It’s rare for a player to have been signed by Barcelona and Real Madrid. It’s even rarer for a player to have been signed by Barcelona, Real Madrid and Watford, yet that’s exactly what has happened to Kiko Femenía. The man who had previously played for the B teams of Spain’s two giants, Barça B and Real Madrid Castilla, was playing for Alavés last season and playing so well that Watford went out and agreed a pre-contract agreement with the right-back in February. He made the move to England in the summer and has hit the ground running, helping the Hornets to eighth place in the table.
900 miles and the English Channel separate Femenía’s hometown of Sanet y Negrals from Watford, but his journey to Vicarage Road feels even longer. And there have been several bumps on the road. Femenía came through the youth academy of local club Hércules and made his senior debut in the final match of the 2007/08 season, what should have been a special moment for him and his family. In the end, it turned into a nightmare. The right winger played fine in that 1-1 draw with Cádiz, a result which saw Hércules’ opponents relegated from the second tier to the third, yet the Andalusian club alleged that Femenía had been incorrectly registered and that he was, therefore, ineligible. Just 17 years old at the time, his name appeared in headlines across the country, as if he were the evildoer who had purposefully sought to spite Cádiz through a faulty registration – one which the courts eventually deemed to have been completely legitimate.
Femenía stayed with Hércules and they won promotion to LaLiga just a couple of seasons later, but his top-flight debut was just as stressful, with the then-19-year-old suffering from a panic attack not long after he was sent on in the second half of a game against Athletic Club. Playing on the right flank, he had the misfortune of being right next to the dugouts and his coach Esteban Vigo was anything but supportive, even preparing to substitute the substitute until veteran player Francisco Rufete suggested that this would do more harm than good. Rufete stood on the sidelines and encouraged the teenager, reminding him to breathe. That support proved invaluable and Femenía started to find his rhythm, before one week later coming on for the final 25 minutes of a historic 2-0 win away at Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona.
He moved to Barcelona at the end of that season, initially signing to form part of their B-team squad, but with an eventual promotion to the senior side having been promised. That never materialised and Femenía slammed the Catalan club on the day he was released from his contract. “Barcelona have ruined me emotionally,” he said. “They ruined my morale because I was coming from playing every game with Hercules and they changed everything for me.” In a shocking turn of events, he immediately signed for Real Madrid’s B team, but quickly found out that it would be just as tough to break into their first team.
That was when it all changed for Femenía, who realised that life at a more modest club might suit him best. He moved from Real Madrid to second-division neighbours Alcorcón midway through the 2014/15 season and enjoyed some gametime there, almost helping the team towards promotion to LaLiga. His coach there, José Bordalás, said that Femenía needed to “recover psychologically” from the three and a half years he’d wasted rotting away in the B teams of Spain’s superclubs. That’s exactly what Femenía did, impressing his coach so much that Bordalás brought the player with him when he moved to fellow second-tier side Alavés ahead of the 2015/16 campaign. They didn’t remain in the second division for long, as they won the league, with Femenía playing 38 of the 42 games and demonstrating how good he can be when he has the complete confidence of his coach. He also showed how good he can be as a right-back, with Bordalás gradually trying him out in this new and deeper position. The following season, with current Southampton boss Mauricio Pellegrino in charge at Alavés, Femenía became a full-time full-back and the newly promoted Basque club finished ninth and reached a Copa del Rey final.
That led Femenía to Watford and that led the Hornets to their best-ever start in England’s top flight. Given his quiet nature and the fact he arrived on a free transfer, Femenía has not been stealing many of the headlines, with the focus being on new coach Marco Silva and on the men coming up with the goals, like Richarlison and Abdoulaye Doucouré. Yet the Spaniard has been quietly excellent since replacing the injured Daryl Janmaat at right-back on the opening day of the season. He may have struggled a little in that game against Liverpool, following his career-long trend of nervy debuts, but he has improved since then with every performance.
“To play as a right-back in England is different than playing in Spain,” Silva said after the 3-3 draw with Liverpool, warning that Femenía would need time to adapt. But he’s adapting quickly and is now combining his attacking flair and pace – which is statistically among the best in the Premier League, with Opta reporting that he was the second-quickest player in August – with positional discipline. Since then, Watford have only lost once, falling 6-0 to Manchester City, and it says a lot that this was the only Premier League match this season that Femenía has missed, having been left out after suffering a head injury. With him on the pitch, Watford have defeated Bournemouth, Southampton and Swansea and have drawn with Liverpool, Brighton and West Brom.
Femenía will know not to be complacent, given the disappointments he has suffered time and time again over the course of his career. He’s playing well just now, but fit-again Janmaat will be ready to take his right-back spot back as soon as, or if, the Spaniard’s form dips. For the moment, though, things are finally looking up for Femenía. He is the unsung hero of Watford’s bright start.