Spanish Legend Gaizka Mendieta chooses between Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo
Gaizka Mendieta was in Mumbai earlier this month, in his capacity as an Ambassador of La Liga and when we (Shambhu Ajith and I) were given a chance to go and meet the great man, we jumped at the chance.
Generously, he took time out of a hectic schedule, sparing 30 minutes to talk about his career from Castellon to Middlesbrough via Valencia, Lazio, Barcelona and, of course, Spain and you can read more about this fascinating character right here:
We did, however, realise that there'd be a section of our audience who'd much rather read something about Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi and apparently so did he... when we asked him that immortal question - who is the best player in the world right now - a knowing smile, a shake of the head and an "Aaah, the Ronaldo-Messi question, everybody wants to know this" clearly indicating he was used to this.
His answer, well, read for yourself:
"Messi. Messi. Messi. But you have to enjoy both because we have had these guys for what 9 years in La Liga… scoring over 40-50 goals a season every season - so enjoy them while we have them.
"But I liked Ronaldo in the beginning… United, the first year in Madrid; the player who would take the ball from the wings, drive and do whatever he wanted. But the way I watch football and the way I enjoy football… it’s Messi. Messi is the skill, the talent, the generosity, the humility… he can score goals, he assists, he passes, he does everything… "
We continued on this note, asking him a bunch of quickfire questions:
Q. Toughest Opponent?
A. Ronaldo. O Fenomeno… he was fast, powerful, skilful… Maybe Rivaldo also – on their day you couldn’t stop them. They could win games on their own. Rivaldo did it, remember… that hattrick. Phew.
Q. Ideal partner? (Apart from the ones you played with):
A. "[Fernando] Redondo. [Claude] Makelele. If you had asked me about the players I played with, I'd have to say I was lucky to have Luis Milla… he was so clever. He could read the game like that *snaps finger* He allowed me to do anything; the guy would just fix it… if I was out of position, he would stop the game, make a foul, something…"
Q. Most talented teammate?
A. "We had him for a very brief time [at Valencia]… but he was UFF, in training especially he was out of this world – Romario. Romario was like a PlayStation player. In the games it was different, the way we played it didn’t suit him"
Q. La Liga, Serie A or the Premier League?
A. "(NO HESITATION) La Liga. La Liga because, I think La Liga ticks all the boxes; you’ve got skills, you’ve got possession, you’ve got attacking football –tactics. In a way, as a football player, it challenged you more. I mean, when I went to the Premier League, I found it easy in a way because there were a lot of spaces – that’s what makes it entertaining, ‘cos everyone goes, attacks and they forget about everything.
Whereas in Spain, you have to work harder, how do I break up this, how do I go through this, how do I attack… so it was more challenging; I spent 10-11 years and I grew up as a person and a player there so La Liga is the best there is, that’s what I enjoyed."
Q. Favourite goal?
"Atletico Madrid... READ ALL ABOUT THAT HERE
For me what was very special was Athletic Bilbao. Because it was San Mames, I’m from Bilbao – so it was special in so many ways… but the best was Atletico Madrid.
Some people say Barcelona too – but that’s like one second, you kick it and that’s it. It’s beautiful [in its own right] but the other one it’s like, the timing, the skills, the composure, the finishing… it’s all in one world."
Q. Favourite coach?
A. "Hector Nunez who, when I was 19, told me ‘look, I trust you, you will play every single game, put me as a midfielder, and gave me freedom. I signed with Valencia with Hiddink, I learned a lot – because we did a lot of extra training, so technically I improved a lot with him
And then in general, 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.
Luis Aragones too – he changed Valencia, he changed the National Team also"
Q. Jose Mourinho or Pep Guardiola?
"If we talk Mourinho, that’s his style, he’s more concerned about defending to allow the space behind where you go Guardiola he wants to attack from one side to go to the other; so every manager has his own style, different. I prefer, obviously, the Guardiola style."
"Actually, I would like to have both because I think Mourinho is great to bring the best of all the players. There’s not one player that has been under him who will say anything bad about him, everyone loves him… but if I have to identify more with something, it would have to be Guardiola"
"Having said that, in my days in Valencia we played a bit more like Mourinho… with Ranieri and Cuper, we play trying to find others who were in space; although when we actually had possession, we had players that we were able to maintain the ball. We had Kily[Gonzalez], Milla, Farinos; we had Claudio [Lopez] who was all about speed and finishing, so yeah we had different options in the team."
Q. Favourite position?
A. "Well I was holding midfielder when in Castellon, and when I went to Valencia – because technically I was very normal, and because I could run – they put me on the right side. As I improved technically, and my football got better with experience, I started to play again in midfield. I always wanted to play with freedom - if you play with two midfielders, one attacking the other defending, and me with more freedom. What they normally did to me was play me on the right side – and then give me the freedom. Because I had the energy, I could do whatever and run back to position – or one of the two holding midfielders would cover my position and I would come in the middle.
But ideally, in the middle with the freedom to create – I enjoyed the freedom, 'cos I felt I had the vision and the skills to do it, and also because I had the energy to - if I lose the ball somewhere, I could run back and you know the team wouldn’t feel let down and the system wouldn’t fail."
We then asked him to tell us one crazy anecdote from his playing days, anything at all... and because we asked nicely, he indulged us:
"In Valencia, we had three guys – I won't name them – these guys were in the club for a long time, and their jokes, pranks, were just crazy. I think it was in my second pre-season, I was 18-19, they went to one of the executive board members (two-three would travel with the team) and they went to his room in the hotel and they put his bed, the bedside table, everything in the garden. And all the clothes were out of the wardrobes and strewn about… "
"The same guys; when we used to arrive at Valencia airport, it used to be small back then, they would go near the baggage belt, put masks on and scare people by jumping out of that area! For us, the younger players – we would shit ourselves. Once they came in the middle of the night and knocked on our doors… and unloaded on us with a fire extinguisher." he breaks out into a fit of laughter as he recollects the good ol' days.
When asked whether he had indulged in similar kinds of 'ragging', he said: "We were calmer, when I was captain we would try to embarrass the youngsters, climb on a table, give a speech, sing a song."
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