Víctor Valdés at El País Semanal
Víctor Valdés is on the cover of EPS’s men’s fashion special, which came out yesterday. And he looked great inside, due in most part to his own merits, but also because the styling was done by Ana Antic, the stylist extraordinaire who also did this (the lucky woman is now friends with Xabi and Nagore. She’s also the daughter of Radomir Antic, who used to be VV’s coach). It’s a great read, and while I summarized the very few parts dealing with the current state of affairs of Barcelona (in keeping with the no club policy of this blog), you’re not missing much because the article deals mostly with what goes on inside Víctor’s head, and his childhood. And a big thanks to reader Michelle for sending in scans (my favorite is this one on the left).
The unbeatable Valdés
He’s been the least scored upon goalkeeper three times in the Liga. He’s accumulated titles with the best Barça team of all time. He says as a kid, losing made him panic. He wanted to quit. Today, he’s one of the best goalkeepers in the world. And he’s found his style.
The hands of Barça are big, hairy and nervous. Víctor Valdés has nails that have been bitten, and he changes watches according to how he feels. If something goes wrong on the field (or in life), he swaps one watch for another. These are signs of a perfectionist and of an obsessive personality. The last time he changed watches was after the first leg game against Arsenal in the Champions League, when he let in two goals. It’s not easy being a goalkeeper, much less the goalkeeper of a big club. It’s a solitary position made for solitary types. Valdés says that sometimes he hears people saying that goalkeepers “are usually crazy.” There are examples. But he believes that it’s usually the opposite. A goalkeeper has to shut out all those distractions and look for balance, and learn to accept errors. A goalkeeper is always the last man, the most vulnerable: “psychologically, he’s the one who’s the best prepared, for what he has to endure, for the solitude of the position, because your actions take place in tenths of a second.” All or nothing. A stop can clear the road to glory, but a goal can send you to hell. Valdés, 29, has been to both places. And he knows very well that place down there.
When he was six or seven, he was put in the goal of the team of his town, in Sant Esteve Sesrovires (Barcelona), at that age when very few want to play that position, when kids usually run towards the goal, shouting, “the last one to touch it stays.” One day, they needed a goalkeeper and as Valdés says, he was “better than the rest.” That’s how the history began, that classic fable of sporting success: a 10-year-old kid entering La Masía, working hard, being promoted, always under the posts, until one day when he’s 20 he at last has the chance to play for the first team, and bit by bit, he makes the case for his continuity with his security, reliability and skills. Then titles, recognition, all that come. But this is not the true history of Víctor Valdés. Well, it was the true history of Víctor Valdés until Víctor Valdés himself decided to reveal his real history.
In April 2010, when Víctor Valdés had already spent eight years in the elite, he confessed to the program Informe Robinson that “from the time I was eight until I turned 18, playing as a goalkeeper was a kind of special suffering for me, a constant suffering every weekend, something that I don’t like to have happen… what is being a goalkeeper… and I don’t understand why I do it… If I enjoy it…” The report tried to figure out the origins of this sick fear of failing, of receiving goals. Some of his former coaches revealed that they had never suspected that he had doubts, which would almost push him to abandon football on two occasions. The first time was when he was 10, and the second when he was 18, on the verge of taking a big step forward. He says that it was the support of his family and therapy that helped him to change his mind. “It terrified me to think: on Saturday, there is a game,” Valdés said in another moment. His father and his brother also appear in the report, confirming that anguish. “It’s the most sincere interview I’ve ever done in my life,” he says now. “I had never talked about it before. But it was what I had inside of me.”
Valdés had been known for his arrogant attitude and the scowl he wore for the 90 minutes of each game, for his nerves and his at times impulsive character. Luis Fermoso, the journalist responsible for that report, said it was almost like a psychoanalytic process. When it was proposed to Valdés that he be the subject of one episode of Informe Robinson, he immediately said yes, and added, “I have a story to tell.” They first tried to interview him in La Masía, then on a beach that he usually frequents. Nothing. It took three days of filming before Valdés was able to release this anxiety he felt as a child and as an adolescent, to unburden himself. Fermoso says that Michael Robinson immediately recognized that he too had felt these sensations.
Juan Carlos Unzué, today with Numancia, was Barcelona’s goalkeeping coach between 2003 and 2010. He met Valdés at the age of 21, when the “goalkeeper of the future” still hadn’t been decided. He says Valdés appeared to be cocky, and the first impression of him was that he was distant, but up close, you could see that he was introverted. And that with each day that passed, you realized that appearances didn’t reflect the reality.
The tough guy you see on the field, that man who shouts and gestures, is a mask, say those who know the real him. Many people are surprised when they find out that one of his best friends is Andrés Iniesta, that sincere and humble man with the good heart. They appear to be polar opposites. “We’re like brothers,” says Víctor Valdés. They grew up together in La Masía and together they’ve fought to make a name for themselves (Carles Puyol is also in that generation).
