This weekend brings the final round of European club games before World Cup qualifying resumes for the U.S. men’s national team. Two of the most prominent U.S. players are based in Spain, Barcelona’s Sergiño Dest and Valencia’s Yunus Musah. To get an inside look at how they’ve been doing, we reached out to ESPN soccer reporter Martín Ainstein.
Originally from Argentina, Ainstein lived in Miami for five years before moving to Madrid, where he has been since 2005. Ainstein appears on ESPN’s studio shows in Spanish and sometimes in English, and is a sideline reporter for ESPN’s broadcasts of La Liga games.
Also, as ESPN makes its way through the first season of a massive 8-year deal to broadcast La Liga in the U.S., Ainstein is hosting a video series called “The Bicycle Diaries” in which he bikes around Spain to showcase the country’s culture, food, and some of the soccer stars who call Spain home. They’re posted on his Instagram account, and occasionally on ESPN.com.
We spoke with Ainstein about Dest, Musah, and what it’s been like to tell the stories of Spanish soccer to a new audience in America. This interview has been edited and condensed for length.
This Sunday, Barcelona visits Alavés (3 p.m., ESPN+), a team whose squad includes American center back Matt Miazga. He probably won’t make the upcoming U.S. roster, but Dest surely will and he’s a huge part of the U.S. team. On Thursday, Dest played for Barcelona for the first time since Dec. 8, and he’s played just one La Liga game since the end of October. There are a lot of reports that he could leave Barcelona soon.
What have you seen of Dest in the Barcelona games that you’ve covered, and what has the conversation been like in Spain about him and his future?
That’s a big question mark. Nobody knows. A lot of people right now in Barcelona say they want him out.
There’s two reasons for that. The first one is that [manager] Xavi doesn’t think he has the DNA that a player in his position has to be to play at Barcelona. It’s not that he’s [not] good or he doesn’t perform well, it’s that in that position, it’s very difficult to play. Because you have to create a lot in the offensive part of the game, and Sergiño, his performances didn’t do well in that aspect.
The second one is that Barcelona needs to create cash. They need to have cash to sign new players. So they are connected. If he’s not a guy that is valued by the manager, and on the other hand, they need to get cash in their pockets to buy new players that are more like the profile Xavi wants, things don’t look good for Sergiño.
And I believe he needs to play in a World Cup year. It will not be bad for him to go on loan to play regularly, to have consistency, and to improve his game, because he’s very young. And to regain some confidence that I think he’s lost after a couple of games he’s not played well. One of them is El Clásico [vs. Real Madrid last October].
I think that it’s very difficult when a club like Barcelona is having such tough times like the ones they’re having right now, to arrive at a club like this being a teenager or a not-experienced player. It’s very, very difficult.
Yunus Musah, meanwhile, is getting more playing time at Valencia and playing quite well. In the last few games in particular, Musah has been great, and he has another big test coming Saturday at Atlético Madrid (3 p.m., ESPN+). What have you made of him so far?
I love him. Personally, he’s amazing — such a great guy, very relaxed. He enjoys going to training. He enjoys what is going on with him.
I remember I interviewed him just before the Real Madrid game at Mestalla [Valencia’s stadium, last September], and he told me his dream was to play against Real Madrid. Four or five minutes into the game, [Carlos] Soler got injured, and he had to step in, and he played pretty well.
He’s very complete as a football player. A little bit, still, immature in terms of decision-making. But it is normal — he’s very young.
And the same thing that is happening at Barcelona, Valencia is not so strongly dealing with so many problems outside the pitch. They have an owner that doesn’t want to invest. He’s devaluing the squad by selling players but making business [decisions] that are not good from the sports side.
You can tell that Valencia plays well, but they don’t have the quality up front, they don’t have the balance between quality that they had five years ago.
For Yunus, it’s great, because he has faced the world. When you are in a team that is playing well, you never play. So Yunus is playing a lot, he’s finding his position, and the coach [José Bordalás] gives him a lot of freedom. He can play on the wing, he can move to the center.
