Bocanegra keeps plugging away
Europe may be just about small enough to fit into the back garden of a Hollywood mansion in his native California, but Carlos Bocanegra is discovering the quintessential differences that make up the Old Continent can pose a globe-trotting footballer more headaches than the morning-after a bender with Paul Gascoigne.
When the 29-year-old parted ways with Fulham last summer, he simply joined the booze cruisers in nipping over the Channel, but rather than returning to England with his Peugeot packed full of plonk, Bocanegra stayed put to pen a three-year deal with French side Rennes.
'Très bien' you might think - but not if you want to boil the kettle for an English brew with your croissants in the morning. "The biggest problem is that all my appliances have the damn English plug, and I have to go out this afternoon and buy 30 converters," Bocanegra told ESPNsoccernet.com. "That's my biggest thing so far."
Domestic-appliance apoplexy aside, the former Craven Cottage pin-up's first months in France have gone smoothly on and off the pitch. Bocanegra has played all but nine minutes of Rennes' Ligue 1 campaign so far, including the recent 3-0 dismissal of champions and league leaders Lyon, in an excellent start to the season.
"They're a good club - I didn't know much about them beforehand, to be honest. But I started researching them when the move got a bit closer - the town, the club, the players they've had here before," said Bocanegra, whose Wikipedia browsing will have revealed Mickaël Silvestre, Petr Cech, John Utaka, and Andreas Isaksson all emerged from obscurity at the Stade de la Route de Lorient. "I realised that they are pretty good - not a massive club, but a good-sized club, with a good crop of players."
That crop includes former Arsenal forward Sylvain Wiltord - back at the club where he started his career - and ex-Liverpool reserve-team favourite Bruno Cheyrou, who looks the player of the shadow he was at Anfield playing a holding role in midfield. While his football talent has added weight to Rennes' bid to finish in the top five this season, Cheyrou's English skills will come in equally as useful for Bocanegra, who admitted Voltaire's 'Candide' in the original will have to wait.
"Slowly, slowly," replied the American complete with a mock French accent when asked just how quickly he has adapted to the native tongue. "It's very difficult for me. The pronunciation and reading is completely different from Spanish - which I can speak. I'm excited at trying to learn it and become fluent in a few years."
With Freddy Adu joining Monaco last summer, Bocanegra was not the only American about to embark on the belle vie on the Chanel side of the Channel. Rennes, a provincial city with an equally provincial football team, seems hardly the most likely destination however.
The Brittany club spreads its net far and wide, though, when it comes to recruitment, as witnessed by the snaffling of Cech from Sparta Prague and Isaksson from Djurgarden. Clearly they knew more about Bocanegra than he did about them, and were aware he wanted more of a taste of Europe than afforded by a box of Thornton's Continentals.
"They'd been watching me for a while. It wasn't out of the blue. They knew my contract was up and they knew someone from our agency who knew I wanted to try the continent," said Bocanegra, who reportedly rejected the advances of Ipswich and Coventry City. "I'd played in England for almost five years, and I really wanted to experience continental football. That was one of the factors. A change of scenery, it just worked out at the right moment."
Bocanegra's five seasons in the British capital saw him make 116 appearances for Fulham, scoring eight goals - five in the 2006/07 season, which made him the club's second top-scorer behind fellow American import Brian McBride. He has yet to open his account in France, and is unlikely to be seen ploughing forward up the flank too often as coach Guy Lacombe has him operating as left-back-cum-centre-back in his four-man rearguard.
The blend of Bocanegra, uncompromising Swedish international Petter Hansson, chunky Senegalese Kader Mangane and freshly-christened French international right-back Rod Fanni has worked well for the moustachioed former Paris St Germain coach, who is slowly rebuilding the reputation that was dismantled in the capital. Though Bocanegra is not finding his everyday footballing experience much different to England - "The football side of it is pretty much the same everywhere" - the USA captain is also discovering the joys of the more cerebral French approach to the game.
"Tactics are a little bit more stressed here, it's good because I don't feel as though I'm left out on an island just having to defend wingers flying at you all day," he said, surely echoing the sentiments of every Premiership full-back. "In England, it's attack, attack attack - it's a frantic pace at times, which is cool as well. England is definitely the league of superstars now, which is good. The level is good here too - I'm excited about it - the pace is not as frantic."
That is not what the quietly-spoken Californian thought after his first Ligue 1 match, which could not have been more a baptism of fire had Mephistopheles been presiding over the christening himself. Eight goals, three in the dying seconds at the Stade de la Route de Lorient saw Rennes and Marseille share the spoils, and had Bocanegra's head spinning.
"That wasn't normal, that was like an English game. I was like 'What am I getting myself into?'" said Bocanegra, a less-than-innocent bystander as Marseille took a 3-1 half-time lead before the second-half fireworks. "That was just one of those games, we got a point out of it at least, and then you just sweep it under the table and move on. I didn't know if it was going to be like that every week. I knew Marseille were a good team, and they were flying offensively that day. We were too."
Rennes' problem though is that take-off only occurs intermittently. Mickaël Pagis - a player Eric Cantona said was most like him in current-day French football - is not quite as gifted as the now French beach soccer coach, but is equally as impulsive. A hat-trick in the win over Lyon was followed by a languid display in a goalless draw with Auxerre, which also featured an anonymous cameo by the highly-rated Jimmy Briand.
If Rennes can consistently find the sort of display that did for Lyon, Bocanegra could well enjoy an Indian summer to his European career before escaping rainy Brittany and heading back to the Californian coast to 'give something back' to Major League Soccer - the starting point of an air-mile-filled odyssey which eventually led him to discover the foibles of Europe's delightfully varied electricity networks.
"I'd like to go back and play. I don't want to go back and play and say it's the end of my career, I want to have a good few years there," said the former University of California Los Angeles student, who was 'drafted' by the Chicago Fire in 2000 and named MLS Defender of the Year twice before Fulham came calling. "The league was good to me, that's how I got my start. I was then seen by the national team, and in the national team I got seen by Fulham. So, I'd like to go back, as playing in your home country is pretty fantastic."