By Scott MacLean
Albert Riera’s decision to retire and walk away from the last year of his A-League deal with the Phoenix over the weekend came as a complete surprise, a low volume departure compared to those of teammates Ben Sigmund and Manny Muscat.
Yet its totally in keeping with how he’s gone about his business in black and yellow. Never one for the spotlight off the field – he’s probably done fewer interviews than the notoriously media-shy Muscat – he simply let his game on the field do the talking for him.
Defensive midfield is perhaps the least glamourous role on the football field. By its very nature it’s a dirty job, tasked with shielding the defenders and breaking up opposing attacks it’s the antithesis of the beautiful game. Yet from the moment Riera first appeared in a Phoenix shirt he handled the job with aplomb, and turning defence into attack in the blink of an eye with a well-timed tackle and then a perfectly placed pass to a teammate.
The back story of course is how the Catalan even ended up in a Phoenix shirt. After a career spent in amateur leagues in Spain when not working as a paramedic he embarked on a backpacking trip. That led to New Zealand, and eventually signing for Auckland City in the NZFC. After slightly more than two seasons came his next break, turning in a stellar performance in a preseason friendly against the Phoenix that saw Ernie Merrick signing him up. Improbably, at 29 years old, he signed his first full-time professional contract ahead of the 2013/14 A-League season.
Riera quickly made himself indispensable, allowing Merrick to redeploy Muscat as a full-time fullback, and earning cult hero status with the Yellow Fever. The team may have only finished a lowly ninth that year, but Riera garnered a contract extension, the clubs Player of the Year award, and a starting spot for the A-League All-Stars team in their match against Italian giants Juventus. The following year he was an ever-present as the side finished fourth before dipping out in the finals to Melbourne Heart.
However, his influence began to wane towards the end of that campaign, with Heart simply bypassing his area of the pitch in that game. 2015/16 saw more teams adopt the same approach, going wide rather than direct and attacking the Nix’s weaknesses at fullback that were exacerbated by Muscat having to cover Sigmund’s lengthy absence in the centre. In turn, that perhaps led to Riera being dragged into those areas and at times over-doing things away from his core role. Still, most people expected he’d be back for 2016/17.
He might never have got his name on the scoresheet, and often his name was only mentioned in match reports in close proximity to the words ‘yellow card’ (and occasionally red) as he often took one for the team to nullify a threatening situation. Those seldom came close to describing his contribution
Football fans love players who wear their hearts on their sleeve. Few have done it in a Phoenix shirt quite like the man from Barcelona.
The team will miss him. I know that I will.
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