Manel Expósito is the assistant manager of KAS Eupen, a team whose head coach is Claude Makélélé. They are the club of a small city in Belgium with a population of 20,000. Manel joined the club as a player, when the ambitious project of the Qatari foundation Aspire Zone, which is the owner of the club, had already kicked off. They achieved their goal of reaching the top tier of Belgian football and nowadays, in the Jupiler League, KAS Eupen play alongside historic sides such as Brugge, Anderlecht or Standard Liege.
Manel’s first step as a professional footballer was quite unique, not only because he made his debut at Barcelona, but because he did it on the very same day as another academy player that would later change the history of the club. After having played at La Masía, Barça’s distinguished academy, the day of his debut came on the 16th of November 2003. They played at Porto on a really special occasion por the Portuguese side: it was their first game at their new ground, Do Dragão. “15 minutes into the game, Luis García got injured and I came for him. In my first contact with the ball, Secretario kicked me so hard that he lifted me there meters. That was my greeting.” The other youngster making his debut in this friendly was a 16-year-old whose football was already asking for a promotion to the first team. His name, Lionel Messi. “It was impossible to imagine what he was going to become, but obviously you could already tell that he was different, he was one step ahead of everyone else.” Back then, making his debut with Messi did not have any added meaning for Manel, he simply wanted to do his best in order to convince the manager that he was ready to play. However, the years went by and Manel’s anecdote about his debut for Barcelona has become even more special: he did it on the very same day as the greatest player of the club’s history. “He played the last 15 minutes and did more than what I had done during the whole game.’
What came next for Messi is well known: goals and more goals, titles, Ballon D’Or awards… And Manel, as the vast majority of players that are not as gifted as Messi, had to swim against the tie. Early in his professional career he already came across a tough moment: he suffered an injury that required him to get an operation. What should have been just a short inconvenience became more complicated than expected. “I had a bad operation. I could not understand how three months out turned out to be so long. Six months later I still could not put my foot on the ground. They told me it was psychological. I played with pain. Eventually, I had to check with an external doctor.” Football does not wait for anybody. It did not wait for Manel. When he finally recovered, he did not have space at the Barça B team. He went on loan to Atlético de Madrid B and then a series of transfers between various clubs from the lower divisions followed. His career lacked of stability and a return to professional football looked really complicated.
He experienced firsthand the crisis of modest football: some teams had financial problems and were not able to pay the salaries and the situation was unsuitable. Ramón Tribuliex, a manager he knew from his time at Figueres, offered him to go to play for Auckland City in New Zeland. He was giving him the opportunity of having a fresh start. “Ramón was like an angel fallen from the heaven. Not only professionally, but also on a personal level, what he taught me was priceless. It had got to a point that it was either going there to play for him or returning back home and finishing with my football career.” He decide to join Ramón’s Auckland City, and it was a turning point: he went from a period of uncertainty to becoming part of a team that made history in Oceania. “We won the league and the Champions League (Oceania’s equivalent to the European version of the tournament) in my first year there. I had gone from considering my retirement to playing the World Cup of Clubs.” He would become a key player of a team whose football was inspired by the Barça style: possession and attack were their main characteristics. Manel, a striker, felt comfortable. In his second year he won another consecutive Champions League title, being the top scorer of the competition.
Returning to professional football in Europe was the next step. He had already met success in New Zealand and he left on a quest for new challenges. Josep Colomer, one of the men that had discovered Messi, had also been the one who had signed Manel for Barcelona. This time he was involved in a Belgian second division side, KAS Eupen, when he called Manel again. “The opportunity to prove that I could return to professional European football and the project that the club had made it impossible for me to say no,” recounts Manel. The first two seasons they were closed to get promoted, losing two consecutive playoff finals. After that, he hanged up the boots. “When you turn 31 or 32, you start to think more about the future, about what is next. And here I had the opportunity to start something new.” He had the chance to return to Auckland, but that did not stop him from retiring. “Obviously, it was not an easy decision. I was in a good shape. But it help me to make up my mind the fact that I was not playing much on that last stage.”
He gave his first steps as a coach being the assistant of Jordi Condom. They first got promoted and then managed to stay up, and also made it to the cup semifinals. This season, however, they did not start well and the board decided to fire the manager and hired Claude Makélélé. The emblematic French player, who had become a coach back in 2010, left his job as an assistant of Paul Clement at Swansea to become the manager of KAS Eupen, working alongside Manel, who kept his position. “The main change with Claude is that we focus a lot on being solid in defense so that we do not concede many goals, which had been our main issue.” Manel’s ambition is to continue learning away from Spain, where has found his place. “I wish I had left earlier. In a personal level, it changes your perspective. You learn new languages, new cultures… it changes everything.” It has been six years since he left Spain. His international experiences have given him the stability that he could not find back home.