Fali has made 13 appearances in La Liga so far this season
When Atletico Madrid take the next step of their La Liga title defence at Cadiz on Sunday, they will be confronted by one of the most colourful and unique characters in Spanish football.
Cadiz’s no-nonsense centre-back or defensive midfielder Rafael Jimenez Jarque, ubiquitously known by his nickname Fali, comes from a gypsy community, took a meandering route to the top, and now remains steadfastly unaffected by fame.
Born in Valencia, Fali was on the books of nearby Villarreal as a youngster, before returning to his home city to join Levante and make his debut with their reserve team as a teenager in the semi-professional, regionalised fourth tier in 2010/11.
A breakthrough remained elusive as he left Levante and spent a couple of years with Huracan in the third division (Segunda B) before, in 2015, he was snapped up by Gimnastic Tarragona after their promotion to the second tier.
Throughout those early days Fali remained close to his gypsy roots, always happy to champion the tight-knit community that developed his tough but down-to-earth personality and gave him an independent worldview.
Recalling those origins, he once explained to sports newspaper AS: “Our life is difficult. I got married when I was 16 and became a father when I was 17. In the morning I worked in the scrapyard and in the afternoon I went training. I was 16 but I already had the mentality of a 30-year-old. People always say that I look very old. After everything I’ve suffered, of course I do.”
Fali’s strength of character always showed up in abundance on the football field, where he plays with an unwavering sense of commitment. He is, however, technically limited, and it would not have been surprising if his career had followed a journeyman path in the lower tiers.
But his life unexpectedly changed in January 2016, as his time in the relative anonymity of the lower leagues came to an abrupt end with a surprise loan move to Barcelona’s B team.
In immediate footballing terms it was a step down as his new team were in the Segunda B, a level below Tarragona, but the status and expectations inherent in representing Barca – even their reserves -…