Gràcies Pep, Part 5: Manuel Agudo Durán ‘Nolito’

Gràcies Pep, Part 5: Manuel Agudo Durán ‘Nolito’

We are all extremely thankful to Josep Guardiola i Sala, a man that changed and achieved so much at our club. But there is one group of people that might be a little more thankful than anyone else, a group of people whose lives and careers took a new turn when Josep Guardiola decided to let them make their debut for FC Barcelona. During his four years as coach of our beloved club, Pep gave no less than 22 youth team players their chance to make the dream of debuting for Fútbol Club Barcelona a reality. Five of these players also made their B team debuts under Pep.

Twenty-two players in four years is a large number, and it means many changed lives. In this series, I will take a look at all 22 of these players, examine their career trajectories and how Pep and the chance to debut in the first team impacted their footballing careers and their lives.

Special edition:  The next player to be covered in this series is Manuel Agudo Durán, otherwise known as Nolito. Because of tomorrow’s Champions League game between FC Barcelona and Nolito’s new club Benfica, we’ve decided to dedicate this post just to Nolito. Oriol Romeu and Sergi Gomez will follow shortly.

Growing up raised by his grandparents in a tough neighborhood, Nolito encountered many obstacles along the way to becoming a professional player. His gift for football always managed to overshadow the problems, and today the kid from Andalusia is living the dream with Benfica in both the Portuguese league as well as in the Champions League. This is his story!

Manuel Agudo Durán ‘Nolito’
Born: 15 October 1986
Date of debut: 3th October 2010
Opponent: RCD Mallorca
Result: 1-1 (home)
Competition: La Liga

On the 15th of October, 1986, Manuel Agudo Durán was born in Sanlucar de Barrameda, a town located in the Cadiz province of Andalusia, Spain. The boy, better known as Nolito (which comes from the nickname Manolito, meaning little Manuel) started out playing football at a young age for local team UD Algaida de Sanlúcar. It’s not known what happened to Nolito’s parents, but he was raised by his grandparents in a relatively tough neighborhood. His wasn’t the easiest life and at the age of 13, he was working earning 40€ a week making meatballs and burgers for local butcher Pepe Sánchez.

After spending numerous years at Algadia, Nolito joined Atlético Sanluqueño in 2000 at the age of 14. There he played with José Manuel Jurado (today at Spartak Moscow on loan from Schalke 04), among others, in an incredible team that scored 240 goals. While Jurado went to play for Real Madrid’s youth teams, Nolito was signed by Valencia Mestalla, although he was directly loaned back to Atlético Sanluqueño. At the age of only 15 he made his first team debut for Sanluqueño in the third division. He was so impressive in his debut that Club President Manuel Fernández was sure he would go all the way to the top of professional football.

Signing for third division side Écija Balompié in 2006, Nolito would see himself on the cover of Marca the very same year with the headline “Golito de Nolito”. It was the result of the goal he scored against mighty Real Madrid in the King’s Cup as the giants from Madrid only emerged with a 1-1 draw against little Écija. After two successful seasons with Écija, FC Barcelona B came knocking, and he signed for the Catalans in 2008. Even though he was from Andalusia, Nolito grew up in a Barça mad family, and his signing was a childhood dream come true: “Since I was a little boy I have been a Barcelona fan, so today a dream came true. I never thought that I would sign for this club one day and that’s why I’m very happy and motivated. I will try to give everything during my stay here.”

Signed as a “backbone” player, Nolito was seen as the star signing of Luis Enriqué’s squad. However, more hard times would come first. Upon his arrival from Andalusia, overweight and with eating routines that wouldn’t work for a professional footballer, Nolito had to work hard during his first season at the club to show that he belonged. In June 2008 when he arrived he weighed 77 kilos, which was deemed too heavy for a player that was only 172 centimeters. Nolito was forced to follow a special diet of mostly vegetables, pasta and fish. Each week his weight was checked, to watch his progress. It was not an easy process for the player, as he had to adapt not only to a new city, new team and new playing style, but also a new lifestyle routine. Things got even harder for the Andalusian boy when he learned that the man he had grown up calling “dad”, his grandfather, had passed away. But Nolito fought back.

During his second season he reached the ideal weight of 67 kilos and started to score more goals, earning the nickname ‘Golito’ once more. Celebrating his goals he always made sure to point to the sky, dedicating them to his grandpa. He became a vital player for Luis Enriqué’s squad, and Nolito also began to interest first team coach Josep Guardiola. In his third season at the club, he was called up to play with the first team. On 3 October 2010, he made his debut, replacing Pedro in a 1-1 league draw at home to Mallorca. In fact, Nolito impressed Pep so much that he featured him in a total of 5 games with the first team. He scored his first gol with the first team on 10 November 2010, as he opened the scoring in a 5-1 home win in the King’s Cup against AD Ceuta.

After his success at Barça, numerous clubs showed interest in Nolito, and it became time for him to make a decision about his future. Should he stay at Barça and fight for a spot among superstars like Messi, Pedro and Villa in the first team, or take a chance and move on? It wasn’t an easy decision and already 24, Nolito saw his chances floating away. But he never felt that Guardiola didn’t believe in him: “he wanted me to continue, but in life difficult decisions have to be made. And I think I didn’t mess mine up. I’ve thought a lot about it, for many months, with my family, my friends… If I were 20 or 21 years old I would’ve thought about staying but I’m now 24 and I want to play, compete and have fun.”  

Even though he joined the B team as a ‘backbone’ player, Nolito impressed Josep Guardiola to such a degree that Pep was considering making the boy a permanent feature in the first team. However, Nolito,  already 24 years old, saw the challenge as being too hard, stating that “Barça is the best team in the world, but being here and not playing… I understand that the situation will be like this, because Barça currently has the best attackers in the world.” He also expressed his fear that he would lose confidence if he stayed on. “If you don’t play you’ll lose your confidence. Being on the bench one time, another in the stands, then playing some ten minutes another day… Don’t get me wrong, playing a quarter of an hour for Barça is a privilege. I am and I always will be blaugrana, but I need more minutes.” 

This goal was, also, for you “dad”

The next stop for the Andalusian kid with a blaugrana heart was SL Benfica in Portugal. It was a mature and smart decision and would bring more success for Nolito. In his first season playing for the Portuguese giants, he became a regular, featuring in 48 games and scoring 15 goals last season. Although he is enjoying his success in Portugal, Nolito has not forgotten what got him there. “Thing have been going better than expected, but I have to keep working. If I am at Benfica, it’s all because of Barcelona. I moved to Barcelona B at the age of 20 and I was a bit chubby, but Luis Enriqué helped me a lot. I consider him my father in football.” But it’s not only Luis Enriqué that Nolito has words of praise for. “Guardiola gave me a lot of trust by putting me in the first team and taking me to many matches.” 

Stay tuned for next part, when we will cover Oriol Romeu and Sergi Gomez!

Follow Alexandra on twitter: @AlexandraJonson