Sometimes a player will surprise you in an interview – they wanted to be a dentist, they play the accordion, their favourite film director is Ingmar Bergman. So it is with Jordi Alba when he tells me who his footballing idol has always been, and always will be.
"Hristo Stoichkov," the 23-year-old reveals. Stoichkov won the European Champion Clubs' Cup with FC Barcelona in 1992 as part of Johan Cruyff's 'Dream Team', but the striker was a Molotov mix of brilliance, controversy and aggression. The Bulgarian once informed me how, on the day of that final at Wembley, he went off to play golf because he was bored and wanted to do something nice before lifting the trophy that evening.
"I really liked Stoichkov when he played at Barcelona," full-back Alba says. "I played in his position then ... more or less! I loved to watch him on matchdays because of the personality he showed team-mates and fans. I followed everything he did and said. There have been many important Barça players since, but I always liked Hristo's character."
Stoichkov would probably return the admiration. Alba has become a flying machine down the left. A terrific footballer, he gave a masterclass as an inside-left in the UEFA Europa League last season as his former side Valencia CF beat AZ Alkmaar 4-0. For anyone who wants to understand why the Blaugrana were so keen to sign him, that match is essential viewing.
UEFA EURO 2012 was his breakthrough tournament for Spain. After a lovely assist helped Xabi Alonso find the net against France in the last eight, Alba scored a stunning goal in the final against Italy. His joy must have been especially intense given the struggles he has faced on his way to the top. In 2005, when he was 16, he was released by Barcelona. Yet the teenager, born a few kilometres from the Camp Nou, took rejection in his stride, showing an innate maturity that has served him well since.
"I took it well when I had to leave," he says. "I never doubted I'd make it, nor did I feel down. I still took great joy in my football. I needed to play football, for Barça if I could, but if not I simply wanted to play. I always wanted to just play football – now I want more moments like winning the EURO."
With that, Alba gets up, giving me a cheeky grin as he pinches me on the cheek, a playful acceptance that the interview has gone well. It is almost as if his hero Stoichkov is in the room.
For more from Jordi Alba, view the video above or read the interview in full in the new edition of Champions Matchday, the official magazine of the UEFA Champions League.
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