The only thing that [the manager] is asking him to be very responsible for the tactical side. You can go up front, no problem, but you have to be in place defensively if you have a counter attack. For Yunus, that’s not a problem. He’s a tiger. He’s fast, he’s strong, he has a lot of energy.
So for the moment that Valencia is going through right now, Yunus is a perfect football player. That’s why he’s playing.
And that there is something that really struck me when I met him and I saw him playing. When you have a young player, he goes up front, he takes risks, and he makes a mistake. Usually what happens with a person that doesn’t have a strong personality, they don’t do it anymore.
Yunus, he doesn’t care. He’s very brave. He has a lot of character. He knows if he makes a mistake, he has to keep trying, not get frustrated or frozen by the mistake. He has to keep doing it and learn from it, but not refrain from trying again. And I love that about him.
How did you come up with the idea for the “Bicycle Diaries” series? It would be just about anyone’s dream gig to do something like that.
You know, in my career, the same thing always happened: when I had an obstacle, I tried to find an option. The diaries that I do and the trips I do on the bicycle, they started from the [financial] crash of 2008, the real estate bubble in the U.S.
ESPN was having a big crisis, and it was my first chance to cover the Euros. And my boss called me and said, “You know what? We have no budget. You should go, but I have no money to send you.” And I said, “You know what, let me think, maybe we can find an alternative.”
So I said, “OK, you’re going to have the games. But there’s something that happens in these tournaments — World Cups, Olympics, Euros — that goes beyond that, which is how fans gather. All the stories that you find in the Alps, the mountains in Austria and Switzerland [the cohosts of Euro 2008]. I know how to use a camera. I will learn how to edit. It’s not going to be professional, but I will tell you stories every single day through the Euros.”
So that was the first time I realized that I could come up with ideas, and surprise, and bring something fresh and new.
“The Bicycle Diaries” was also coming from a big obstacle: COVID-19. We got the rights for La Liga, but the clubs weren’t giving any interviews indoors. And ESPN wanted not only to sell the games, but sell the experience of an amazing country. So I thought that it was very interesting to link the country and its stories with the football.
And because of COVID, and because this is a bike-friendly country, I said: bike. We put our character, our interviewee, inside an amazing scenario, a natural scenario: a mountain, a lake, a city, we can fly a drone. We include so much more information on screen than having just a one-on-one interview.
And then we have the social distance. We’re doing it outdoors. The bike is very positive as a means of transportation. It has so many good things, you know? Then social distancing works, where we want to tell not only stories about football but about the country. So if we bike, we are showing the country.
When we biked with Marcelino [García Toral, Athletic Bilbao’s manager], we were biking in the Basque Country mountains. With Pau Gasol, we were biking around the Camp Nou [Barcelona’s stadium]. It’s something that you don’t see often, the outside of a stadium like that. Or biking inside it.
It was very seductive. It has punch, it has a very powerful core, and it’s about sports as well. I mean, biking is also a sport. So when we came up with this idea, we said, “This is what we have to do.”
The series is mostly in Spanish, with some episodes also in English. Have you observed more English-language fans interacting with you this season, and more fans in the United States?
The idea is to give Spanish and English audiences the same stories, and to balance English-speaking people and Spanish-speaking people. The problem is that we are in the country that speaks Spanish. …
It was a challenge, you know, to try to find people who speak English or to customize the English versions with voice-overs and to make it a little bit more chewable — that the story doesn’t demand so much effort from the English-speaking viewer. …
I found that it was not only refreshing for me and for my crew, but also for the players. Héctor Bellerín, the former Arsenal player, he loved it. He said let’s go. With an interview, I would have had 30 minutes, not more than that. We biked for three hours. …
I feel that people are enjoying the way ESPN is portraying La Liga. Because it’s a mixture of American, European, Latin players that have played in the Premiership — for example [analysts] Pablo Zabaleta [ex-Manchester City] or Luis Garcia [ex-Liverpool].
The idea is to have people that have complexity — that can understand different worlds. And I think it’s a really interesting approach to have people who can fit in one country and fit in another one, and understand different languages. Because if you have those people, you can talk to a bigger audience.