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Exclusive interview: Carlos Bocanegra, Rangers' well-travelled defender, on Rabbie Burns, positivity and and how football wasn't his first choice

O wad some Power the giftie gie us,

Carlos Bocanegra has proved a redoubtable presence in the Rangers defence. Picture: SNS
Carlos Bocanegra has proved a redoubtable presence in the Rangers defence. Picture: SNS

To see oursels as ithers see us!

THE world is aware of the debt owed to Rabbie Burns by the art of poetry, the politics of empathy and, of course, the haggis industry. His central part in the signing of a Rangers centre-half has so far not been fully documented. Yet Carlos Bocanegra can cite the poet not only in relation to his move from St Etienne to Rangers at the beginning of the season but also in his somewhat surprising view of his newly found neighbours.

The Californian talks in a gentle drawl that has echoes of a New Age Hippie but when he speaks of life as journey he is referencing not just experience but geography. The defender has travelled 7000 miles from his home in Upland, California, to play for Rangers, making stops en route in Chicago, the Barclays Premier League and in Ligue One.

His arrival at Rangers was anticipated one January night in Wimbledon, where Bocanegra lived while he was playing for Fulham. "I was living next door to a Scots guy, Ian Grant, a big Hibs supporter. He and his wife would help me out, cook me meals. One night he came over and told me that it was Rabbie Burns' night the next week and invited me to his home. It was all traditional – the haggis, the dagger, the poems. I got an insight into the Scottish culture from that."

He also received a lesson in the Scots psyche. "He is a great guy, he always takes the positives. He always looked on the bright side. I have noticed that since I have moved to Scotland. Everyone gets on with things. If something goes bad, they take it in their stride. The banter is tremendous. Even the cab drivers who are not Rangers fans are supportive."

To which the only response can be a baffled: "Eh?"

Surely we Scots are glowering, doom-laden pessimists? "I have not seen that. Everybody wants to enjoy themselves, make sure you as a visitor to their homeland are enjoying yourself," he said.

The view may be unexpected but it comes from the eye of an experienced traveller. Bocanegra, the boy from California, has become the man who has played for clubs in Chicago, London, Rennes, St Etienne and now Glasgow.

The defender, who studied history and geography at UCLA, had a moment of clarity when in the Windy City. "I was complaining about the weather, the continual cold, telling everyone how it sucked. One of my team-mates said: 'Shut the hell up. You are playing soccer for a living. Nowhere else is like California. So suck it up'."

This was the start of a series of life lessons. "The biggest one was that I knew that I really had to grow. I had to mature. I had to learn about money management, time management. There were other things, too. When I came over to England I was given a red card after my third match. The media gave me hell. I was really thinking: 'What have I come into?"'

There was a loneliness and an acceptance. "I knew nobody else would look after me apart from myself."

So how does he approach a new homeland? "I ask myself: how do these people live? I want to learn about their culture, the way they think. I do not want to be fighting against the culture."

He took soundings about Rangers from his Burns-loving former neighbour and from former Rangers players Claudio Reyna and DaMarcus Beasley, who he played with on the national team. "I was settled on being in France at St Etienne for at least another year and this came calling. It was too big a chance to miss with the Champions League, Europa League, the opportunity to win cups and titles," he said.

The player, who was no innocent abroad, has still been surprised by the size of the club, the demands of the media, the passion that football generates in the city. "It is strange," he said. "This is the biggest club I have played for, yet it is in probably the smallest league compared to France and England."

The veteran of the MLS, Barclays Premier League and Ligue One, the winner of 100 caps for his country has revelled in the Old Firm experience. "Ibrox on a Saturday is amazing," he says. Of the Old Firm clash, he added: "At the beginning of the game it is pretty cool when you walk out. That is the one time you can enjoy the crowd."

Bocanegra, who has played in the business end of two World Cups, then makes an unusual statement. "I never, ever dreamed of being a soccer player, certainly not a professional one," he said.

As a young boy he played baseball, American football and ran on the track. His decision to devote himself to soccer was made for educational reasons. "Basically, I was offered scholarships for American football and soccer. The soccer offers were to better colleges."

Bocanegra went to UCLA where he majored in history and also learned that he could make a living at football. The career has evolved in an almost relaxed fashion. "I was 18 before I even thought about soccer as a career. I was 20 before I believed I could play in the MLS."

At 32, he looks forward to fulfilling his contract for the next two seasons. And beyond? He will play as long as he can but is now leaning towards coaching and also has a sports science centre in California that caters for both children and professional athletes.

Asked what his career in America and Europe has taught him, he said: "The necessity of sacrifice. You have to be prepared to give things up as a sportsman. You must accept you will miss out on things.

"I have had some ups and downs. I would do it all over again but it is a sacrifice. Sometimes I do not want to fly down to Guatemala mid-season to play a game and then fly back for a match at the weekend. I have missed weddings, birthdays, parties . . . but would I change it? No. I enjoy doing it all, living 7000 miles from home," he said.

He is typically postive about life at Ibrox as form falters and financial worries abound. "The title is still on the cards. The gap is four points but there are four months left and we have to play Celtic twice," he said.

"The tax case is something I can do nothing about. You can not harp on about injured players. They are gone, out of the team at the moment. We would love to have them, but they are not here. It is the same if someone leaves in the transfer window. You can not control it. You deal with what you have. And you make it work."

The rays of a wintry sun illuminate the room at Murray Park. Bocanegra has confirmed his optimism and thus his status as a genuine citizen of his new homeland, even citing, with a smile, Caledonian ancestry on his maternal side. He is, in short, as sunny as a Scotsman.

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