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  • A $25 million transfer to Atlético has Kieran Trippier following in his childhood idol's Spanish footsteps.
By Brian Straus
July 30, 2019

WINTER PARK, Fla. — If you were going to grow up as a young footballer in the 1990s, the place to do it was Greater Manchester. There, from Old Trafford to the county outskirts, where Kieran Trippier was raised, it was hard not to be inspired by the exploits of Sir Alex Ferguson’s all-conquering United. For Trippier in particular, it was David Beckham who caught the eye—his style, intensity and swagger, and the trademark swerve and accuracy of his devastating crosses and free kicks.

“I studied it for hours when I was younger,” Trippier said Tuesday.

He also remembers taking note of Beckham’s 2003 decision to depart Manchester and become a Real Madrid “Galáctico”. Leaving England was, and remains, a rarity for top domestic players. The only member of Beckham’s 2002 World Cup team who played abroad was Calgary-born Owen Hargreaves (no one on England’s 2018 squad did). Trippier was, ironically, a 12-year-old member of Manchester City’s academy at the time. But Beckham remained his idol, and the prospect of a move abroad was enticing even then.

“As soon as he signed for Real Madrid, you’re looking at it and saying, ‘I’d love to do that one day,’” Trippier said.

It’s fitting then that when Trippier, 28, was unveiled this month as Atlético Madrid’s first English player in 95 years (he may revere Beckham, but he’s playing for a rival once again), his new red-and-white striped jersey had a No. 23 on the back. Beckham wore 7 with United, then opted for 23 with Real and the LA Galaxy. He won titles with both. So it can be done. Change can be a good thing. But taking the leap comes first and by doing so, Trippier has become a rarity.

He signed with Tottenham Hotspur in 2015 but was introduced to the world last summer. A late bloomer internationally, Trippier had fewer than 10 senior caps when the 2018 World Cup kicked off in Russia. But his incisive runs down the right, and those whipped crosses that reminded so many of his childhood idol, played a massive role in England’s daring 3-5-2 and in the Three Lions’ surprising run to the semis. There, Trippier scored the opening goal against Croatia on a free kick whose swerve, again, prompted parallels to Beckham.

“You can’t compare me to him. Obviously it’s nice to hear, but I know deep down you can’t compare me to Beckham,” Trippier told SI.com here in Winter Park, where Atleti is preparing for Wednesday’s MLS All-Star Game.

Except in one way, perhaps.

“Beckham went to Real Madrid. I’ve always wanted to play abroad myself, and I feel now is the right time,” Trippier said. “I feel like I’m at a good age to go abroad, to express myself, get my career back on track after a disappointing season last season, for me personally. And to just enjoy it. I don’t want to come to the end of my career and regret not signing for Atlético Madrid. I want to have no regrets.”

The “disappointing season” he referred to was Spurs’ 2018-19 campaign, during which Trippier failed to consistently match his World Cup form. There were defensive issues, high-profile errors against the likes of Manchester City and Chelsea, and criticism from fans, the press and even manager Mauricio Pochettino. Trippier bounced back to help Tottenham to the Champions League final (played at Atleti’s Wanda Metropolitano Stadium) and was preparing to start the 2019-20 season in London when the Spanish club expressed an interest.

The transfer happened quickly. And it was the adversity he suffered last season that convinced Trippier to indulge his interest in playing abroad. Typically, for both English players and Americans, there are so many hurdles, real and imagined, to negotiate.

“It’s going to live in a foreign country. Players might not adapt. People might not want to speak the language, which you need to if you come here,” he said. “You need to be determined. You need to be focused. And maybe that’s another reason players don’t want to come.”

But after struggling last season, Trippier said he has that determination. There very well may be tough times in Spain, but that’s part of the experience.

“Now I look back, I’m happy I went through those moments because now if they happen again, I know how to pull myself out,” he said. “It’s how you are as a person. It’s self belief, and it’s the willingness to take a chance and get involved. You’ve got to make the effort. You’ve got make the effort to try and speak to the lads, try to go for a coffee outside of football, make an effort with your teammates. And that's what I’m certain to do. I’m not one of those players who’s going to sit in a corner and cave away and not get involved. I’ll be right in the mix.”

