Kiko Femenia interview: ‘The secret is to be together, to be united – it’s only one game’

In 2010, a young right-winger made his La Liga debut for his hometown club. Kiko Femenia was 19 years old, a star of the Hercules academy, taking his bow in the world’s biggest league. You can still see the footage of the game on YouTube, although be warned that it’s a difficult and occasionally harrowing watch.

With his first touch, Kiko loses his balance and gets beaten to the ball. With his second, he gets tackled. With his third, he stumbles over the ball and loses possession. “Kiko, find the right ball, for f— sake,” his manager Esteban Vigo urges from the sidelines. “What’s happening?”

It gets worse. As Kiko struggles to get any kind of foothold in the game, it becomes clear from the Hercules bench that he’s struggling. “Kiko! Keep breathing!” his team-mates shout out to him. As Vigo begins to lose patience with the teenager, the other substitutes urge him: no le cambies. Don’t take him off. Bent double, gasping for air, in a situation he can’t control and feeling a helplessness he can’t explain, Kiko is a young man in the middle of a waking nightmare.

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The good news is that it’s a story with a happy ending, albeit one with a few twists and turns along the way. Kiko stayed on the pitch, gradually came to his senses, and went on to play a full part in the rest of the game. Now, nine years later, and on the verge of his first FA Cup final, he can look back with pride on how he came through an experience that could have finished him.

“It’s true that this match is not one I remember with a lot of affection,” he says now, on a glorious May afternoon at Watford’s training ground. “I was promoted from the second division with Hercules. It was the club of my home town, and I had strong feelings for it. I felt a lot of pressure.”


Ranking the 20 greatest FA Cup finals





1/21 Ranking the 20 greatest FA Cup finals

2/21 1997: Chelsea 2-0 Middlesbrough

3/21 1993: Arsenal 2-1 Sheffield Wednesday

4/21 2002: Arsenal 2-0 Chelsea

5/21 1976: Manchester United 0-1 Southampton

6/21 2017: Arsenal 2-1 Chelsea

7/21 1980: West Ham United 1-0 Arsenal

8/21 1966: Everton 3-2 Sheffield Wednesday

9/21 2014: Arsenal 3-2 Hull City (AET)

10/21 2016: Crystal Palace 1-2 Manchester United (AET)

11/21 1973: Leeds United 0-1 Sunderland

12/21 1990: Crystal Palace 3-3 Manchester United (AET)

13/21 2013: Manchester City 0-1 Wigan Athletic

14/21 1979: Arsenal 3-2 Manchester United

15/21 1989: Liverpool 3-2 Everton (AET)

16/21 1988: Liverpool 0-1 Wimbledon

17/21 2001: Arsenal 1-2 Liverpool

18/21 1981: Tottenham Hotspur 3-2 Manchester City

19/21 Coventry City 3-2 Tottenham Hotspur (AET)

20/21 1953: Blackpool 4-3 Bolton Wanderers

21/21 2006: Liverpool 3-3 West Ham (3-1 on pens)

1/21 Ranking the 20 greatest FA Cup finals

2/21 1997: Chelsea 2-0 Middlesbrough

3/21 1993: Arsenal 2-1 Sheffield Wednesday

4/21 2002: Arsenal 2-0 Chelsea

5/21 1976: Manchester United 0-1 Southampton

6/21 2017: Arsenal 2-1 Chelsea

7/21 1980: West Ham United 1-0 Arsenal

8/21 1966: Everton 3-2 Sheffield Wednesday

9/21 2014: Arsenal 3-2 Hull City (AET)

10/21 2016: Crystal Palace 1-2 Manchester United (AET)

11/21 1973: Leeds United 0-1 Sunderland

12/21 1990: Crystal Palace 3-3 Manchester United (AET)

13/21 2013: Manchester City 0-1 Wigan Athletic

14/21 1979: Arsenal 3-2 Manchester United

15/21 1989: Liverpool 3-2 Everton (AET)

16/21 1988: Liverpool 0-1 Wimbledon

17/21 2001: Arsenal 1-2 Liverpool

18/21 1981: Tottenham Hotspur 3-2 Manchester City

19/21 Coventry City 3-2 Tottenham Hotspur (AET)

20/21 1953: Blackpool 4-3 Bolton Wanderers

21/21 2006: Liverpool 3-3 West Ham (3-1 on pens)

The Spanish press later speculated that Kiko had suffered from an anxiety attack. “The stadium was full, and coming on for the first time I was very, very nervous,” he admits. “But I’d say it wasn’t anxiety. It’s not something I’ve experienced since. It was just nerves. With time I got over it, and it’s helped make me the player I am now.”

