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Sunday, May 19, 2024

Real Sociedad’s Brais Mendez: ‘I thought I was just a footballer but I want to help’

In an exciting Real Sociedad team playing some of the best football in Spain, Brais Mendez still stands out.

The attacking midfielder joined Real Sociedad from his hometown club Celta Vigo in 2022 and has become a key player. He has scored six goals and provided five assists from 28 appearances this season, helping La Real to the Champions League round of 16 for only the second time in their history, as well as the Copa del Rey semi-finals. In February, they face Paris Saint-Germain and Mallorca in those competitions.

Things are going well, then, but Mendez, 27, has not always had it easy. He spent two difficult years in the Villarreal youth system before joining Celta and suffered abuse from the stands and on social media at his previous club. Speaking to The Athletic, he is remarkably open about his mental health struggles.

“I’ve never told anyone this, but I remember one night before a match when I was with Celta Vigo vomiting at four in the morning at home,” Mendez says. “These are f***** up things. My partner wasn’t there at the time, I was alone. It was better. I don’t think even she knows, to tell you the truth.”

Part of that was the stress that came with representing Celta, one of the two biggest clubs in Mendez’s native region of Galicia, north-west Spain. They finished one spot above the relegation places in two of Mendez’s five seasons with the first team. Now managed by Rafa Benitez and celebrating their centenary, they sit one point above the drop zone.

“It was very complicated; I suffered a lot there,” Mendez says. “I spent seasons fighting not to be relegated with my team and I didn’t live. All week I was thinking about the necessary results, what to do better, (I was having) sleepless nights.”

Born in Mos, a town to the east of Vigo, Mendez did not start out at Celta’s academy and, at 13, moved across the country from local club Santa Marina to Villarreal. He suffered there but does not regret the formative experience.

“I had a bad time, that’s why I went back to Vigo,” he says. “But I wouldn’t change those two years for anything in the world. At 13, you’re many kilometres away from home, alone with many kids of different ages — and that’s survival.”

Mendez is a key player for Real Sociedad (Juan Manuel Serrano Arce/Getty Images)

Far from just surviving, Mendez is thriving at Real Sociedad. He was their second-top scorer with 11 goals last season despite not being a striker, provided eight assists and was their fourth-most used player in all competitions.

He has continued in that vein this season. His goals and creativity helped Real Sociedad top a Champions League group featuring Inter Milan, Benfica and Red Bull Salzburg and they face an even sterner test against PSG. But Mendez has not forgotten those dark moments — as exemplified by his trademark goal celebration, when he holds two fingers to his head.

When asked if that gesture relates to his previous struggles, he says: “I’ve never been asked that before but yes, this is the reason.

“With a team-mate of mine at Celta, in those bad moments, in training we saw that the other was crestfallen or frustrated and we made this gesture to each other: ‘Headstrong, let’s go forward’.”

As a boyhood Celta fan, Mendez was affected even more by criticism when he was playing there. Celta have a proud tradition of bringing through young players and this is their 12th successive top-flight season.

“In Vigo, it was the homegrown players who took more of the blame, the young players who are the ones who live it the most, the ones who suffer the most, the ones who feel it the most. Because we are fans too,” Mendez says.

“It all started with the first whistles in the stadium. On social networks, anyone could say things to you without showing their face and that affects you, but it’s not the same when your family is in the stadium, they live it, it hurts them and they even have to leave the stadium.”

Mendez decided to address the problem when a former Celta player, Iago Bouzon, told his father he could help the midfielder. Bouzon said he had been through the same experience and recommended Mendez work with psychologist Jose Carrascosa, who is now at Real Sociedad himself.

“Before, I really enjoyed training but I didn’t want the weekend to come,” Mendez says. “The weekend arrived and I felt fear, pressure. I was tense. It’s a burden that gets bigger, bigger, bigger, bigger.”

Social media did not help. Mendez regularly used Twitter, now known as X, but deleted his account in 2019. He remembers being defended by his Celta team-mate Iago Aspas, who showed his support in response to a post encouraging Mendez.

“I’ve been insulted, I’ve even received death threats because things didn’t work out on a Sunday,” he says.

“I have never felt ashamed, I have talked about it openly with anyone who has asked me. It is a taboo that has always existed, now less so but it is still there. My family and my circle knew about it, my friends in the dressing room too.”

