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'There's always some Irish guy to remind me of the goal. What can I say? It had to be done'

We spoke to Gaizka Mendieta about knocking Ireland out of the World Cup and all things Spanish football this week.

inpho_00893516 Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

FORMER VALENCIA, BARCELONA and Middlesbrough midfield general Gaizka Mendieta was in Dublin this week promoting Setanta Sports’s European coverage so we took the opportunity to quiz the ex-Spain international on a number of football matters.

Do you still worry about walking the streets of Dublin given the fact that you’re the man who knocked Ireland out of the World Cup in 2002? 

I’ve been reminded of that moment so many times but I think we are okay now and I can walk through the streets quite safely!

do you remember it well?

I don’t think I could have forgotten it if I tried. I always happen to be somewhere and some Irish guy reminds me. What can I say? It had to be done.

What were your impressions of that Ireland team?

You’re talking about the best team they have had in recent years in terms of the quality of the individuals and as a team. That moment is remembered by a lot of people also because it was an opportunity for them to go through (in the World Cup).

You sometimes get lucky when a bunch of players come together — like what happened to Spain. We always had talented players but it was only when the likes of Xavi, Iniesta and players who had been playing together for a great number of years, combined to bring the results and success.

Maybe for Ireland that moment is still to come.

After flopping at the World Cup last summer, there have been so many theories into why it didn’t work for Spain. Where are they now? 

We’re in a building process and trying to make this transition from what is probably an unrepeatable generation, with the likes of Xavi, (Andrés) Iniesta, Sergio Ramos, (Iker) Casillas, (Carles) Puyol and (David) Villa.

It is unlikely to happen again even though the players, the quality, the manager are all there. But to repeat that is going to be very difficult as no national team has done anything like that before. They had the opportunity to win two European championships and two World Cups.

So the aim is to try and get Spain back to challenging for titles.

Fernando Torres has started his second spell at Atletico Madrid brightly after a number of disappointing years with Chelsea and AC Milan. Has that surprised you? 

He always said his dream was to go back to the club in some manner and I think he has been lucky in the fact that Cholo Simeone wanted him for his football. It is the best thing that could have happened to him.

The numbers were still there in terms of goals and assists but he wasn’t at his best at AC Milan and Chelsea.

You get a player who has got the quality and Cholo has been able to get his confidence back. It’s the perfect partnership.

Atleti have had a couple of terrific years under Diego Simeone. How much of their success is down to ability as a manager? 

It’s difficult to say a percentage but for me it’s all down to him.  Obviously you have to have the players but it is incredible the way that it doesn’t matter if they play Real Madrid, Barca or any other team, they just understand what they have to do.

They are a group of players who are really committed because they believe what he says. That is Cholo — 100% clear and what you see is what you get. The players give that back when you are honest with them.

Spain Soccer La Liga Atleti boss Diego 'Cholo' Simeone. Source: AP/Press Association Images

Can you see him ending up in the Premier League eventually? 

I think so. As a sportsman, whether it’s as a manager or a player, it is a challenge and you have to take challenges. That could be England or somewhere else but eventually I can see him wanting to prove himself in different countries and different leagues.

I don’t know the order but I feel it will happen eventually. To achieve everything in your career as a manager, you need something different. He will feel the hunger to do something else.

What have you made of criticism directed at Messi earlier in the season?

When you are at that level, a lot of criticism comes on you when you don’t score a hat-trick or even a goal. A lot of people were saying even last season that he was finished. It’s unfair, absolutely.

The fact that he might have disagreed with Luis Enrique at the beginning of the season, that has happened at every single club between coaches and players. You talk, you communicate and you get what’s best for the team.

Middlesbrough are riding high in the Championship and are still in the FA Cup. Do you still keep tabs on your former club? 

Yes I do. They won last week in the cup and the dream is there but they have got Arsenal in the fifth round. They have proven that anything can happen by knocking out Man City.

Aitor Karanka is doing a fantastic job and the team is understanding what he wants from them in terms of tactics and performance. The results are going along with that so let’s hope they stay in this position until the end of the season.

Gaizka Mendieta was in Dublin to announce details of Setanta Sports’ live coverage of the UEFA Champions League and Europa League for three years from 2015/’16. Irish viewers will have access to 350 live games per season across both competitions through the Setanta Sports Pack

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Ben Blake

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