Vedat Muriqi's rise to a Copa del Rey final with Mallorca

A news conference masterclass with LaLiga's biggest character (5:51)

Martin Ainstein gets a masterclass in tackling the toughest news conference questions with RDC Mallorca's outspoken manager, Javier Aguirre. (5:51)

"If I saw me at night on a dark, empty street, I would cross over too," Vedat Muriqi says. Mallorca's striker from Kosovo, the man whom coach Javier Aguirre calls "a big, strange ugly beast" and most people call the Pirate, a 6-foot, 4-inch forward with a face that has been lived in, who strikes fear into defenders' hearts, starts laughing again. Which he does a lot. "One plus one is two, eh. I am ugly," he continues. "Ugly, but attractive."

"The difference," he says, "is that you can be very handsome but when people talk to you you're a clown, you're stupid, you can't put together two words. But I am not that. I am very ugly but when I talk to people they change their minds, they see it." It's an interesting distinction and it is immediately borne out. Muriqi is fantastic, fascinating company. As his coach also put it, he might look like someone you would try to avoid, but "he can really play, and there's no way you can't love the bastard." Intelligent, and immensely charismatic, he is the kind of person you want on your team: funny, engaging, and generous.

And, yes, tough too, that's true. A man, a boy, who learned the hard way, and now appears completely in control of everything. At the end of Mallorca's Copa del Rey semifinal, Muriqi was the first to stand alone on the spot as the game reached the shootout. Not scared of anything, he scored, of course. Now Mallorca stand just 90 minutes away from a first trophy in 21 years (live Saturday on ESPN+, at 4 p.m. ET), only the second in their entire history. For Muriqi -- 14 years, nine clubs, and three countries after he set out -- it would be a first.

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ESPN: The Copa del Rey would be your first title. Is that a liberation?

Muriqi: To be honest, I don't feel pressure these days. And I won't feel pressure [in the final], either. I am almost 30 years old. I know how to manage myself, and how to "manipulate" myself. Of course, it's 50,000 people and when you walk into that [stadium] to play a final, when it's 90 or 120 minutes and that's it, nothing else, then of course you're going to get a bit nervous, but I can manage that. Something will happen, I know that I will tremble a bit, but I can handle that so I don't think I am going to have much stress.

ESPN: Where does that ability come from? You seem so at ease. Were you always able to control those emotions, to handle the pressure? Mallorca is the place where you have shown your best form, by far.

Muriqi: I think that it is explained in one word: experience. The more important games you play, the more you can live with the pressure. You know have played big games, you have won and you have lost. You know, you learn it on the way, through those moments you lived.

ESPN: You went to play in Turkey very young, leaving home alone. You made your debut in Albania as a teenager. You have played for all sorts of different clubs in different countries. Does that play a part?

Muriqi: I think my fortune was that throughout my career, I took every step one at a time, not two or three. Imagine a kid who is 17 signing for Real Madrid for €50m. I think about the father and I think: what is he going to say to his son who earns €10m a year? You can't say anything. You can't tell him off, send him to his room -- he kicks you out the house. And that kid can't understand or appreciate things the way I do because his first contract is at Madrid and it's already €10m.

It's very difficult to really value what you have. Kids take that first step and then they call because they don't know how to manage it all. You go to Madrid, have a couple of bad years, go somewhere not as big but you still feel like a Madrid player and you drop, and drop, and drop. I feel happy to have done step by step; I think that's why I have managed my career well.

ESPN: Is the nearest you have come to that kind of pressure when you moved to Lazio for 20m?

Muriqi: I felt pressure there, yes. In a way, I felt it because they had spent a lot of money and I had this feeling: "I have to do something." It was my fault, eh. I was saying, "Bloody hell, they're not giving me opportunities. How can I show what I can do if they don't let me play?" That kind of thing. But then when I did play I didn't do anything, I didn't make the most of those chances. It was my fault. Especially the first year: I played almost every game. 30 or 35 games. 20 minutes, 45 minutes, 60, 70. And nothing came off, you lose confidence, you lose everything. And this is football: you're not doing it, so you have to go. You learn from that, and that makes you.

