When Atletico Madrid take the next step of their La Liga title defence at Cadiz on Sunday, they will be confronted by one of the most colourful and unique characters in Spanish football.
Cadiz’s no-nonsense centre-back or defensive midfielder Rafael Jimenez Jarque, ubiquitously known by his nickname Fali, comes from a gypsy community, took a meandering route to the top, and now remains steadfastly unaffected by fame.
Born in Valencia, Fali was on the books of nearby Villarreal as a youngster, before returning to his home city to join Levante and make his debut with their reserve team as a teenager in the semi-professional, regionalised fourth tier in 2010/11.
A breakthrough remained elusive as he left Levante and spent a couple of years with Huracan in the third division (Segunda B) before, in 2015, he was snapped up by Gimnastic Tarragona after their promotion to the second tier.
Throughout those early days Fali remained close to his gypsy roots, always happy to champion the tight-knit community that developed his tough but down-to-earth personality and gave him an independent worldview.
Recalling those origins, he once explained to sports newspaper AS: “Our life is difficult. I got married when I was 16 and became a father when I was 17. In the morning I worked in the scrapyard and in the afternoon I went training. I was 16 but I already had the mentality of a 30-year-old. People always say that I look very old. After everything I’ve suffered, of course I do.”
Fali’s strength of character always showed up in abundance on the football field, where he plays with an unwavering sense of commitment. He is, however, technically limited, and it would not have been surprising if his career had followed a journeyman path in the lower tiers.
But his life unexpectedly changed in January 2016, as his time in the relative anonymity of the lower leagues came to an abrupt end with a surprise loan move to Barcelona’s B team.
In immediate footballing terms it was a step down as his new team were in the Segunda B, a level below Tarragona, but the status and expectations inherent in representing Barca – even their reserves – was totally different from anything he had previously experienced.
Andrea Orlandi, the former Barca, Brighton and Swansea player who is now a pundit for La Liga TV, recounts a story from Fali’s arrival at the Camp Nou which perfectly illustrates his big personality.
“Barca B signed him to bring leadership,” Orlandi explained to BBC Sport.
“He immediately felt there was a lack of commitment within the team, so after two training sessions he stood up in front of the players and said: ‘Listen, I’m a gypsy and I need to feed my family. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for me. You guys have qualities I don’t have, but if we don’t win games I won’t earn another contract. So if you don’t run, I’m going to be running after you.’
“Nobody does that kind of thing at Barcelona, but he changed the mentality of the team and they started winning.”
He ended up staying with Barca B for two years and was regularly invited to train with the first team – then-manager Ernesto Valverde instructed him to train with his usual physical intensity but Fali joked he couldn’t get close enough to Lionel Messi to kick him.
Fali played a key part in Barca B’s promotion to the Segunda Division in 2017 and although he then returned to Tarragona, his profile had significantly increased.
The following year he was on the move again, joining ambitious second tier Cadiz, and at the end of his first full season with the Andalusian club he celebrated another promotion. Finally, at the age of 27, he had made it into the top flight.
That new status, though, has not changed him. Whereas some players preach the values of ‘humility’ while simultaneously enjoying rockstar lifestyles, Fali lives with his wife and three children in a modest apartment in the centre of Cadiz, a stone’s throw from their Nuevo Mirandilla stadium. He rarely goes out and doesn’t even own a mobile phone, borrowing his wife’s if he needs to use one.
On the field he is always hard but never dirty, the epitome of an ‘honest pro’, and possesses remarkable physical durability – when he was stretchered off with a knee injury against Barcelona in September it was feared that he faced months on the sidelines; 10 days later, he was back in the starting line-up.
Fali’s attributes, both on and off the pitch, make him a perfect fit for Cadiz, whose long-serving manager Alvaro Cervera employs unpretentious playing methods which prioritise substance ahead of style.
Cadiz are actively disinterested in having the ball, averaging just 35.8% possession so far this season – the lowest out of 98 teams in Europe’s big five leagues.
Fali describes their approach as focusing upon “being effective in the two penalty areas”, something they have struggled to achieve during a recent run of one win in nine games, leaving them just one point outside the relegation zone.
Their attempts to rediscover form begin this weekend against the champions, and inspired by Fali’s force of personality you wouldn’t want to bet against them.