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

Anirudh Menon
FEATURED COLUMNIST
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1.09K   //    Timeless

In
In conversation with Gaizka Mendieta - along with Shambhu Ajith

26 June 1999, Seville

Copa del Rey Final. Atletico Madrid vs Valencia

The clock had just ticked past the half-hour mark when Adrien 'Cobra' Ilie raced down the left touchline and wafted a hopeful-looking cross into the centre toward his captain, who'd timed his run into the box superbly... if he'd got it on the gallop, he'd have had the freedom of the box and just Jose Molina in the Atletico Madrid goal to beat. The ball, though, was a shoddy one and it forced him to check his run...

When he'd joined Valencia as an 18-year-old defensive-midfielder from his boyhood club Castellon in 1992, the lad had been ridiculed for his lack of skill on the ball. 'He will not be playing for us for long,' one of their veteran centre-backs had said during one early training session.

Moved to right-back, he'd quietly accepted the criticism and fell back on the one attribute of his that had got him this far. A Champion's appetite for hard work. He trained and trained and trained and trained... working on his technique, honing his ball control, putting in extra-hour after extra-hour, putting his body and soul into becoming a better footballer.

... As he decelerated to meet the trajectory of the ball, he saw two men in Atleti rojiblanco catch up with him. With the ball slightly behind him, he spun, bent his back and killed the ball dead with a velvet-soft touch on his chest - all in one smooth motion - before bouncing it on his knee once as he regained balance, allowing the ball to drop onto his right boot...

Hector Nunez had come in as coach in '93 and recognising the improvement in the young lad's technique and his commitment to training, had asked him to move into central midfield. The Uruguayan told him, '"Look, I trust you, you will play every single game" and it was he who gave him the confidence and freedom to play his own game.

Nunez, though, left in '94 and Valencia's ever colourful off-field politics began to take its toll on the pitch... and on the young man's game. Over the next three years, he played under 7 different managers and it wasn't until the board brought in Claudio Ranieri that a semblance of order returned to the Mestalla.

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The wily old Italian made his move to central midfield permanent, and gave him the captain's armband - "Ranieri was special in my career. The way he changed, not only me but the whole club into the Italian mentality… preparation and everything like that. So I think we changed as a team, as a club, with him" - and by the summer of 1999, Valencia had gone from forgotten giants to a real threat to the established order, a team capable of marrying exhilarating football with stoic defensiveness, a team capable of beating anyone, anytime, anyplace; and he had become the epitome of this new-found mojo, a man capable of inspiring fans and teammates a like, a man capable of moments of pure magic, a man who was the symbol of all that was good about Valencia. He had become their leader...

... As he flicked the ball up with that right boot, and that little round thing took off on a delightfully high arc above the two rather astounded Atleti men, the 45,000 assembled at La Cartuja let out a collective gasp.

The spectacle is made even more dramatic by the reactions of his opponents, two of whom move forward anticipating him to play the ball backward, away from the goal, two others understanding what had happened - one of them rooted to the sport, understanding the physics of it but unable to comprehend the audacity, the other putting in a desperate slide tackle that's just a touch too late... for the Valencia captain had rediscovered that patch of empty grass in the Atleti box with that one moment of magic, and with the arc of the ball allowing it drop gently onto his left boot, he lashed a low, unstoppable volley into the back of the net.


The score read Atletico Madrid 0, Valencia 2, and even though there was an hour or so to go, the game was all but decided. You see, Valencia's '99 vintage simply didn't allow two-goal leads to slip away...

It was their leader who had sealed the triumph, their first in well over two decades... the lad who had given up basketball and athletics to take up his father's profession, the man who had matured from half-decent right-back to world-class midfielder .. and he had done it with one of the greatest goals the grand ol' competition had seen in its 95-year-old history.

It was the start of a glorious peak that took him to the very top of world football...

*****

1 March 2018, Mumbai

The Business Centre, Taj Land's End

The handshake is firm, the gaze steady, and the smile confident. The flowing golden locks of his footballing heyday may have been discarded in favour of a more business-like short-on-the-sides-medium-up-top cut, but in person, dressed in a dark blue tee tucked into matching jeans (just the way he always wore his kit, old school), he has the same aura that he exuded during his playing days, a rather hard-to-convey-through-words aura of calm authority, an aura of 'Relax, I've got this', an aura that transmits the absolute, unconditional, belief he has in himself...

