Togo and Getafe defender Djene Dakonam believes playing regularly against the likes of Lionel Messi in Spain’s La Liga has made him a better player.
The 27-year-old made 34 league appearances last season as his club finished fifth to earn a Europa League place.
He moved to Spain from Belgian side Sint-Truidense in 2017 and has enjoyed testing himself against the best strikers in the world.
“Whenever I come up against players like Messi, Griezmann or Ronaldo – like I did last season – it’s always exceptional,” he told BBC Sport.
“It’s always a great source of motivation. As a defender you know these attackers need just an opportunity to get a goal so you have to be on top of your art to contain them.
“You have to be fast, you have to read the game and you have to be a step ahead of them.
“I’ve worked hard these past seasons playing against them and obviously it’s improved my game.
“La Liga this season has been very competitive but as a team we’ve improved. We play better now.
The former Tonnerre Abomey defender had a first taste of Spanish football between 2014 and 2016 when he played in the second-tier with Alcorcon.
His decision to return to Spain was made with some advice from his Togo teammate Emmanuel Adebayor, who had a brief spell with Real Madrid in 2011 scoring scoring five times in 14 appearances.
“Adebayor isn’t just a team mate, he is more like an older brother to me,” he explained.
“He has played for the best clubs in Europe’s top championships and has a wealth of experience which is very important in football nowadays.
“Before joining Getafe, we had a chat and he explained to me why I should go to Spain instead of anywhere else and since then we’ve stayed in touch.
“He played in Spain and has a knowledge of the league which I’ve been learning from. His words have been helpful and I’m grateful to him.”
Dakonam’s string of impressive displays have seen him attract interest from a host of top European clubs but he insists he is keen on achieving more with Getafe.
“I have a deal with Getafe that ends in 2023. I am happy with the team and what we’ve been able to achieve this far,” he said.
“It’s always good to hear of the interest from the big clubs. I appreciate this but I really don’t let it get to me.
“I just want to continue working hard, stay healthy and give in my best.”
Nations Cup disappointment
The biggest disappointment for Dakonam this season is Togo’s absence from June’s Africa Cup of Nations in Egypt.
The Sparrowhawks missed out on qualification for the expanded 24-team tournament after losing 2-1 to Benin on the last day of the qualifiers.
“It’s a great disappointment for the team and the entire nation. I think we had a good group and we should’ve qualified,” he explained.
“But there are a lot of things we need to strengthen – it’s a learning process for us and we need to begin competitions properly.
“We have to be realistic and continue to progress. I believe the future is good for us.”
A league winner with Cameroon side Coton Sport of Garoua in 2013, Djene has won 37 international caps and played at the 2013 and 2017 Nations Cup finals.