Mendez’s voice is one of experience, of someone who has the tools to distinguish what is and is not healthy for him and how to manage adverse situations. He has gone from seeing a psychologist twice a week to now only doing so occasionally. “I’m lucky not to have suffered from it again,” he says.

And that is why he wants to help others in his position.

“I am on the way to helping and contributing to the development of young sportsmen and women,” he says.

The attacking midfielder felt extra pressure at hometown club Celta (Jose Manuel Alvarez/Quality Sport Images/Getty Images)

“Very few make it to the elite in Spain; I read recently that it was one in 15,000 or 16,000, not only in football but sport in general. Those of us who have made it have a very big and good loudspeaker if we use it well.

“We have to help, raise awareness. I would also like to help those who, for various reasons, don’t make it. The values you discover in sport are still very useful for life.”

Mendez’s staff have taken inspiration from the examples of England players Trent Alexander-Arnold, Raheem Sterling and Marcus Rashford, all of whom have used their voices to highlight social causes.

Mendez has another role model close to home: his best friend in the dressing room and goalkeeper Alex Remiro, who has promoted mental health initiatives and last month launched a shirt with the NGO Futbol Mas Espana with the slogan “Mental Health Matters” to raise awareness of the subject in children and families that play sport.

“I thought I was just a footballer,” Mendez says. “But thanks to meeting Alex, I wanted to help too, take the step and help young people who see us as examples. Not only for sportsmen but for all people, to use our loudspeaker.”

That has led to some of Mendez’s team-mates asking him for help when they find themselves in similar situations. “There have been some who have asked me what I did in those moments,” he says. “I would like to help, but it’s up to the professionals.”

On the pitch, he has become an example for Real Sociedad thanks to his adaptable attacking play. At Celta, he largely created chances from the half-spaces or with crosses from wider areas but at La Real, he has popped up everywhere — as the graphic below shows.

“We use different schemes — at Celta, I played more on the right flank and because of my qualities it was more difficult,” Mendez says. “Here, I’m playing on the inside, where I feel more comfortable. Playmaker seems to me to be my ideal position, it’s where everything flows.”

That is clear from passes such as the one below, a threaded ball through to David Silva that he remembers fondly from a league game last season.

In the 2022-23 season, he created the most chances of any Real Sociedad player, produced the most crosses and suffered the most fouls, while attempting the second-most tackles. He and midfielder Mikel Merino are fine creators for La Real but also extremely hard-working in defence.

“Since I was at Celta’s youth teams they told me that I had very good defensive qualities and that I could exploit them,” he says. “But when you are young, you like to attack. You get involved defensively, but not as much.

“With time, you realise that there are few players who can only attack: Kylian Mbappe, Erling Haaland and few others. I’ve enjoyed the process and I enjoy defending right now. That’s the key to Real Sociedad.”

His style is the perfect fit for Imanol Alguacil’s side and would not look out of place in the Premier League — a destination with which the playmaker has been repeatedly linked.

“It is always a league that has attracted my attention,” he says. “It is the best in the world for the way everything is managed and how any team has options for everything.

“Liverpool didn’t get into the Champions League this season — that’s very difficult here with Real Madrid, Barcelona or Atletico. Barcelona a few years ago were a disaster and finished second. Leicester won against the ‘Big Six’. Hopefully, Girona will do it here, but it’s unlikely.”

Mendez, pictured playing for Spain in 2018, is hoping to force his way back into the national setup (David S Bustamante/Soccrates /Getty Images)

Mendez says he always asks his agent not to tell him anything about a club’s potential interest if he is midway through the season or there are only preliminary talks to avoid distraction. But he says there is some truth in those links with English clubs.

“Before I even belonged to Celta’s first team, there was an offer from England and Celta rejected it,” he says.

“Then, when I was 21, I had just gone to the national team and there was another important offer. I decided to stay because I was doing very well and felt afraid of the change of country and culture.”

The national team is a very real dream for Mendez before this summer’s European Championship in Germany. He has played four times for Spain, scoring once, although his last appearance came in November 2021.

“If it comes, it comes, and if not, let’s keep trying,” he says. “It’s one of the greatest things that can happen to you — I hope it happens. I understand that it’s difficult, that many team-mates are also at a high level.”

On and off the pitch, Mendez is going about things the right way to make that dream a reality.

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(Top photos: Getty Images; design by Eamonn Dalton)

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