Gaizka Mendieta is still very much the boss.

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In the summer of 2000, with the charismatic Hector Cuper in charge, Mendieta led Valencia to the Champions League final on their maiden European Cup sojourn before repeating the trick the next year... looking back at it, time - and the sheer quality of that Valencia squad - have thrown us off just what a massive achievement this was. Imagine the state of Twitter now if that happens, a club that's never played in the Champions League comes in through the qualifying rounds, beats the who's who of football and marauds their way to two back-to-back finals... Woof!

In the process, and at a time when Zinedine Zidane was at his absolute peak, Mendieta won himself two consecutive UEFA Midfielder of the Year prizes; till date, no one else has won more than one.

When we talk to him about those two years; there's a twinkle in his eyes, the joy of having touched the ceiling is evident, but it's also laced with a tinge of sadness, a tinge of regret... he got to two finals, yes, but he lost both of them.

*****

In 2000, Valencia lost the final to Real Madrid, 3-0. In 2001, to Bayern Munich... cruelly, on penalties.

Speaking before the '01 final he'd said "Last year everything was new to us. This year we know what to expect. One thing is clear: this year we are better prepared than last year. We're used to getting used to these kinds of experiences" and seventeen years later, the second loss still stings.

"[In '00] Madrid was better than us, they play so well. During the season we were on fire, we played so well we go to the final, Madrid was 7th or 8th in the table [they ended up 5th], and they had to win to qualify for Europe to save their season – and they absolutely played us [off the park]", he tells us.

That night in the Stade de France, Fernando Morientes, the underrated Steve McManaman, and Raul ripped Valencia apart as the Kings of Europe romped to their eighth Champions League triumph.

"Obviously, you’re angry, you’re sad because you’ve lost the final" he continued. "A team that reaches the CL final for the first time, it was amazing, but losing it was hard to take"

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When he talks about Bayern, though... "With the second one, we played really well, we started winning so everything was... kind of indicating that we were doing the right things to actually win; and then it was... we felt like it was kind of taken out of our hands and then penalties… [long pause]"

Having slotted Valencia into the lead with a penalty in the 3rd minute, he'd seen Steffen Effenberg do likewise in the 51st for the Bavarian giants, and things rarely end well when you take a German side to penalties...

"[shakes himself out of the pause] ...people say it’s a lottery, but it’s not a lottery; no, because you need to have players that take penalties.… that was harder to take because we felt we nearly... we had it in our hands", he tells us as he shakes his head wistfully.

We asked him how he, and his mates, could possibly recover from such heartbreak "How do we recover? Well we say, … let’s get the next season started as soon as possible. ‘Cos you go on holidays, and you’re still replaying the final – it’s like when you have a lot of games, there’s no time to think… it’s just the next one, and the next one… you just want to have the next one" ah, yes, the good ol' grandparent-approved method: bow your head, bury yourself in your work and just forget the pain... but it's his next line that gives us our first insight into what makes an elite-level athlete tick, what makes Mendieta tick.

"But that’s sport. You fall and you stand up; you fall and you stand up. There is no other way."

There is no other way?

There are other ways, of course. Giving up is one. Adjusting to reality and changing your dream is another. We all do it and as we do it, we comfort ourselves with the thought that it's what allows our lives to continue normally, what keeps the world going round and round...

Never in our conversation, though, does he ever he give off the suggestion that he wanted to give up, or that he wanted to change. Or that he had had enough, enough losses. enough heartbreak, enough false hope...

Enough is not a word Gaizka Mendieta understands.For him, there really is no other way; and that's what helped him survive Lazio.

*****

Despite the heartbreaks, Mendieta was at his footballing peak when the summer of '01 rolled around; he was the best midfielder in all Europe, his club of nearly a decade was marching inexorably forward... what could possibly go wrong?

The bloody transfer season is what.

That summer, Valencia sold him to Lazio... with interest coming in from Real Madrid and Barcelona, Los Che's President, Pedro Cortes Garcia had announced a little earlier in the year that he'd "rather go hungry than sell him", but when the Romans came down to the east coast of Spain and threw a cool €48 million on the table... the board felt compelled to act and off he went to the Olimipico.

