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A perfect story of almosts: Meeting Gaizka Mendieta, the Spanish legend

Shambhu Ajith
Editor's Pick
962   //    29 Mar 2018, 20:21 IST

Gaizka M
Gaizka Mendieta

Riveted to the seat, succumbing to the claustrophobia of my cubicle, it took me a while before I realized I was staring at a blank screen with nothing but a reflection of my face on it when it happened. Bling. Bling. I flapped on over to Facebook where a couple of messages had just popped up from a LaLiga contact.

In about 10 minutes, the words 'Gaizka Mendieta' appeared on the screen and I shut the lid of my laptop like Freddy Krueger was threatening to jump out of it. Whipped my phone out and rang up a colleague and fellow calcio crank Anirudh Menon and within the next 10 seconds, we'd decided that we're going.

Keep 'em all at arm's length- the hook, the line, and the bloody sinker, because we are going.

I texted my brother who, in a reassuringly high-pitched note, screamed "WHAAT?!" and asked me to let Mendieta know how many bicycle kicks we scored with him on EA Sports 2002 World Cup - remember that game, the ball with the swoosh-shaped trail and all that? He was a "star" player.

Gaizka Mendieta.

The man who scored that goal that made football look like it was meticulously rendered in Autodesk in an animation lab.

This goal.

The man who went to the Camp Nou and sent the Barcelona defenders chasing unicorns before dropping the guillotine with a precise finish. (Watch from 1:09)

What were we going to ask this man who hustled his way to the top with a mickle of elbow grease and a mixture of unbridled grit and relentlessness?

He had scored in the 2002 World Cup for Spain, the first World Cup I followed as a fanatic and twice in consecutive seasons, he had fallen just short of European glory.

Mendieta used to be let to gallop around the bigwigs of Europe like the greatest funk to have swept the continent and no, we weren't going to fritter away asking him who he thinks is better between Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi. But unfortunately we'd need that too for these fanboys who have too much time to waste typing out warcries on Facebook, but that's beside the point.

The idea of meeting a player who was the best midfielder in Europe at a time when the Zinedine Zidanes, Seedorfs, Scholeses and Rivaldos were peaking was too exciting for us to catch some sleep. Well, that and the fact that we were both shelved on the top berths of a Scania that at times felt like a jet just easing on to the runway on a foggy morning. Only for about 18 hours.

I had it better off though because Anirudh is about 6 foot 4 and the cabins have a length of about 6'2" and he curled up like a tweaker coming off a streak.

By the time it was morning the next day, it felt like our eyes had been on a bender and were now all out of life. The interview was scheduled for 5 and we had about 7 hours to freshen up but no place to do it at.

So we picked out a cafe and after going about our business, we sat down and started digging all the crazy out of our head and put it on a paper. It came up to around 25 odd questions which were engineered to unveil the enigma and reveal the man who had touched the horizon and bounced back.

Gleaming like we got free drinks on a Friday night, we hopped on an auto and set sail for Taj Land's End, Bandra. As we were guided into the lounge, we saw a set of 3 cameramen, with a staggering amount of gear to boast, walk out of the sacred room and we were forced to give each other a stare down.

We had all but a notepad where we had jotted down questions like our mums do the grocery list when we're standing by the door with a plastic ready to go hustling in the market. It was all "OH! This. OH! That."

We were just kickin' it old school.

Before our interview, we were told that Mendieta himself hadn't been able to catch any sleep due to his flight timings and all these functions that he had to attend. We were only offering empathy though because we were too pumped to cut the interview short.

After a short while, our turn was up and we walked into the room, eyes not blinking, mouth not closing, to meet Gaizka Mendieta. He rose from his seat, greeted us with a smile. And when learned that we had been on a bus for 18 hours, he was taken aback and asked us to get seated before he did.

And then half an hour whizzed past.

We got to talking and we asked him about everything we wanted to know. That crazy goal against Atletico in Seville, the one against Barcelona, his untimely substitution in the 2000 Euros that effectively cost Spain a shot at the title, the double European heartbreak, Ranieri, Camacho, Mourinho, Guardiola, his father, Boro, penalties, athletics, moonlighting as a DJ...

He talked passionately about how stupefying a bag of tricks Romario was, how fortunate he was to play alongside Luis Milla and how much he would have loved to share the midfield realms with Claude Makelele. With the same spark in his eyes when he thundered a first-time wonder volley into the Barcelona net.

He even spoke of the magic of Lionel Messi with the same bewilderment we do.

The Gaizka Mendieta Exclusive Interview: In Conversation with Gaizka Mendieta: Rediscovering a Forgotten Champion of the Game

Not a single strand of hair on my body stayed seated when he recollected his changing room memories from their highly successful European campaigns. He also kicked on to make our day when he said, "You guys have done your homework."

Of course, Gaizka, what did you think?! But 'homework' would be overselling because we just needed to get the dates and the facts right. The football he used to play and that innocent face that housed a swag of stick-to-it-iveness are an inextricable part of what made us fall in love with the beautiful game.

And as we wound it up 30 minutes later, it felt like we were a bunch of football-crazy wackadoos discussing the game over a couple of pints of beer in anticipation of the weekend.

And for so enthusiastically reminding him of his best days in the game, Gaizka Mendieta gifted us a couple of La Liga caps and asked us to keep our love for the game intact. We assured him he could put all his money on that.

We took a selfie for kicks and got autographs anyway because we were kickin' it old school, right?

Selfie game on point

Got out of the room, did our Wakanda handshake and schlepped our dazed rears out to the Bandstand beach to just walk it off. We really had to walk it off or we'd be gauged as delinquents running on coke on a random weekday evening.

And then we caught a cab and met an old friend at an Irish pub and downed a tower of beer. All smiles. All banter. All football.

To get you up to speed though, the cap never came off my head until we touched down in Bangalore, another 20 hours later.

As for the excitement... ah, I doubt it ever will.

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Shambhu Ajith
Football is a whole skill to itself. A whole world. A whole universe to itself. Football is freedom - Bob Marley
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