There are a precious few individuals who can speak of Spanish club Barcelona as "my home." Gai Assulin is one of those lucky few.
For nearly seven years the Nahariya native has been gallivanting on the well-kept fields of the youth academy run by one of international soccer's most storied clubs. Assulin climbed from the youth team to the Barcelona B team, coming ever closer to realizing his dream of taking the pitch for the senior club at Camp Nou.
The 19-year-old Israeli was often praised by his coaches for the progress and maturity he displayed during his development. The young midfielder began fantasizing about doubles passes with Lio Messi and Andres Iniesta. This summer, however, that dream was shelved, "but not shattered," Assulin emphasizes. Barcelona wanted to sign him to a three-year extension, but "it wasn't a real professional contract," he says.
In a meeting with Assulin's father, Eli Assulin, Barcelona officials proposed a deal that did not include a guarantee that his son would be added to the senior team's roster. Rather, the Catalan club hoped to ensure its proprietorship of the player. The club sought to sign Assulin and then loan him to another club in Spain for one season, after which the midfielder would return to the B team, where he has played the last two seasons. It was an offer that fell short of Assulin's expectations, which include furthering his career rather than running in place.
"I didn't even get into a discussion about money and the numbers," Assulin says. "I refused the offer. I feel I'm ripe to begin my professional career and play for the senior team. I dreamed of getting into Barcelona's senior team, but I believe that everything happens for a reason."
"It may very well be that if I had got into the senior team I would have done myself a disservice and perhaps harmed my career," he says. "I'm leaving Barcelona with a heavy heart. I was lucky enough to experience things that very few people get to experience, and I'll miss every moment I spent in this magical place. It's difficult for me to accept the fact that I won't be there anymore."
According to Assulin, the source of his problems at Barcelona was his coach with the B team, Luis Enrique. The Israeli had received considerable backing and support from most Barcelona officials who knew him well. Enrique was far less accommodating. Reporters who followed the team said the coach simply did not factor Assulin into his plans.
"Gai did not get along with Enrique, so there was no point in him staying," says Eli Assulin. "The senior club is not a nursery - it's not Hapoel Tel Aviv or Maccabi Haifa. Apparently there's no room at Barcelona for a kid his age. You have to have a lot of patience to succeed there, and it's not easy."
Assulin Senior was in Barcelona on Tuesday to help his son pack his belongings and return to Israel.
"I didn't receive much playing time from Enrique," Gai Assulin recounted. "He wasn't too interested in me playing for him. He didn't trust me and didn't give me credit, and this really hampered my self-confidence. When he finally let me play, it was in unimportant games. I don't know whether his motivation was personal or professional. It seems to me that it was a combination of the two. In the few opportunities I did receive, I couldn't do much to prove that I was worthy. If I didn't take advantage of the few opportunities I did receive, then he would take me off the pitch. He had no patience for me and he barely spoke with me."
How do you explain this? Even [Barcelona senior club coach] Pep Guardiola praised you.
"Everyone praised me and complimented me for my abilities, except for Enrique. He is the one who decided that there is no place for me on his team, and at Barcelona the coach has the final say on all professional matters. Even if there were others who thought differently, they didn't want to butt heads with the coach. Once Enrique decided, it was final. I was very disappointed, but there was nothing I could do. Guardiola and Enrique are two different people, two different worlds."
Did you seek out Enrique and try to understand what the problem was?
"Perhaps this is what I should have done, but I didn't approach him and didn't seek an explanation. Maybe I felt this was unnecessary. I didn't feel like I could open up to him. I had some unpleasant experiences with him at practice and in games. Our relationship was one of disconnect - as if he ignored me. I have no idea why he treated me this way, and it hurts even more when the reasons are not professional. Even if you don't like a player for one reason or another, you could still engage him in conversation. He just ignored me."
Assulin now faces an uncertain future, one that has him quite concerned as to the direction his career will take. "I'm in a very difficult position," he said. "I have no idea what is going to happen with me."
His father has tried to reassure him. "He'll find a good team, I have no doubt about it," Eli Assulin said.
The player says he has received a number of offers from clubs, "but for now none of these offers are appealing to me. This is not an easy situation for me. I'm not worried, but I'm definitely disturbed by the question of where I'm going to play next season. I try to look at the situation optimistically and believe that everything will work out in the end. I'm strong mentally, and there's no doubt I'll get through this period."
"As of now I have nothing, but I want to play in Europe," he concluded. "I have no plans to return to the Israeli Premier League right now."