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"Haha, yes. He said that. The President resigned his post after that. He kept his word. A man of honour", smiles Mendieta when we mention the comment, obviously proud of the fact that Garcia had stuck to his guns about a player he so deeply believed in.

But there's precious little smiling when he recounts the one year he spent at Rome... starting just 9 times for I Biancocelesti, playing a bit-part role in most of these appearances, neither setting up nor scoring a goal; in the space of half a dozen months he went from having all of Europe fawning over him to being called 'the biggest and most disappointing waste of money in the history of the game' by the Italian press.

When we asked him how he managed to live through what must have been hell on earth, how he managed to survive going from the fulcrum around which a champion team was built, a hero worshipped by an entire city, to being on an outcast, an afterthought - all of which happened with such abrupt suddenness that it would have derailed most people's lives permanently, he started his response - as he did throughout our interaction - with a positive thought...

"I always knew that in my career, I wanted to experience football in more possible ways. Culturally, Countries – I went to Italy, I went to England and I would have carried on going to more places if I could. Because I think it’s a great opportunity."

...before providing an often spoken about but rarely applied approach toward looking at circumstances beyond your control that force you out of your comfort zone... even if that zone had you on the fast track to 'proper' greatness.

Don't just look at it as a challenge, look at it as an opportunity.

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"When I had the chance to Italy – and it became real – I knew it was going to be a big challenge because no one before had success, Spanish footballers, since Luis Suarez which was a long time ago [when the great Spaniard followed Helenio Hererra from Barcelona to Inter in the early '60s]. So I knew I was facing challenges like the football was more physical, more direct, maybe the managers wanted me to do things that I wasn’t enjoying as much as I did Valencia – where I did what I wanted, within the system."

"And naturally that is something that happened to me when I started to play I felt [throws in a gesture that implies uneasiness] – which was normal because it takes time to settle, it takes time for you to know the players, for the players to know you, for you to settle into the football team."

Us football writers are often forced into making sudden, forceful, judgments on a player's impact at a new club - just look at the number of words thrown around about Alexis Sanchez and his 'dismal' first three months at Manchester United, the number of rumours that start flying around, the 'sources' that come out of nowhere to aid in the spinning of a claustrophobic web that's filled with viciousness and vitriol - and quite a lot of us fail to take into account, by design or by accident, the base fact that these guys, these superstars are just human beings.

They may get paid a hell of more, but they are, at the end of the day, one of us.

Well, almost.

What makes them champions, what makes them truly great, though, is the ability to look adversity in the face and ask it to f*** right off. It was as he was explaining how he endured that mad year in Lazio that we really understood the soul of Mendieta and in turn, the soul of a champion...

"So I faced that... How?", he says, matter-of-factly... "Just working, Working hard. Training, and training, and training. I used to watch videos of football… I used to train. I used to train every single day, training like [punches palm with fist]– like I always did, but when things are not going the way you expect, or the way you want to go – you just have to try to work different and harder. And that’s what I did. Same-same in England. When I went to England, football I found it easier to adapt – but still, it was faster."

"But it’s like anything in life. When you face a challenge, you have to – as a sportsperson – overcome it, step over it. And for us training is the way, there is no other way."

That phrase again.

"There is no other way"

Those aren't just words loosely strung together in an aesthetically pleasing manner so that they can be printed on that motivational poster you hang up on your bedroom wall with Dwayne 'the Rock' Johnson lifting something that looks like the Rock of Gibraltar on his shoulders.

"Like I said, me, I was watching videos – how to play, how other plays who went to Italy play, or moved from Italy played."

For Mendieta, there really is no other way.

He does regret that he couldn't do well in Rome, saying he spent a lot of time "Trying to understand [why the team didn't do well]... 'cos we had, although it was quite a Latin team - we had Simeone, Piojo [Claudio Lopez, who joined him from Valencia on the same plane], Ivan del Pena, we had players you would have thought would have worked together but we were in Italy and that takes over and actually it was hard, it was difficult".. but he shrugs it away.

