RC Lens defender Ruben Aguilar: 'Struggling has made me stronger mentally'

RC Lens defender Ruben Aguilar: 'Struggling has made me stronger mentally'

Publish on 03/19 at 17:00


How his meandering career has shaped him, his superstitions, the influence of Stade Bollaert, unemployment, private life, and more! An interview into the life and mind of Ruben Auguilar, RC Lens' right-sided defender

Before you signed your first professional contract with AJ Auxerre at the age of 21, you didn't have the most straightforward career path...

That's for sure! To cut a long story short, I trained at GF38, but when I was 18, the club went bankrupt (last in Ligue 2 BKT at the end of the 2010/2011 season, the club was administratively demoted to CFA 2). So I went to AS Saint-Étienne, where I signed a two-year contract as a trainee pro, but at the end of my contract I wasn't kept on and found myself without a club... So I called Olivier Saragaglia, who had been my coach at Grenoble. GF38 had just moved up from CFA 2 to CFA but their squad was already more or less complete for the season. The coach agreed to let me come back, but I'd have to be unemployed, with a little extra money on the side.

Did this mean you had to report to the job centre? 

Exactly! I had to make 4-5 appointments at the employment office. It wasn't crazy, it wasn't a joy... It puts you back on your feet when you find yourself among elderly people, people in need... It was a wake-up call. I said to myself: "Oh yeah, this is real life...". I'd always believed in my dream of becoming a professional footballer, but at the time, my dream was far away... At a time like this, you need to be well surrounded because it's not easy.

And then?

So I was living with my best mate in Grenoble and the season went quite well. At first, I played with the reserves, in the DHR, with matches on Sundays at 11am, then I joined the first team. At the end of the season, Jean-Luc Vanucchi, the coach of AJ Auxerre, spotted me in the last match against Martigues and offered me the chance to sign my first professional contract! At the end of the match, an agent came to see me and I didn't believe it at all, but when we came back after the Summer, I was officially with AJA in Ligue 2!

After years of aiming for the pro world, at Grenoble and then Saint-Étienne, what was your state of mind when you found yourself playing in the reserve side?

The crazy thing was that I enjoyed going out to play on Sundays at 11 o'clock, even if I stayed at home the day before while my mates went out. It wasn't always easy, because at 19-20 you want to go out with your mates. It's hard to deprive yourself when you know you're going to be playing in the reserves the next day, but I made sure I kept to that strict schedule. I've always been able to stay on the right track and, with a bit of luck, it's obviously paid off.

Compared to players who have followed the classic route of training centre and then pro contract, do you feel that the fact that you've struggled has forged a stronger mentality?

Of course. I've always had this determination, this desire to never give up, but even more so after all that. When I was lucky enough to sign my first professional contract, I said to myself: "There you go, you've worked hard and you've been rewarded. Now you're going to have to do even more. For me, hard work always pays off, whatever the field. For example, my brother gets up at 5 in the morning and works until late at night. Well, he's now the director of his company. It's silly, but when you work hard, you're rewarded.

At RC Lens, what is being done to help the players mentally?

We have a mental coach who comes to the club once a week. He's a very good person who supports us through group or individual meetings. It's not compulsory. But if you want to be mentally monitored, it's possible. I was aware of this kind of approach a few years ago, particularly in Monaco where we operated in the same way, but I don't feel the need for it as much now that I'm more experienced. But if I feel that I'm a bit out of sorts, that I'm not doing so well, I'll go and have a chat to see what details I can work on to make up for that little difference. Since I've been at Lens, I've had 2-3 meetings with him.

Can you give us some examples of discussions?

We can talk about private life, football of course, certain rituals... There are a whole host of little things that can give us confidence: reference points, phrases... The aim is to feel good, to feel strong, and above all to have confidence in ourselves. After a bad match or a mistake, it's possible to have doubts, but we try to make sure that happens as little as possible. To keep your self-confidence up, it can help to think of pleasant, positive things, which helps you to stay concentrated for longer during a match, to be as clear-headed as possible... There are lots of little details that help you to feel strong on the pitch and not go off in all directions. For example, if a striker hasn't managed to score, he'll tell him that it's not serious and show him what he's done right. He'll tell him to keep going and that at some point, something will click and there'll be no stopping him.

