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Saúl Berjón - the gambler on and off the pitch

If you must play, decide upon three things at the start: the rules of the game, the stakes, and the quitting time.

Saúl Berjón knows. He started his struggle in the fourth tier and made his way to the top flight. And every step of the way, in every league that he played, every team that he joined and left, he knew, and understood, which risk to take.

It's not just his career though - it's the way he plays. He usually resides on the left side of the attack, and he will take even the smallest sliver of anything that could be called a "chance'. He's the one sharing one-twos, whipping crosses into the penalty area, playing formation-splitting passes and skipping between defenders while in possession. His natural instinct is to beat his man or thread a pass through sets of defenders, rather than maintaining possession by playing it sideways or backwards. He gives the team verticality, to use the technical term.

He is the risk-taker. The creative hub. The go-to source for inspiration on-the-pitch.

And his story off-the-pitch inspires too. Born in Oviedo, Saúl started his career at local club Covadonga and stayed there till he was a cadete, going on to graduate from Real Oviedo's youth setup. However, he left El Requexón in 2003, when the Vetusta, or B team, was dissolved due to economic problems. He joined Berrón's juvenil team - making his first team debut in the Tercera during the 2004-05 season.

And while most people called it a step back, he knew that his decision was right. For someone who was looking to become a welder after leaving Oviedo, in his mind he saw it akin to jumping up a division, remarking that "I thought it would be good to play against older, stronger people".

After a season at Berrón, followed by two more in Asturias in the Tercera with Lealtad and Langreo, he was left in the summer of 2007 with a Segunda B club in the Canary Islands, and more offers in the Tercera in Asturias. Taking that risk was more than just jumping a division, it was keeping an eye on the prize - professional football.

Knowing that Las Palmas and Tenerife keep a close eye on all lower clubs in the Canary Islands, this was his chance. And at Pájara-Playas, the then 21-year-old went on to score nine goals, highest at the club, and earned a move to Las Palmas.

He had achieved professional football after fighting in the Tercera - and that to at the age of 22. But the fight was only beginning.

The Segunda is merciless. You can be too good for it and never play in the top-flight. But the moment you're not good enough, you are gone. You're back in the Segunda B, where clubs keep "circulating" players from a pool that is designed to be limited, because the league is designed to keep the pool limited. Good luck getting back in the Segunda after that.

Saúl Berjón playing for Las Palmas in the derby against Tenerife

Familiarity always helps - and being familiar with football in the Canary Islands helped him establish himself with the side. His five and three goals in the two seasons he played at the club earned him a move to the most coveted side in the division - Barcelona's reserves.

In his last season with Las Palmas, Paco Jémez came in and empowered Saúl Berjón to lead the team. Playing in nine of the last ten games, his performances were enough to convince another attacking and possession minded coach, Luis Enrique, to sign him. For €300,000, no less.

The risk was that his playing time would reduce, and all would be lost. The prize was playing for the best team in the world.

However, Luis Enrique, who told him that he had what it takes, was forced to play his best players, and preserve the partnership between Nolito and Jonathan Soriano, who, according to Saúl Berjón, "had a connection that I never saw in my career".

In 2011, Eusebio Sacristán's arrival and his penchant for speedy wingers, such as Kiko Femenía and Deulofeu, meant that Saúl Berjón lost his place. He was loaned out to Alcorcón for the season, where he was mostly used as a super-sub. Despite playing just 1175 minutes over 35 appearances (29 of which were as a substitute), his four goals earned him a move to Real Murcia in 2012.

It was at the Pimentoneros where Saúl Berjón truly established himself. Largely ignored for a starting berth by Gustavo Siviero, his sacking after 24 games led to Murcia hiring Onésimo Sánchez, and to Saúl Berjón gaining a starting position and forming a formidable partnership with striker Kike. And it led to Real Murcia narrowly avoiding relegation during the 2012-13 campaign, with Saúl registering 6 goals and 4 assists.

That partnership continued during the following season - under Julio Velázquez, Kike's 23 goals and five assists paired with Saúl Berjón's 6 goals and 20 assists led Real Murcia to a fourth place finish, and a chance to get promoted via the play-offs . However, their 13 million euro debt to the Treasury led to an administrative relegation, and newly-promoted Eibar came swooping in.

La Liga is really two leagues - Barcelona and Real Madrid, and then everyone else. And everyone else survives by signing players from everyone else. Signing a Segunda player is a bet, a venture into the unknown.

But Eibar had just ventured into the unknown - La Liga. And so Saúl Berjón's signing, and every signing, was not a bet. It was all they had - it was a gamble. And they had signed the player who was known for taking gambles on the pitch. His three goals and eight assists don't even capture the whole story.

His contribution to the team can be summed up in this moment - against Villarreal, standing over the ball just beyond the half-way line looking ready to deliver it into the box, he instead played the ball to himself down the left sideline. Sprinting to beat Gerard Moreno to the ball, he then flashed a cross into the box with his left foot with Villarreal's defense completely out of shape.

The result was three rapid shots on goal, the third of which, from Mikel Arruabarrena, found the back of the net.

Gaizka Garitano's resignation at the end of the 2014-15 campaign, and José Luis Mendilibar's constant rotation between Adrián González, Takashi Inui and Saúl Berjón, meant that the latter's playing time was reduced - nevertheless, he still registered four goals and four assists.

Saúl Berjón was waiting for an offer from Real Oviedo, but an offer came from Mexico's Club Universidad Nacional. At the club, he played well and was impressed with the quality of football, but complained about the altitude and the pollution in the air. And so, on 28th December 2016, Saúl Berjón took a huge decision to fulfill not a career ambition but a personal one - playing in the Oviedo shirt. It involved rejecting La Liga offers from Alavés and Leganés. For the first time dreams took precedent over career. The heart ruled over the head.

And yet, it seemed right. When he was presented, he held the banner of Oviedo over his head. Orgullo, valor y garra (pride, courage and spirit). It might as well have been a banner describing himself. In a way, Oviedo had signed the player who most represented them - the press called it a signing to "Asturianize" the team. This was the closest they were going to get to a star coming back home - and Mata, Cazorla, and Adrián López were out of budget. For the Segunda outfit, Saúl Berjón would be more than enough.

Saúl Berjón is unveiled to an adoring crowd

And his performances obviously show his quality - 2 goals and 3 assists in the latter half of the 2016-17 campaign. The 2017-18 campaign was no different - 6 goals and 14 assists propelled Real Oviedo to 7th place, tying with 6th-placed Numancia on points as well as head-to-head points - only head-to-head goal difference could separate Real Oviedo from a promotion playoff spot.

His performances have not gone unrewarded - for the 2018-19 campaign, he is the second captain behind striker Toché. And he has been handed the legendary no. 10 shirt due to the departure of Miguel Linares. The shirt that has been donned by Oviedo's Segunda B legends such as Manu Busto, Curro, and Michu. The shirt that was retired in honor of the promising striker Peter Dubovský, who passed away at just age 28 while on vacation in Thailand.

"I am in the best moment of my career. I am physically and psychologically very well. Being at home makes you happier," he said recently.

Even at 32, he is showing no signs of slowing down. At every stage of his career, he understood the risk he was taking and the stakes of the gamble. With another year left on his Real Oviedo contract, next summer he will have another decision to make.

Perhaps another gamble.


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