"You fall, you stand up.... there is no other way"

*****

A year later, he was loaned out to Barcelona; and he jumped at the chance of going back to his home country to play in the league, play the way, he's always loved the most; but the Barcelona of 2002 was unrecognisable from the one of today, a chaotic mess on-and-off the field and the Camp Nou wasn't in any state to help a down-in-the-dumps footballer trying to rediscover his magic.

"It was difficult. It was bad timing I think, it was a transition time where we had three coaches, changes at Chairman level, you see the team we were when I was there and the year after, it was completely different. So that obviously. Most times, a lot of the times in football, you can’t pick and choose. Barca comes and knocks on your door, you don’t say no, come next year. So… I went, we tried our best, we had a really good team -"

And here he pauses to make a correction, to make a distinction that is often lost on the vast majority of observers...

"- sorry, we had really good players, but I don’t think the team was [all that good]; next year everything changed. I really enjoyed, I loved my time there, I would have liked to have stayed more – but things were changing and it was impossible."

Ent

With Frank Rijkaard and Joan Laporta coming in to kickstart the greatest era in the club's history, Mendieta didn't stand a chance as the two went about making wholesale changes as they got on with the mammoth task of restructuring the entire club.

Once again, he'd come so close to being part of something truly great, perhaps becoming a more widely acknowledged great himself... but as it had with Valencia (who went on to win two back-to-back La Liga titles under Rafa Benitez right after Mendieta left) and Spain (where a missed Raul penalty denied them a place in the semifinals of the magnificent Euro 2000 and some blatantly biased refereeing denied them a place in the semis of the 2002 World Cup)... it slipped away just as it looked like he'd nailed it.

If we had to pick one match to encapsulate his career, just one... out of the 495 that he's played for clubs and country, it'd have to be that Euro 2000 quarterfinal against France.

Having seen Zinedine Zidane sweep France into the lead with a sumptuous freekick, Mendieta had equalised with one of his clinically-efficient rolled-in penalties, but Youri Djorkaeff had re-established France's lead in the dying embers of chaotic, madly entertaining first half.

In the second, Jose Antonio Camacho inexplicably subbed off Mendieta before the hour mark. A minute from time, Spain got a penalty - and in the absence of their best penalty-taker, Raul stepped up... and missed.

When we talk about it, as much as the regret and the sadness that laces the statement, it's his quiet acceptance of it, the lack of any real whining or crying foul that really stands out.

"If I was on the pitch, I probably would have taken it. How do I feel about that? I shouldn’t have been substituted, I was playing well. I was in good form in that tournament, also from the coach’s point of view, considering it might go to penalties, you don’t take 'one of the best' penalty takers in the squad off because you are potentially missing the chance to win and that’s how I analysed it.

I am sure Camacho has his reasons, but for me, I was thinking “why”.. but if Raul had scored, it would be a different story."

"You fall, you stand up.... there is no other way"

*****

He wasn't just one of Spain's best penalty takers, he was their greatest ever spot-kick taker. The real genius of his spot-kicks are not immediately evident, but it is when you watch him take them in slo-mo that it really strikes you...

"The penalties are about… really, first is confidence. If you think you are going to miss, then you’re going to miss. And then is, learn to get your routine. To Forget about, obviously, the pressure that comes, forget about – everyone is watching… it is like a ritual, you get the ball, you put it on the penalty spot, you walk back – so all these steps lead you to take the penalty."


"Then, my technique was to watch the goalkeeper, and wait for him to move. Because the goalies, in order to try to save it, they have to move first otherwise they won’t reach it. So I wait, I wait, I wait… and when they move, put it to the other side. If they don’t move, normally, I put it to the [indicates the left of the keeper with a swish of his hand] because as I was running it was easier… hit it with pace, and they don’t get it."

... Just watch him in slo-mo, once he starts on his run, he doesn't even glance at the ball. Not once. And he says it like it's the most natural thing in the world.

The ability to maintain your calm, to keep ahold of your nerves, to turn off the noise around you... it's so underrated.

*****

After the Barcelona debacle and while he was back at Lazio (it had been a loan deal), Steve McClaren approached him and pitched to him an ambitious project that he'd been building up in the northwest of England with little-known Middlesbrough.