Certainly there are no qualms now over Kiko’s big-game temperament, as he prepares for his first Wembley final. In his second season at Watford, and now a rapid right-back, the 28-year-old from Alicante has quietly developed into one of the club’s most effective weapons: secure at the back, yet with a lightning turn of speed that can turn defence into attack within a matter of seconds.

‘Only’ Manchester City stand in the way of the greatest day in Watford’s history and their first European campaign since 1983. And while it’s 30 years since Watford beat City, Kiko has tasted success much more recently against a Pep Guardiola team. After all, his very next game for Hercules after the nightmare against Athletic Bilbao was at the Camp Nou against Barcelona.

There, against a team featuring Lionel Messi, David Villa, Xavi and Andres Iniesta who would go on to win the Champions League at Wembley the following May, Hercules claimed a famous 2-0 victory. “The secret is to be together, to be united,” he says now when asked about how best to topple the giants of the game. “Defend together, attack together. Manchester City is a much more complete team than Barcelona right now, and have very quick players. They can do us a lot of damage if we’re not together, defending well.

How to combat the combined threats of Leroy Sane and Riyad Mahrez, Bernardo Silva and Raheem Sterling? “We know it will be very difficult,” Kiko says. “They are obviously one of best teams in the world at the moment. But at the end of the day, it’s one game. Anything can happen. And we have the weapons to beat them. It’s very much possible.”

Of course, he has every reason to feel bullish. Watford have just completed another strong Premier League campaign, with Kiko finally showing the form that convinced both Barcelona and Real Madrid to take him on after leaving Hercules. Neither move worked out, but during his two years in the Barcelona B side, and then 18 months at the Madrid Castilla, he got a taste of what it took to reach the very top.

“I didn’t have much contact with Guardiola, because I wasn’t with the first team most of the time,” he remembers. “But I respected the way he kept very close to his players, the way he builds a relationship with them. He tries to drive into you that you have to play with a calm mentality. He’s always transmitting a good energy. That’s what I remember best about Guardiola.

“But things happen, and you need to find a way out. I went to Real, where I didn’t play as much as I’d hoped. But those moves, those experiences, have made me the strong player I am today, and changed the way I see football. It’s been a huge learning curve for me. I’ve learned from my errors. So I don’t have any regrets.”

Seeking game time, Kiko dropped down to Alcoron in the Second Division, before winning promotion with Alaves in 2016. By now he was playing more frequently at right-back under Mauricio Pellegrino, and in 2017 he reached his first major club final, the Copa del Rey against Barcelona.

“It was an amazing day,” he remembers. “Alaves, like Watford, had a great season. And in the final we were able to stand up to Barcelona. It was 1-1, but then Messi came on and scored to make it 1-2. But we competed. We gave them a game. I want that same mentality with Watford in the final. We shouldn’t feel that we are inferior.”

And so in 2017, the Premier League came calling. Injuries hampered his progress in the first season, but in this campaign, under the careful tutelage of his fellow Spaniard Javi Gracia, he has flourished. He enjoys the faster pace of the Premier League, the more direct style, the way every game is competitive right to the end.

“I’m a completely different player to the one I was when I was playing in Spain,” he admits. “That’s what the Premier League demands. It forces you to adapt. The first season was difficult. This second season, I’m feeling a lot better. I’ve got to know the city, the club, how it functions. I’m a lot more relaxed and comfortable.”

He still misses Spain sometimes, the weather and the paella, but London is beginning to grow on him. “There’s a lot to see,” he says. “There are theatres and cinemas. You can buy anything you want.”

And now, he has a chance to write himself into the pages of English football’s oldest and most cherished fixture. There may still be a few butterflies in the stomach as he waits in the tunnel at Wembley, but he’s used to those now. “As you grow as a player,” he says, “you get used to the nerves of big games, and you have to learn to play with them. To deal with them. With experience, that’s what I’ve done.”

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