For Prayag Jina, his nine months spent playing football in Spain last year were a dream and nightmare all rolled into one. On one hand, the 22-year-old experienced senior football for the first time at a high level. On the other hand, he suffered a serious injury which brought his time in Europe to an end – for now. The midfielder is close to making a full recovery and has set his sights on returning to the pro game.
Jina was born in Birmingham to parents who arrived in the UK from Africa at a young age, however, after only a couple of years, his family would make the move to America, where they have been ever since.
“My entire family is basically based out of the Midlands,” says Jina. “So that’s home-base technically. I don’t have many memories living there, as I was only about two when we moved to the US but we did visit often, since we have tons of family there. I enjoy it, it’s a different vibe that I like.”
So having made the move at a young to a country, which has no shortage of sports competing for attention, it was possible that a young Jina could have been tempted into pursuing another sport but inspired by his older brother and his father’s love for Liverpool, he began kicking a football around from the age of three and formed a dream early on.
“From a young age, it was my dream, and mission, to achieve something in football,” he recalls. “Of course, playing professional was always one of my biggest objectives, since I’ve invested almost everything I have to becoming a pro but at the end of the day, it’s all about enjoying the game and making my family proud, which I’m continually aspiring for each day.”
Starting at a young age clearly paid off for Jina as he chased his dream. A standout performer during his time at Aurora High School in Ohio, he earned the reputation for being a creative force, picking up 35 assists during a school career which saw his side win several district championships. He also played youth football club Everest SC.
After impressing at high school level, it was no surprise that the Birmingham-born midfielder was offered a scholarship to continue his studies and football development. He accepted an offer to study international business at Bowling Green State University (BGSU) in Ohio, joining an establishment who compete in NCAA Division I, the highest level of college sports.
Jina made a good start to life at college picking up a couple of assists in his debut season and although his four years with BGSU may not have provided as much game time as he would have liked, it put him on the right path to becoming a professional footballer and he has no hard feelings.
“There is a ton of talent at the university level and at my university, I played with some amazing players and became best mates with a lot of them.
“It was a decent footballing experience and I was fortunate to captain my team in my final year, although not playing as much as I liked. After falling out of favour in the coach’s eyes, it was tough to get time in matches, so my time at BGSU ended on a bit of a sour taste – but as they say, football is a game of opinions.
“No hard feelings to the coach, sometimes that’s just how it goes.”
With his college football career behind him, the midfielder was looking for his next opportunity and although his studies were not yet completely finished, he wasn’t going to allow that to come between him and his first shot at the pro game. As 2017 turned into 2018, his sights were set on Europe.
“I had contacted an agent who was able to arrange a few trials with clubs in the fourth tier in Spain. On the final day of the transfer window in January, I did end up signing with CP Parla Escuela, who were fighting relegation and losing hope.
“My dream has always been to play at the highest level, and I believe that Europe provides this level.”
It was a brave move for the BGSU student with Parla Escuela languishing at the bottom of group 7 of the Spanish fourth-tier, the Tercera División. The side based in Madrid, were playing their first ever season in the fourth-tier of Spanish football having only been formed in 1989 and were playing eighth-tier football as recently as 1999. As well as their struggles on the field, the newcomer was not exactly given a warm welcome from his new teammates.
“At first, settling in was interesting,” he says. “It was an adventure that I wanted to embrace. Of course, when you sign for a new team a lot of factors are working against you.
“First of all, none of the midfielders became my friend right off the bat because they knew I was coming for their spot on the team so they’d come flying in with late tackles in training and not talk to me – but that was expected.
“Once I started playing and showing them what I could do, I slowly earned respect.”
It was a baptism of fire for the former Aurora High Schooler but he had help settling in away from the club as he slowly earned the respect of his teammates. Sharing a room with two other players from different clubs in Madrid, Jina was able to use a qualification he had earned in Spanish back in the States became best friends with his roommates. He also found time to finish off his universities studies online to allow him to graduate at the end of the season.
Back on the pitch, he had work to do with his Parla Escuela teammates as they tried to pull off what looked like an impossible escape from relegation back to the fifth-tier. Spain of course has a reputation for playing some of the best football in the world but in the fourth division it was not quite a mirror of the style Xavi and Andrés Iniesta have perfected in the past decade.
“Although the facilities are better in America, there are no bad players in Spain, everyone is always zipping around and trying to get the upper edge. Whether that’s conning the ref, using dazzling skill or crunching tackles.
“In the lower tier, there wasn’t as much tiki-taka football as I’d thought there would be, but more physical play, which I found interesting and tough at times since I’m only standing at 5’8 with boots! But overall, the standard is better than college.”
The Birmingham-born midfielder went on to become a regular in his new side but to say it was a tricky season would be an understatement. He made 16 appearances as his side finished the campaign with just four points from 38 games and not a single victory – a resounding forty points from safety. Despite that, he still sees his first experience of senior football as a positive one.
“It was a tough ask to come into a side and change everything, on a personal level. On a footballing basis, I still loved every moment. Of course the defeats were extremely heavy and at times I wanted to cry, I didn’t, but that’s the beauty of football.
“Obviously if I had been more clinical in front of goal and been able to assist more, things would have panned out a bit different, but that’s how it went and I had to accept it and move on.”
Not deterred from his first experience of Spanish football, the 22-year-old wanted to remain in Spain and build on the foundations he had laid in Europe. He had more trials, first with third-tier club UB Conquense and then with newly-promoted fourth-tier side CF La Solana, based two hours away from Madrid. He was successful in securing a deal with the latter and after an enjoyable first month, things looked to be going well – but then disaster struck, the type no footballer can envisage but one that everyone dreads.
“I played in a pre-season match and I was subbed on to the pitch at half time, got booked, scored a goal [his first pro goal], then in the final moments, I let the ball roll across my body and an opponent put a Shawcross-esque tackle and tackled both of my legs and I felt a massive crack/pop in my left leg.
“Within three-to-four days, the club released me as they found out I’d miss the remainder of the season with ruptured ligaments (ACL) and meniscus. They were able to do this because the season had not begun yet.”
It was incredibly bad luck for the midfielder who was just starting to show his true ability in Spain. A week later, he returned back to the US to have surgery. That was back in September. A cruel blow but one he is now determined to bounce back from and has taken positives from a situation which would not be wished upon anyone.
“At the moment, I am coming up on a full recovery for my knee and injury,” he says. “Of course, it’s a physical battle, but I believe it’s 99% mental and I’m embracing this opportunity to fall back in love with the sweetness of the game.
“It’s teaching me a lot about myself and as I come back to full fitness.”
Alongside daily rehab, Jina is also working and coaching as he saves up for his next assault on Europe. His last spell in Spain may not have ended how he would have liked but at 22, he has already shown the determination to make his dream a success and is set on returning to the pro game next season.