contract had a €10m release clause, but as fate would have it, he never did see out the duration of it. He would, however, be around a juggernaut of success in his final year there, as Los Culés lifted both the domestic title and the UEFA Champions League in a 2010/11 campaign in which Barça continued to leave a footballing world marvelling at their magic.
The man who added the final touch to a stunning 5-0 win over Real Madrid at Camp Nou that season was headed to Portuguese giants Sporting CP in August 2011, before he later ended a frustrating two-and-a-half-year spell with a move to northwest Spain with Real Valladolid. Admittedly, it has been far from plain sailing for the 29-year-old since those career beginnings in Catalonia, but he has found a current level of contentment in Belgium he is extremely thankful for.
Having joined KAS Eupen in 2015, he has enjoyed promotion to the Belgian First Division A and he says that life in the German-speaking province of Liège has struck a meaningful chord.
“I like the tranquillity with which I live; the only bad thing is that it rains a lot, but you get used to it. I like going for a walk with my wife and son; feeling together with them gives me strength to fight in the not-so-good moments.”
During last season, Jeffrén and his wife welcomed their newborn son, Valentino, while at Eupen, there were also celebrations. The denial of Second Division champions WS Brussels’ Belgian professional football licence meant that Eupen were promoted to the top flight after finishing just a point behind in 2nd position.
Eupen boss Jordi Condom Aulí, himself a one-time youngster at Barcelona’s famed La Masia academy, was a Barça youth coach during Jeffrén’s ascent to the first team, while there is another familiar face from La Liga past in captain and ex-Espanyol forward Luis García. With his close control and turn of acceleration, Jeffrén is a player capable of expressing himself, and he has a love for music that ties in with that very nicely.
After finishing 13th out of 16 teams in the regular season, Eupen are now competing in the league’s end-of-season playoffs for a Europa League place. It is a multi-national squad and in amongst the mix of cultures and a certain level of playlist democracy, a young Nigerian midfielder is the closest to the DJ throne, as Jeffrén explains.
“Everyone can play whatever music they want, but it’s usually (Odeni) George (Jamabo). I have never been recognised as the DJ anywhere before!”
Born in Ciudad Bolívar, Jeffrén eventually represented Venezuela at senior level in 2015 following a long and noteworthy background with Spain’s youth setup. At the UEFA European Under-19 Championship in Poland in 2006, he scored in the semi-final against Austria before appearing in the final victory over Scotland as he lifted the trophy alongside the likes of Gerard Piqué and Juan Mata in Ginés Meléndez’ team.
Opting against switching allegiance to his birth nation for the Venezuelan-hosted 2007 Copa América, Jeffrén got to feel that triumphant rush again as Spain went all the way in Denmark at the 2011 European Under-21 Championship. He netted again in the semi-final, this time against Belarus in extra-time, with the names beside him in Luis Milla’s squad including David de Gea, Thiago, Ander Herrera and captain Javi Martínez.
Through golden moments like those, as well as the steeper challenges, he has learned about the value of desire in all you do, which is something he sees reflected in the musical artists he favours most strongly.
“I like various types of music; I use many of them to motivate me every day and I listen to other songs whose lyrics I like. I also listen to music to meditate and relax.
“These are the genres that I listen to most: reggae, hip-hop, salsa, bachata, reggaeton, pop. The artists that I usually like are those who at first have been nothing and are now world stars.
“An example is Romeo Santos, who started in the Aventura group. It shows that if you are struggling, you can achieve a lot with passion.”
In his first season with Sporting, Jeffrén was a cup finalist, although he couldn’t help instigate a late leveller after coming on in the 1-0 Taça de Portugal loss to Académica in May 2012. Ex-Portugal forward Sá Pinto was his coach at the time and one of six he played under before he departed the 18-time Portuguese Primeira Liga champions in February 2014.
His time in Lisbon was blighted by injury setbacks, although he did net five goals for the club and has found the scoresheet three times each for his two clubs since, Valladolid and Eupen. There is little doubt about the most famous of his goals, however, which he put away as a 22-year-old in one of the most awe-inspiring settings and in front of a reported worldwide audience of around 400 million.
With 98,255 watching on at Camp Nou on the night, he came on for Barça’s Pedro with Guardiola’s charges leading a Jose Mourinho-led Real Madrid 4-0. As Bojan broke free down the right, he ghosted in off the left and beat Sergio Ramos to stab home a fifth on an evening where Barça leapt above their bitter rivals to go top of La Liga and give Guardiola his fifth El Clásico win in five as a coach.
It led to the whole team celebrating together on the touchline and Piqué saluting the home crowd by holding five fingers aloft, as some of the most enduring screenshots of the great club’s modern history were created in seconds. Evading opposing defenders is what Jeffrén has always tried to build his career on and he confirms that he has also been able to dodge football’s now-famous initiation routine of having to sing for the team when you join a new club.
“No, I have never had to sing. I hope I don’t ever have to do it, because I would feel terrible.
“In each team I have been in, many players sang…well, tried to sing!”
One teammate who did take it to the studio was a keeper who was Victor Valdés’ long-time understudy during six and a half years with Barcelona, though he did play 90 times along the way. Known as ‘Wahin’ when the rhythmic spotlight shines upon him, the former Celta Vigo stopper was Jeffrén’s choice here as we discussed which teammate from his career so far he’d call on if he ever had to record a song of his own.