Since the start of your career, you've worked with coaches like Leonardo Jardim, Michel Der Zakarian, Nico Kova─Ź... How does Franck Haise affect his players mentally?

With lots of good humour, positive words, encouragement... It goes back to what I was saying earlier about the confidence that the players need to feel. The coach gives us that confidence, which is essential in top-level sport. After that, when you're no good, he tells you that you're no good. He's not going to beat around the bush and that's normal, it's part of the job. If you're not doing your job properly, your boss is going to tell you what you need to redo, what you need to improve. But the coach is obviously going to explain things to you, show you videos, and do it calmly and pragmatically. The aim is not for the player to lose his temper, lose confidence or stop wanting to work.

Can you tell us about his talks?

They're simple and effective, and they make you want to go out there and give it your all. The coach gives us that confidence and that desire to keep moving forward. If you give everything, you'll be rewarded. That's what he says!

Turning now to your preparation, how do you manage to be ready for kick-off?

It's always the same. There are rituals, little thoughts, little things I do before every match. I concentrate on my performance. I know what I want to do, or rather what I want to do. There are bound to be matches where you're a little less good, a little more tired, but I always have that mental rigour to tackle the match in the best possible way.

Can you tell us about these routines?

Yes, but I'm in danger of looking like a madman (laughs)! So I always have my shin pads in the same place, as well as my little carbohydrate sweets, I always have a little strap on my wrist... Before I go out on the pitch, I always listen to the same song, the Gladiator song, Now we are free. I listen to it three or four times before my matches... Ever since I saw that film, I've been doing the same thing. Even when I was playing in the DHR, I listened to it! Apart from that, I think about my children and my wife, and I kiss the bracelets they've given me. It's always the same rituals and that's how it will be for the rest of my career.

And did you notice any superstitions among the rest of the squad?

I can see some of them, but that's something that has to be left to each individual, so I'm not going to reveal them. I don't think my team-mates want me to divulge their secrets (laughs)! But there are bound to be things that make you feel strong and confident, so that when you get out on the pitch you want to take everything apart.

After playing in the European Cup with AS Monaco, you played in the Champions League and then the Europa League with RC Lens this season. We often hear that when you play one match after another every 3 days, it's the mental boost that's the most difficult...

That's true, at least for me. Physically, you play matches and then you recover. What's different is everything that goes with it, because when you play a match at 9pm on a Thursday, go to sleep at 4-5am, and play again the following Sunday, sometimes at 1pm, you have to do everything you can to be up for it. If you don't, you risk having a very tough match physically!

You were called up to the French national team at the end of 2020 during which you celebrated your first cap...

I was on cloud nine at the time... Every time people talk to me about it, I say the same thing: it was nothing but happiness, nothing but a bonus. I'm proud to have worn the jersey of the French national team, even if it was only for a small selection (smiles). I'm lucky to have achieved so much in my career: I've played in the Champions League, the Europa League, I've been selected for the French national team... I've ticked just about every box, so I'm happy!

And mentally, has this selection boosted your performances at club level?

Yes, it made me want it even more. I said to myself: "You see, when you work hard, when you're serious, diligent, when you leave no stone unturned, the effort pays off. It always comes down to the same thing: hard work is always rewarded.

To finish with a funny anecdote, did the fact that you were called up to the Bolivian national team throw you off balance at any point?

(He laughs). No, I had a good laugh about it! And then, it was gratifying to be potentially called up to the Bolivian team and to be talked about over there. It meant that I was doing well in France. It didn't destabilise me at all and, at first, it was fun but, after a while, it got a bit boring because everyone was talking about it. I had to repeat over and over again that I wasn't Bolivian, that my father wasn't from Tenerife in Bolivia but from Tenerife in Andalusia, Spain. But we had a good laugh about it!




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