Gaizka Mendieta made the breakthrough in the world of football in Valencia during 1993 to 2001. He won with them the 1998 UEFA Intertoto Cup, the 1999 Copa del Rey, the 1999 Spanish Super Cup and reached the Champions League final two consecutive times (2000, 2001).
The Bilbao-born Spaniard went on to play for Lazio in Serie A, Barcelona in La Liga and Middlesbrough in Premier League, where he lifted the League Cup in 2004. He was a Spain international and a runner-up of UEFA European U-21 Championship 1996. Individually, he was named as the best midfielder in Europe for the years 2000 and 2001 by UEFA.
Mendieta, one of the greatest footballers that Spain has produced, currently a businessman, TV football analyst, La Liga ambassador & occasional DJ, spoke with Sportskeeda about English and Spanish football, including the rivalry and the domination of El Clasico clubs Barcelona and Real Madrid.
Q: You have won numerous club and individual titles and have scored many goals for different teams. Which specific moment of your career do you recall most often, now that eight years have passed since your retirement (2008 in Middlesbrough)?
Obviously, I always remember the great and the big times like when you win trophies and individual titles, as you mentioned. My first debut with Valencia in La Liga is always something that I think it is obviously very important for me. (I remember) all those great moments, the successful ones, (which came) after a lot of work and sacrifices. These are the memories that I have from my career.
Q: Which teammate of yours was your favourite? And which defender caused you the most difficulties?
I always got on very well with my teammates. I am still nowadays in contact with a lot of them, those with whom I played in different games, the legends of the games around the world. Luckily, I have a lot of friends in the world of football.
There's always been tough defenders that caused me a lot of difficulties. It was really difficult to play against them, but that was the challenge; when you play against the biggest defensive or centre midfielders, like Simeone, Rondo, Makelele. All these players were fantastic and amazing, but for me, it was a challenge to overplay them.
Q: You spent the most years of your career in Valencia. You helped Valencia win the Copa del Rey and the Spanish Super Cup. You weren't there when they won the 2001/02 & 2003/04 La Liga, but do you feel that you set the stage in order they to be able to win these two Spanish championships?
I was very happy when Valencia won all those trophies after I left. I think somehow, in a way, I felt part of it because I spent the previous ten years in the club; not only me but also my teammates (felt part of it) during our time when we had a goal to create and build something that luckily stayed at Valencia for longer and brought success to the club. Like I said, I am very happy for my teammates, for the fans and for the club, that all those years were so successful for them even if I wasn't there.
Q: You were runners up with Valencia in 2000 and 2001 Champions League campaign. Atletico Madrid were also runners-up of UCL in 2014 and 2016. You both lost from the same team, Real Madrid; Valencia from Bayern too. Do you feel a connection with Atletico due to these facts?
I kind of feel a connection with Atletico Madrid in the way that both clubs grew up. Atletico Madrid did it nowadays with Cholo Simeone and we did it at Valencia. There are similarities that remained to everyone's memory, especially how we lost both of the finals. Atletico Madrid has lost both of them too; also the La Liga titles that Atletico and Valencia won.
Apart from that, I think that Atletico and Valencia had completely different styles of football. Atletico Madrid and Valencia displays were very different in terms of football. Obviously, the achievements and the upsets against Real Madrid and Barcelona, the two giants in Spain, are something that I have retained in my memory from my days with Valencia.
Q: After Valencia in 2003/04, Atletico Madrid was the only team that managed to win La Liga apart from Real Madrid and Barcelona, the last 15 years. In Champions League Real Madrid and Barcelona dominate the possession of the trophy despite the fact that many other Spanish teams reached high stages during the years, such as Valencia and Atletico Madrid. Why is it so hard another Spanish club to win the title from Barcelona and Real Madrid in La Liga and Champions League?
Well, I think that the fact that Madrid and Barcelona have won these trophies so many times stems from the strength and the potential they have in terms of money and financial possibilities to buy the best players in the world. This makes it very difficult for other teams to do so. La Liga is a very competitive league, arguably the best league in the world, due to the fact that Barcelona and Real Madrid are very competitive teams and the best players in the world want to be in this league and in particular in these two clubs.
So I think that it makes it even bigger achievement for teams like Atletico Madrid or Valencia, who were mentioned earlier, to reach the final in the Champions League and also beat these clubs, not only in Spain but also in Europe.
Q: Sevilla has got five Europa League wins in the last ten years. It is an unprecedented fact that can only be compared with the five successive wins of European Cup (current Champions League) from Real Madrid in 1956-1960. Where do you think it can lead them? Perhaps in a future win of La Liga or Champions League? Is Sevilla capable of that?
Surely, Sevilla's achievements in the past ten years are undeniable; in the present they find difficulty to adapt to their new manager (Jorge Sampaoli), but the structure that there is within the club and the sporting director Monchi, who knows very well what the needs of this team are and what type of players must be signed, it makes them a very valuable club and squad.
He is somebody who doesn't let things on chance and connects them with the competitions. Definitely, Sevilla can do that. We see them in the Champions League competing against the big clubs. I think they are still far from there (winning Champions League and La Liga), but in the future who knows. Definitely, they found comfort in Europa League.
Q: You have played for Barcelona too. Many players have decided to play for both Barcelona and Real Madrid despite the rivalry that makes them hateful to the fans of their previous El Clasico team. Did you ever have a proposal from Real Madrid and you probably denied it? If you hypothetically had, would you go to Real Madrid, when you were a player?
No, personally I've never had an offer from Real Madrid. As a player, you always want to play for the best clubs in the world. I was lucky to play for Barcelona because it was, it is and always will be one of the biggest clubs in football's history. If I had an offer (from Real Madrid) before I went to Barca, yes, it is something that I would consider.
There is no player that doesn't want to play for the big clubs in Spain and anywhere all over the world. We are talking about two amazing clubs. I think everyone would consider such offers. Apart from that, it is important to play so sometimes you have to bring to the table and take on board your chances to play. We have seen many players go to Real Madrid and not play to the extent they thought they would. But definitely, it is something to think about, that time would have comforted me (a proposal from Real Madrid).