Trippier’s $25 million transfer to Atlético was sealed two weeks ago. He flew to Spain, signed a three-year contract and immediately joined his new teammates for preseason training in Segovia. Six days later, he returned to England to get some clothes and spend a couple days with his wife and two young children, and then it was off to America for Atleti’s International Champions Cup matches and the All-Star Game at Orlando CIty’s Exploria Stadium. Amid that whirlwind, there’s already evidence of his commitment to fitting in and making this move work: Trippier promised he’ll work on getting used to eating dinner on Spanish time (around 2-3 hours later than he’s accustomed), and he has a Spanish language teacher lined up. He’ll be taking lessons for five days a week, for two hours a day, until he learns it.

“My main priority is getting my Spanish done,” he said, adding that he and his wife, Charlotte, also have to find a house.

From the outside, it’s hard to know what players get out of these preseason tours. The clubs and promoters build brands and make money, and fans get a once-a-year glimpse at the sport’s big stars. Meanwhile, the players are mostly training, sequestered in hotels, or playing in exotic spots like Landover, Bridgeview and Carson. Trippier said he’s looking forward to his second All-Star experience (he played with Spurs in 2015) and that he’s taken note of MLS’s growth since Beckham’s 2007 arrival. But this month represents an opportunity to connect with new teammates on their turf, those who speak English like Jan Oblak and Álvaro Morata, and many who don’t.

Atleti is a team for which bonding is crucial, Trippier said, because of the style of play preferred by manager Diego Simeone. That kind of grind and all-for-one hustle requires a group that’s greater than the sum of its parts, even when there’s world-class talent available. This is a club culture that demands accountability, and that requires the sort of respect and trust that’s as likely to be forged at the hotel as on the field. Trippier said he could sense then when he arrived.

“I feel very relaxed,” said Trippier, who’s in line to replace the departed Juanfran at right back. "The one thing that’s impressed me the most is how quickly the lads made me feel welcome. Sometimes I’ve noticed when I played in England, foreign players come from abroad and some English players, or any players, don’t bring them in and make them feel comfortable.”

It’s not uncommon to hear an American player who’s gone abroad talk about feeling that the locker room can be as foreign as their new city, and that culture can be more of a hurdle than the quality of play. Lots of factors determine whether a player makes it, and when it comes to the British and Spain, Beckham is one of only a handful who tried, and among few who succeeded. Gary Lineker had three good seasons for Barcelona and left La Liga as the highest scoring British player in its history. Steve McManaman fought through some classic Real Madrid drama and won Champions League titles in 2000 and 2002. Others of recent vintage such as Michael Owen, Stan Collymore, Mark Hughes, Jonathan Woodgate and Jermaine Pennant didn’t fare as well.

Then there’s Gareth Bale, the former Tottenham forward who broke Lineker’s record but whose situation at Real has been the saga of the summer. Despite goals and trophies that should cement him Bale a Bernabéu icon, neither the club, coach Zinedine Zidane or the fans seem to want the Welshman to stick around. Bale has spent six seasons playing for Real Madrid but somehow, he’s still not a Real Madrid player. That disconnect speaks to the impact culture and chemistry can have on a player’s fate at a foreign club.

“He’s a fantastic player—goals, assists, trophies. Those are facts,” Trippier said of Bale. “But I don’t know what he does on a day-to-day basis—like I was saying before about myself, what I want to do with my team. I don’t know what he does—if he makes an effort, if he doesn’t make an effort. I don’t honestly know. Nobody’s ever said what the real reason [for Bale’s difficulty] is.”

Trippier has seen the articles. He reads them, or friends send them. He’s taking a “big risk” leaving at his age, moving to Spain and playing for Simeone, according to some. The Premier League is the Premier League, and home is home. And he still had three seasons left on his contract with Tottenham. But just there’s this one chance to do what impressed him so many years ago, and he’s not looking back.

“For me, it was just the fact of, what a club to play for. The coach, the culture, the environment—chucking myself in the deep end. Why not,” he asked. “I know what I need to do. Work hard—that’s a given. Give everything for the shirt. Learn the language and experience the culture. Be sociable with my teammates. Give back to the fans. They’re paying all this money to watch the team. You need to give back. Those are the five things. Yeah. And just take it day by day.”

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