“It was just incredible,” says Emiliano Buendia, puffing out his cheeks. “We had to work too hard that day, but when the referee blew his whistle, that feeling… wow, it was the best.” In a season defined by Norwich’s bold but reckless pursuit of stylish football, their quick and then crushing spiral towards relegation, there were plenty of lessons to savour but not so many to treasure.
In their opening game of the season, Daniel Farke’s side went toe-to-toe with Liverpool and were left bloodied and beaten, conceding four goals inside 45 minutes. “You’re just thinking ‘Oh my God!” They are machines,” Buendia says with a laugh, because what else can you do after your expectations have been shattered quite so suddenly. And in the gruelling eight months that followed, Norwich fought and failed, but always with valour, until eventually their will seemed to fade and a desperate series of 10 defeats mercifully gave way to a return to the Championship.
But for all the toil and strife, Buendia insists the memories are marked with few regrets. He marvels at that famous 3-2 victory against Manchester City at Carrow Road, when the team defended with such pride and vigour they could have been physically sick were it not for the adrenaline. It was not only the biggest upset of the season, but a vindication of their absolute trust in Farke’s principles, a willingness to attack, take risks and not be cowed. To onlookers, it may have been the architect of their downfall but, as Buendia points out, without it there would have been no rise at all.
“We always wanted to try and play beautiful football,” the 23-year-old tells The Independent. “Of course, last year it was difficult, it was a struggle for everyone. But if you get promoted and change your system and go to the opposite style, I don’t think that’s the right answer. We tried to play creative football. We tried our best until the last game, our team spirit was good. We were playing in the best league in the world, we were brave and I was happy we didn’t change, and that’s why I love playing for this club, our philosophy is the same.”
Norwich’s creative, and sometimes combustible playmaker, Buendia was the ticking heartbeat in those moments of success and his stock rose in spite of their relegation. The summer was overshadowed by speculation around his possible departure – “It was good to hear the links with those Premier League teams because obviously any player wants to be at the highest level,” he admits – but that uncertainty has, for now at least, been consigned to the past. “Our target is clear, the manager told us that on the very first day of the season,” he says. “We know our ideas, we know what we want and every player is pulling in the same direction.”
In East Anglia, he hastens to add, he is very settled. It is a stark juxtaposition to the poverty-stricken city of Mar del Plata in Argentina where he grew up, and this small corner of England, the village he lives in, its green grass and sprawling fields, provide a sense of peace that is only ever interrupted by the happy screeches of his young son, Thiago.
“I’m really happy with my situation here,” he says. “I try to not be frustrated by some things anymore [that happen in football]. I started a family really young and I think very differently now [because of that]. We’re waiting for our second child, and I’m hoping he’s born here so we have a British boy. I play football like I dreamed of my whole life, my kid is growing up too fast but I try to enjoy every moment. It’s my third year in Norwich and I’ve never felt a bad thing once, so I have to enjoy it and give back 100 per cent.”
Buendia’s style, though – “to show what I can do with the ball, to create opportunities and make the difference” – is still very much rooted in his hometown, where he’d spend hours kicking the ball alone against the wall. “So many hours, at home or with kids in town. It didn’t matter if it was one versus one or 10 versus 10, whether there was a pitch or proper balls. We just wanted to play and learn tricks and do different skills, that’s what I have inside me. When you are really young, it’s just fun,” he says, laughing again. And now? “It’s pressure.”
In truth, though, Buendia’s career had taken on a serious tone before he was truly old enough to comprehend it. Already showing huge promise as an 11-year-old, former Argentina international Juan Esnaider arranged a trial for him at Real Madrid. “They gave you your own clothes, it was like the best grass in the world, the best balls and boots,” Buendia says. “It was a different level to this bubble I lived in [before in Mar del Plata]. I was so young but I knew this was my chance.”
Buendia was his family’s means to “a new chapter”. But two years later, after they had joined him in Spain, he was released by Madrid and it left them uprooted, with their collective dream teetering in limbo. “I never felt pressure from my family to succeed,” he says. “I was working hard every day. It was always clear for me, I was so focused on becoming a footballer. [After Madrid] I joined Getafe. There were good years and bad years, but I never lost that dream. I always fought to get my chance.”
Picked from relative obscurity by Norwich while playing on loan at Cultural Leonesa in Spain’s second division, Buendia has been a revelation ever since arriving in England. His first season was an overwhelming success, scoring eight goals as well as 17 assists and he is at his best, he says, when football still has that childlike air of fun, the same undiluted love that was born on the streets and he sees in his own son. He has experienced a lot in a short space of time, and for all the transfer upheaval that will inevitably come, he’s keen not to rush. “I’m still really young,” he says. “I want to keep learning as much as possible.
“We have a really good team. We know what we did good and bad last year, and now we have experience in the Premier League. It’s too soon to think about it, but if we get promoted again, we will be clear with our idea and we will be brave, stronger in every situation.” And if Norwich stay true to their values again, next time Buendia believes there will be many more afternoons to cherish, when the supposedly impossible comes to fruition at Carrow Road.
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