In what McClaren described as a 'very strange half-an-hour', Mendieta says that "He [McLaren] explained to me what sort of club they are, how the team plays, what he wanted of me. We were both surprised about how many things we were in agreement about"

When Mendieta arrived at the Riverside, there was a genuine ripple of excitement. McClaren and club captain Gareth Southgate admitted in his first week there that the players had stepped up their training the moment the Spaniard had landed - such was the aura he arrived with.

He sparkled in the three years he had at the Riverside, his last three years of professional football; living up to one of McClaren's declarations after a particularly emphatic display against Jose Mourinho's Chelsea - "You didn't just see quality, technique, and ability, you saw attitude and work rate. You always wonder if they'll adapt to the English game. He [Mendieta] won't have a problem. It's players like that who can win you a football match in a matter of seconds."

With the inspiration he provided from midfield Boro won their first - and till date, last - major trophy in 2003-04 beating Bolton Wanderers 2-1 in the final of the League Cup.

His retirement, though, was forced upon him - as with most of the things that went wrong with his career. Former teammate Southgate took over the helm and started looking at player contributions differently, more scientifically. Southgate started playing his own little version of Moneyball with the Boro squad and made no bones about what he saw- "Mendi's computer stats worry me", he told the British press.

We never really talked about that particularly painful episode of his life, but his feelings about modern football's insistence on athletes over footballers, on stats over pure skill are painfully evident. It worries him.

"It is a [question of] whether academies and the clubs are creating, or are... how do you say... promoting the skills… I don’t think so. Now more than football it’s about systems, it’s about being an athlete, physical, quick and strong, and skill."

"Not Messi, who is probably a unique one – maybe like Isco, Asensio, Iniesta – those type of players are becoming more rare and rare as you look down on the young players. But I think that’s because of the demands of modern football. I don’t like it; I like to see a challenge."

"And I understand that it’s the way football is moving because years ago it wasn’t as professional as it is nowadays, football players are athletes, but I would like to see football players taking care of skills rather just focusing on being strong, fast and all that"

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He doesn't have anything against the system - after all, he played his best football under Claudio Ranieri and Hector Cuper, two coaches famously insistent on team-shape and defensive discipline and he told us that although he loved playing in the free role in midfield, whether on the right or the middle... because he felt he had the skill and vision to play there... he also made sure he had the energy to cover his mates."if I lose the ball somewhere, I could run back and you know the team wouldn’t be let down and the system wouldn’t fail"

Skill, ability... and attitude... it takes the whole shebang to make a true Champion.

*****

Despite the heartbreaks, the pain, the suffering, that he's had to suffer in his professional career, Mendieta lives a life of no regrets... and that's because he chose a profession he enjoyed.

"No... no, [when asked whether he regretted switching athletics for football] because I’ll tell you why. Because I always did what I wanted to do at that time. So, I used to play Basketball, athletics, and football. Then I dropped basket and I did athletics and football… and then I dropped football because I just felt running was for me. Then I told my dad, no I want to play football because I enjoy it more – so my dad put me in a football club"

"But I say this because I always chose what I enjoy doing more. That was athletics at the time and [then[ football. And it worked. I always base my decisions on what I enjoy and what my passion is about", before underlining something that's evident to anybody who studies his career "Money has never been a priority in whatever I have done – and I would like to keep it that way". 

These days he dons multiple hats, businessman, La Liga ambassador, DJ (he's spoken about how he used to sneak into nightclubs in Valencia in disguise to escape the stress that comes with his profession) and trainee coach.

He's got the UEFA A license and is planning on taking the Pro license next year and would sooner or later like to enter the pressure-cooker world of a football manager.

As far as we are concerned, it can't come fast enough.

A great of the game often forgotten thanks to the casual fan's obsession with statistics and silverware and generally amnesiac memory of all things not etched indelibly in either, it'd be nice if a public re-emergence rekindles the memories of a footballer who played the game the way a fan would dream of doing it - with a dash of unimaginable skill and a whole lot of undying commitment.

It'd be nice to rekindle the memories of a true champion of the beautiful game; and it'd be even better for a whole new generation to get to learn of him, from him... and learn to imitate that wonderful life philosophy of his... "There is no other way"


Gaizka Mendieta was in India as La Liga reaches a following of over 38 million across the Globe. Join the conversation at facebook.com/laliga

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