“Well I think that I would choose José Manuel Pinto to be a composer. I think he would certainly be the best for that.”
That Barcelona team enraptured so many around the world, redefining the elite way of playing and setting the bar so high that perhaps all any could really manage in trying to emulate it was to fall way under. The rampaging right-back of that group has been one of the greatest of his generation to play his position and is still going now at Juventus, coming up against his old team just recently in the Champions League quarter-final.
In amongst a flowing fountain of silverware in his eight years at Barça, the Brazilian spread some playlist gold dust around as well, as Jeffrén remembers.
“Dani Alves was in charge of music at Barcelona. He had lots of variety.”
During his time with Barcelona’s B team, Jeffrén hit 14 goals in 82 games, experiencing relegation from and promotion back to the Segunda División B in that time. In one of those plotlines that football so often manages to create, he would go on to sting Barça B with the fifth goal in a 7-0 win for Valladolid in December 2014.
There may well have been a touch of uneasiness about that goal after he’d enjoyed so many good times with his old side, and of course the B team was his gateway into the big time. His senior debut came almost two years before Guardiola took the coaching reins, as Frank Rijkaard brought him on as an 18-year-old for Javier Saviola in the last 32 of the Copa del Rey at home to CF Badalona in November 2006.
That was just a couple of years after he’d been signed from Tenerife and he recalls some of the earliest sounds he was surrounded by back on his home island, with a Spanish bagpiper more than likely the first of note in his collection.
“I think it was Hevia. When I was little, I used to listen to him a lot; I really liked how he expressed his music.”
In much the same way that seeing football in person opens your eyes to so much more than if you were to watch on TV, getting to feel an artist’s performance first-hand at a concert or festival is a whole other experience. For Jeffrén, a Puerto Rican reggaeton performer known most for his 2010 hit ‘Danza Kuduro’ (with Lucenzo) goes alongisde a Latin pop choice from Madrid to make up his personal back catalogue of live shows.
“Yes, I have been to two. The first was Don Omar and the second was Alejandro Sanz.”
Back to Jeffrén’s own show, draws with Roeselare and Sporting Lokeren, as well as a 2-0 win at Mouscron, have Eupen sitting 2nd in their playoff group of six at present. Should they win the group, they will progress to a semi-final against the Group 2A winners, before the winner of that game faces the 4th or 5th-placed side from the Championship (regular-season top six) playoffs.
Eupen are owned by Qatar’s Aspire Academy, who also have ownership of Cultural Leonesa in Spain’s Segunda División B. The United Arab Emirates’ capital of Abu Dhabi hosted one of the showpiece occasions Jeffrén was part of with Barcelona, as he came on for Thierry Henry in the 2009 FIFA Club World Cup final against Argentina’s Estudiantes with Barça trailing 1-0 before Pedro’s 89th-minute leveller and Lionel Messi’s extra-time winner.
Two of Jeffrén’s appearances in his final season with the club came in the Champions League on their way to lifting the trophy, the latter of which was the 1-0 quarter-final second-leg victory over Shakhtar Donetsk in Ukraine to set up a memorable semi with Real Madrid. Along with other key characters in his journey, he thanks Guardiola for helping to make him who he is and in recent years he has set about making a genuine difference to lives back in Venezuela.
The Jeffrén Suárez Foundation was launched in 2014 in conjunction with the Venezuelan federation Un Par Por Un Sueño. The goal of the project is to enable young people who want to pursue football not to be denied the opportunity by a lack of resources.
As well as always reminding himself of his roots, Jeffrén also keeps his young family not just in his thoughts but also on his matchday attire, with images of his wife and son on his shin pads. We are all shaped in some way by what we experience and the Jeffrén of today sees life in a particularly lucid way, which he attributes in no small part to his lasting relationship with the game.
“Soccer has taught me many things – I owe so much! It has taught me to be humble, to think before acting, to never stop fighting for what you love, to control emotions etc.
“It is my passion and I live and breathe for football.”
Seven seasons ago, Jeffrén notched a pair of goals in 18 games for Barça and the one at home to Athletic Bilbao in a 4-1 win was all the more special. It was his first in La Liga and the cross he slid home at the far post had arrived via the left boot of Éric Abidal.
The popular former France defender is also given special mention by Jeffrén as our conversation comes to a close. After Giovanni van Bronckhorst and Luis García, Jeffrén is the third one-time Barça player to feature on here and to picture themselves in a 5-a-side game for the final question of the interview.
The rules for this one have been the same for the past few years – any four current or former teammates to join the interviewee in this fantasy scenario. While the player can choose to make their lineup selections based completely on ability, many opt to lean more toward the teammates who made a deeper impact on them, on and off the field.
When it comes to the players eligible for selection in Jeffrén’s side here, it pretty much reads as a ‘who’s who’ of recent world footballing greats, so how would he approach it? Understandably, there is strong influence from his Camp Nou adventures, with a spot also for a French forward who scored often for Eupen before his move to Cyprus with AEK Larnaca earlier this year.
Here’s who would get the call to kick it with Jeffrén!
“(Goalkeeper) (José Manuel) Pinto: because in my time in Barcelona with him and with many great players I learned a lot. (Defender) (Éric) Abidal: because I feel that he is a brother of mine.
“He always has a smile for everyone, he is a special person and does not stop running. (Midfielder) Xavi: because of his way of reading football.
“(Forward) Florian (Taulemesse): because he is a good striker and he works hard.”
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