ESPN: So does life, and yours has been hard. You have said before that you saw things in the war that no human should see. Your family was forced to flee, there were fifty of you in a tiny place, almost nothing to eat. You started to work while still as a kid. Your father had passed away...

Muriqi: Straight after the war. A heart attack. Pffff. He was playing football, with his friends and then...

ESPN: That might have turned you away from football; this is the sport that took your father from you.

Muriqi: I have asked myself that same thing many times. I wonder about it a lot, even today. I was a kid who loved football and someone who always tried to take the positive from everything, even the worst moments. And I said: "OK, I am going to be a footballer because he was a footballer and I am going to follow him." I think it's because of that.

ESPN: Did you imagine this could become a career?

Muriqi: Never. In my country then, football was just a hobby. When I said I was going to be a footballer, my uncles laughed. They said: "No, you have to work." I was working from a very young age [in a restaurant with my uncles]. There was a point where I had to choose. I would have been about 14. I had to choose between football and school because work was not a question: I had to do that come what may. School, football, work: two things could fit but not three. And work was definite.

I made a decision and I left school and went to football and thank God it came off. But I always had that idea that I had to finish school one day and last year I did. I did it online. I had finished primary education, for the first nine years. Then you go to secondary, which is four years and that's the part I have done online. Now I am waiting this year to go to university. I'm still trying to decide what I study, but it's likely something to do with my work: management, maybe.

ESPN: What do teammates say?

Muriqi: This is the good thing about doing it online. ... I did it at home, on my own! But I'm not embarrassed. I had to do it and I did it. On top of that I have my UEFA B licence as a coach and next year I am going to do my UEFA A. I am going to do whatever I can.

ESPN: All those experiences, on and off the field, make you the man you are.

Muriqi: Life made me a man, for real. I have three, or four friends from childhood who were at school together, and grew up together. We still talk all the time. But all my other friends are older: 50-plus years. Why? Because when I was little I was working, and I had a connection with these men, adults. From very young I learned how to talk to older people, how to relate to them, how to treat them. How to serve them, too.

I think that's the positive part of working from a young age. But I also have that feeling here [inside] that I didn't live my childhood. All the kids were like: "We're going to play." I had to say: "I can't, I have to go and work." I didn't live my childhood and that hurts a bit and will always be there, but I am someone who always wants to take something positive from the bad moments and I learned how to think, to behave, to understand. I am very strong mentally. Those are the things that I took from the war, from my childhood, from everything.

ESPN: You are a 50-year-old in a 30-year-old's body?

Muriqi: More like 19 and 60! I wasn't a sad kid, never. I was a kid who liked to mess about, crack jokes, and laugh, and I'm still like that at nearly 30: doing mad things and being silly. But I lacked something, yes. Above all, my father, a guide for my life. When a kid doesn't know something or miss something, they ask their parents. They ask: "How does this work, what does this mean?" And their parents tell them. I didn't have that: my father had passed away, my mum was at home. I had my older sister and we were always close. But I was always working and I depended more on my aunts and uncles. I missed a father, a guide. And while you're working eight hours a day you can't be a happy child.

ESPN: Does all that make you tough?

Muriqi: Of course. It makes you hard, it makes you strong. You're a small kid who works, with no dad, and you start to understand people. Thank God, today I am here and I see it: we're a small place, 100,000 people and we know each other and now when I go [home] I can see clearly who is false and who truly loves me. People used to shout at me. Now when I go, "Hey!" as if [we're best] friends. And I'm not stupid. Every day was an experience as a kid, I watched and saw. Life and work made me so hard that from 14 to 15 my face was the same as it is now.

