Use soap and water only, never put them in the washing machine. After washing, hang them to dry. David Raya was presented with a pair of heavily used goalkeeper gloves and asked for his advice on how to prevent them from smelling. He knows from experience that they can get quite stinky, even from a distance. The smile on his face shows that he instantly recognizes the issue. While he doesn’t have to deal with it anymore since he gets new gloves every few games, he used to have to deal with it. And it wasn’t just the gloves, but other items as well.
“I have a different story from most footballers,” the goalkeeper from Arsenal shares as he sits down on the stairs outside the dressing rooms at the headquarters of the Spanish federation in Las Rozas, located 25km northwest of Madrid.
This is the tale of a young man who departs his homeland at the age of 16, all by himself, and achieves his aspirations: he ultimately joins his country’s national team, competes in the Champions League, and becomes a player for one of the top clubs in the Premier League and on the global stage.
Reworded: The day before his first competitive match with the Spanish team, Raya is discussing his excitement for the game. He recently won a 3-1 game in Cyprus. On Saturday, he will be back with Arsenal to play against Brentford. However, due to Premier League regulations as a loan player, he is not allowed to play against his former team. Instead, Aaron Ramsdale will have the chance to prove himself as the top goalkeeper for Arsenal. Raya is still eager to attend the match and reunite with his former teammates. The 28-year-old states, “I am looking forward to seeing everyone again.”
It’s time to say hello to friends, reflect on the past at Brentford and beyond. Remember the times spent on muddy fields and taking home dirty uniforms to wash. Think about teammates who relied on the win bonus for survival rather than just an extra perk, and the highs and lows of promotion finals. Recall the excitement of reaching the Premier League, only to be brought down by an injury shortly after, marked by a celebration in a T rex costume – “I’ve still got it,” he laughs – and ponder what the future holds.
According to Raya, it has been a challenging journey, but one that has taught him the importance of always having hope. When he first arrived in Las Rozas in March of last year at the age of 26, he was met with the same question from all media outlets: who is David Raya? It’s a question he understands, as he looks at his teammates and realizes he never played for the same clubs as them, not even as a child, or in the same competitions.
The journey began when a group of young boys, some as young as 11, from the lower-tier team Cornellà were invited to Blackburn, a far cry from Barcelona. At 15 years old and not a regular starter for Cornellà’s youth team, Raya spoke no English and was the only one asked to stay. He had to wait until he turned 16 to officially join the team. In January, he left for good. At 18, he made his senior debut while on loan for Southport, in a 3-0 loss against Macclesfield in front of 1,405 spectators. He played in the Conference, League One, and Championship leagues. Despite making only 15 appearances in the top-flight with Brentford, he received a call-up from Luis Enrique. His first game? A friendly against Albania in Cornellà, just a stone’s throw away from where he started playing a decade earlier. It seemed like fate had brought him full circle.
During a training session at Brentford, he learned about the surprising call to join the selección. He remembers, with a laugh, his initial thought being to hurry back to his position in goal because another drill was about to begin. But his mind couldn’t help but wonder, “Is this really happening? Spain?” His phone was inundated with notifications and messages. It felt like a dream – all of his hard work had paid off. He believes he is finally proving his worth to them.
At Arsenal, it seems that he is still required to prove himself. Mikel Arteta brought him in and seems convinced that Raya is his top choice – Ramsdale has only started one game since September – but is hesitant to openly declare it. Raya is caught in the middle of a contentious discussion that threatens to overshadow everything, with Ramsdale admitting he is struggling and receiving criticism from pundits and the media who scrutinize every detail – even if they are not always accurate – and some fans have taken sides. Raya does not want to contribute to the commotion. “If they want to debate, let them debate; I will simply do my best,” he says.
During a lengthy conversation, this is the one matter he is hesitant to discuss. However, when he talks about his growth, delves into his game with great detail, and discusses the mental preparation that has shaped his career, there is a sense that he is aware of the vulnerability that comes with it. He also shows that he possesses the skills and attitude to handle it.
Some players were destined for success, but each person has their own unique journey in football. We must cherish our experiences and lessons learned. My time at Southport, although only three months, was a highlight of my career and taught me valuable lessons. It was a glimpse into the real world as I was approaching 19 years old.
