Six years ago Barcelona were coasting at the Camp Nou, five goals into a 6-0 destruction of Getafe, but before the second half began Lionel Messi covered his mouth and encouraged a then 18-year-old midfielder, who had represented Spain at youth level a month earlier, to switch allegiances. “I maybe did something good to impress him,” Emi Buendía says, smiling. “He asked: ‘What do you want to do? Do you want to play for Spain or Argentina?’ Quickly I said: ‘Of course I want to play for Argentina. I want to play with you – it is a dream.’”
A key cog in helping Norwich to return to the Premier League at the first attempt, Buendía hopes an Argentina call-up, and living out that fantasy of playing with Messi, could be the next milestone. “The target this year was to be back in the Premier League, so that one is achieved, but everyone wants to play for his national team,” says Buendía, who has three caps for Argentina’s Under-20s. “It would be something very special for me. I work every day to try to be better and to try to get this chance to represent my country.”
Messi knows a talented player when he sees one and the same can be said for Stuart Webber, the Norwich sporting director, who flew to Madrid to meet Buendía before signing him. The midfielder, who had been on loan from Getafe at the struggling Segunda División club Cultural Leonesa, for an initial £1.3m three years ago.
He has been central to Daniel Farke’s side and this season he has lit up the Championship, contributing 14 goals and a league-high 16 assists. Buendía, who left Mar Del Plata on the Argentinian coast to join Real Madrid’s youth setup at the age of 11 before joining Getafe two years later, has attracted admiring glances from Arsenal and Atlético Madrid. On Thursday his irresistible performances earned him Norwich’s player of the year award and the Championship player of the year prize at the EFL awards, but beyond the nonchalant passes and sumptuous finishes there is a steely side to his game.
“It is something that is in my football; it has been in my blood since I was young. I always liked to score goals and give assists to my teammates but I always like to help out in defence and always go to tackle because it’s a good feeling when you get the ball back and you can go to attack again. I just enjoy it and sometimes I can help the team in these times.”
One of the most common sights this season has been Buendía locating the striker Teemu Pukki, with whom he has a telepathic understanding: that combination has brought eight goals. Could Buendía pick out Pukki with his eyes closed? “Yes, sometimes without looking at him, I try to know every time where he is. I think we are playing for years, in my case, together with some players. I know how it works with everyone. For example my connection with Teemu is something special. When I have the ball, I just know he is running in behind to get the ball. Also with Maxi [Max Aarons] on the right wing. Those connections can make the difference in games.”
Norwich are intent on being crowned champions at home against Reading on Saturday – “the intensity in training is still very high because we want to do it this weekend” – and then the focus will turn to the Premier League. Will we see a better version of Norwich than the team relegated with a whimper last summer?
“Yes, for sure,” Buendía says. “I always said that the experience in this squad means a lot and now with this team and these players, we have played a few years together so everyone knows everyone and more players have played before in the Premier League. This is very good. I think the structure and the project, looking forward it will be good to do it properly next year. It is important to get this experience to do it better next time.”