At 14, I was already shaving. I swear it. I was always like this. That is life. At 13, as a kid, you should be thinking about where you're going to play, what you're going to do with your friends, and when you're going to the cinema. Not me: I had to calculate how I was going to do eight hours of work and my other things. School, training, into work at 3, there until midnight, that was my life. Instead of enjoying your childhood, you have to work. I have never been small, in terms of height, feeling, or mentality. Since my father died, I was never small. Never.

ESPN: You mention seeing people for who they really are. Is that something you like about Javier Aguirre? He seems very direct.

Muriqi: Yes. I like that. I am that way too. If there's something I don't like about my teammates, I will say so -- and to their face. Then you can decide if you want to be my friend or not. I don't like people talking behind people's backs, no. If you can't say it to their face don't say it at all. That's the way I am. Aguirre is funny, always honest. Another example: when I was in Italy, Maurizio Sarri told me, "You can't play in my team" and I liked that because he was straight with me. He could have said, "You're a great player, we'll see what we can do, you'll get chances." No. Boom, straight up: "You're not going to play." That is the way everyone should be, and if everyone was like that the world would be better.

ESPN: You scored the first penalty in the shootout in the semifinal. That must be terrifying ... although given the story you have told, everything you have been through, perhaps not?

Muriqi: We were very calm, all of us, not just me. When I saw the happiness, everyone celebrating, people looking at us like, "What are those madmen celebrating?" It was clear we were going to reach the final. I was very, very relaxed when I went up to take the first penalty and after every penalty, I was shouting: "Come on, we're going to the final!" Until there was a moment when Martin Valjent said to me: "Shut your mouth already!" I had very good feelings, and so it was.

ESPN: That was the image of your cup run ... was that done to frighten la Real?

Muriqi: No. It was very natural. That's why I genuinely felt confident. We came together and the manager had the list of names of the takers. I didn't know I would be first but I knew I would take one. He started to read out the names and after every name there was a "Hooray!" Muriqi ... "Hooray!" I think it was Abdon who started it: "Muriqi ... Hooray! [Sergi] Darder ... Hooray!" You get to the end of the list and everyone is celebrating, going mad. Come on! You see that happiness and you think: that's it, it's done. We're going through. And [Real Sociedad] were scared. You could see it in them. You could see the fear in their faces. It was so clear. That calmness carried us through.

ESPN: We use the word historic a lot, maybe too much, but this really is.

Muriqi: It's very big, it's historic. It's a great story, this club has not won anything for twenty-something years, and it has suffered a lot. It was in the second division not long ago, in Segunda B even, and to come from that to a Copa del Rey final in a few years and then maybe to win it, it's historic. For players like Abdon, [Antonio] Raillo, Martin [Valjent], who have been down there, it is deserved. They have had bad days here. If I play, I will play to win a real trophy for myself, sure, but I'm going to play for teammates who deserve it more. They have suffered a lot these last few years so that they can have these days in the sun. I'm going to run twice as much for them.

ESPN: Is your whole family going?

Muriqi: Everyone, yes. Although I am a bit worried about the kids. They're 3 and 6. The game is at 10 p.m., they should be asleep, and so I am close to telling my wife that they shouldn't travel so that I can be calm on the day of the final, not worrying: "Are you in yet? Where are you?" The tickets the players have aren't in a private box or anything. So I am thinking about that: I'm this close to saying, "Don't go. If you feel better that way, it's OK to stay behind." She suffers when I don't score, when I'm not in a good way, because all that bounces back on her. She has a hard life, all footballers' wives do. She left her parents to follow me to the end of the world. It's not easy.

ESPN: Have you imagined what this final will be like?

Muriqi: I have dreamed about it every day. Every single day. I can see a cross and I smash it [a hostia] with my head. 1-0, 5-4-1, everyone back, fighting, the final whistle, we lift the cup. I don't see who crosses it and I don't care: I can just see the ball.

ESPN: And then the party.

Muriqi: For sure. There's another step still. But if we win, we'll have a mad party.