“We practiced at the nearby university. You brought your equipment home to wash, then returned with your bag and towel. It was a routine for me, as I had been living on my own since the age of 15. But it humbles you, reminds you to appreciate what you have. Some of the players relied on their win bonus to make ends meet and provide for their families, whether it was paying bills or mortgage. If I hadn’t experienced it firsthand, I wouldn’t have understood the gravity of their situation. Now, it has become a fundamental part of who I am.”
Additional classes were attended: beginning at Blackburn, where he served as the secondary option to Jason Steele before assuming the starting role in League One and contributing to their advancement, then moving on to Brentford.
The physiotherapist for Brentford, Nick Stubbings, played a crucial role in my time there. We had a strong bond and he was there for me when I injured my knee. However, it was not just him, but also all of my teammates and staff who made my experience at Brentford so enjoyable. Brentford will always hold a special place in my heart and I am grateful for all that they have done for me. Even the fans showed me immense support when I returned to play against them in the Carabao Cup in September. I am sure the reception will be just as warm, if not better. The amount of love and affection I received was truly heartwarming.
One of the significant individuals was Iñaki Caña, who is currently the goalkeeper coach at Arsenal. Raya explains, “He altered my perspective on the game. He has a unique understanding of football and expected things that no one else did. He pushed me to be a proactive goalkeeper instead of just reacting, someone who anticipates and stops things from happening.”
The utilization of his feet was a key aspect of his play, which was well-suited to him but possibly overshadowed other abilities. Jürgen Klopp notably remarked that Raya had the potential to excel as a No 10. According to Raya, teams nowadays expect more from goalkeepers in terms of footwork, as opposed to just staying in the goal as was the case a decade ago. However, Raya believes that solely focusing on his footwork does not accurately reflect his overall performance, as statistics prove otherwise.
Raya argues that while there are risks involved in fulfilling certain demands, it is a narrow perspective to solely focus on those risks. In fact, not taking proactive measures can often pose a greater risk. He explains that many people do not understand this concept and only pay attention to the number of saves made. They fail to realize that his position and actions on the field also play a crucial role in preventing chances for the opposing team. In the past, Raya’s stats on corners and crosses were not as strong, but he has improved over the years and is now among the top performers. He used to rely on his speed and staying on his line to make saves, but now he tries to avoid such situations altogether. Additionally, there are mistakes that go unnoticed by others, but Raya is aware of them and recognizes their impact on the game. These mistakes may not result in a goal, but they can still have an impact on the outcome of the match.
Raya mentions that Mikel was the one he talked to when discussing the possibility of joining Arsenal. Other teams, such as Tottenham, also showed interest in him, possibly due to Caña’s influence. Brentford was aware of his desire to move up another level. Despite the increased exposure and pressure, Raya welcomed the challenge as it comes with being part of a major club. He acknowledges that dealing with these aspects is necessary.
Maybe it’s not exactly like that. It may seem a bit exaggerated, like a matter of status where popularity and even nationality may be factors. Raya responds, “That’s your opinion, that I’m not getting involved.” She adds, “Everyone has their own viewpoint. If people want to discuss and debate, let them. Aaron and I have a strong relationship and we’re both here to support the team. The manager makes the decisions about who plays, and that’s all there is to it. There will always be debates, especially at a club like Arsenal.”
Regarding mistakes, the ones that are noticed by people and repeated continuously for analysis, this has always been the case.
Mistakes are inevitable in any game. However, when the mistake is made by the goalkeeper, it tends to be more noticeable. It is important to have a strong mindset and not let it impact your performance. The ability to bounce back after an error is not something that can be trained; it is inherent within a person. Personally, leaving home at a young age and being separated from my parents forced me to mature quickly, which has strengthened me mentally.
“An error shouldn’t affect you on the pitch. Afterwards, maybe. The goalkeeper is isolated. If there’s a mistake, it’s best not to think about it: it’s gone. You concentrate on the ball, follow it, talk to teammates. Not just for the[ir sake] but your mental state, to stay focused, engaged, ready.”
Sports psychologists can be beneficial for athletes. It is now more common for clubs to have a sports psychologist than not. It is recommended to seek help from a sports psychologist when feeling positive, in order to have the necessary skills to overcome challenges in the future. Raya emphasizes this by saying “Click, and you’re back up again.”
“I have discovered that the journey I have been on has taught me to value things and has shown me that with determination, I can achieve my goals. Going from a low point to a high point has made me more humble, focused, and determined to not give up. I have yet to reach my full potential, and I believe there are no limits to what I can achieve; I always strive to improve.”