Valdés traveled to South Africa with the two of them. His incorporation into the national team promised “morbo.” There was talk about his rivalry with Pepe Reina. “The supposed bad vibes helped us to become better friends,” says Valdés. And then there was Iker Casillas. The captain, the indisputable starter, the goalkeeper who overshadowed him. There are some who say that Casillas is more spectacular, but that Valdés makes less mistakes. “He’s a fantastic person. A great professional. Very fast and electric,” says Casillas. Valdés didn’t end up debuting in the competition, but he did contribute to the group. The cameras captured how Valdés came running out from the bench to hug Andrés Iniesta the moment that agonizing World Cup final was over.
At the age of eight, Víctor passed the entrance exam for goalkeepers in the Peña Cinco Copas del Barça, in which young talents with potential developed. His coach at that time was Salvador Riera, who today has a group on Facebook in which he’s lauded as the “man who discovered Víctor Valdés.” Riera says that he was a boy “with class,” and that “I saw him do things that very few at his age could do.” Riera also reveals that at that time, he wanted to quit football because he had an argument with his older brother. But he continued. “Back then, he already had a bad temper. He spent the game yelling and positioning his teammates. He was bossy, disciplined and hardworking. A bit stubborn. And he always corrected any defect quickly.” But there was a problem. “As the team was good and won almost all its games, he hardly ever got to touch the ball.” The story of his life. The same occurs in Barça, the team with which he has been the least-scored upon goalkeeper in the Liga on three occasions. It appears that he has a gift of staying unnoticed, and his sporting merits speak for themselves. It was Riera who insisted to Barça’s scouts, “he knows how to throw himself. And he knows how to fly.” In 1992, the doors of La Masía were opened to him. That year, the Valdés Arribas family moved to Tenerife, while he continued living in that house with 60 other kids. After three months, the distance proved to be unsupportable and he asked to return to Tenerife. Once more, there were doubts. He was 10 years old. But soon, he began to regret that decision, when he watched his teammates play on TV. Tears came out. And he began to prepare for his reintegration to the cantera of Barça. He would spent the next eight years there.
One might think that that place is like a football paradise, where the kids don’t have to worry about anything except playing a bit better with each day. Víctor Valdés is extremely grateful for everything he received. But he admits that he also has “memories that are rough, very negative and very bad” from there. “La Masía is what it is: a residence in which you have to live with people that you have no relation with. You’re alone. Although you have friends, you don’t have your family.” That place was where his “sacrificing and perfectionist” character that “always tries to do well,” with the “spirit of triumphing over everything” character was molded. He also learned not to talk about his problems, those that he ended up purging himself of years later in front of the cameras. “From the time I was young, I had to prepare to do something that was neither comfortable nor positive for me. That suffering when it came time to play, to compete. The fear of failing, of not doing well…” He never said anything to anyone. On one occasion, at the age of 18, after a juvenil game in which his team scored many goals and in which he had only allowed one, he was found dejected in the locker room. His coach Pep Segura asked him what was wrong. “It was that goal that they scored against me, I failed,” the goalkeeper responded. Segura began to talk about all the things he had done well. He told him, “without all that, perhaps we wouldn’t have won. Always focus on the positive.” And that’s the advice that Valdés tries to apply to his game and to his life, “although it’s complicated.”
It was then when he thought of quitting football for the first time. He decided that life was not for him. He explains, “I stuck with my decision.” His family and friends tried to support him. They used therapy to help him deal with his fears. It worked. And from that moment on, everything looked up. His father had dreamed of seeing his son debut in the Camp Nou since he was a kid, and that occurred in 2002. It was a tormenting time in the goal of Barça. Goalkeepers were changed frequently and there was no stability. All were judged and criticized. Valdés played two months as the starter of the first team, but a pair of errors saw him sent back to Barça B. The goalkeeper showed his anger and volatile temperament by not turning up for training sessions for several days. Later on, he publicly asked for forgiveness, accepted his role as a back-up and continued working until he was called up a few months later to play for Radomir Antic. Antic says, “he always stayed 20 minutes after the end of each training session to continue working.” Valdés adds that sometimes he would stay for an hour.
People who know this say that he’s a goalkeeper with “his own style.” He’s never tried to imitate anyone else, as he’s always looked for his own voice, using a mixture of innate talent and hard work. Antic says, “even the way he dresses and behaves is unlike anyone else.” The next season, his starting status continued to be debated in the press and in the stands, while he worked at making himself stronger. And several years later, his performance was a determining factor in Barcelona’s 2006 Champions League trophy. He says that day marked a before and after in his career. At that time, he wasn’t shaving his head, something he does today “for convenience, and because I’m tired of styling my hair and of gel.” There were no adolescent girls screaming for him, as they did twice during this interview. But he began to exert control over this necessary balance between calm and adrenaline. He started dating a model, they had a son, and for him Valdés keeps photos, trophies and memories, “in case he asks about it one day.” He tattooed his name, Dylan, on his arm (the other one has a Viking warrior on it). He won many other trophies and managed to overcome, bit by bit, his manias, such as not stepping on the lines, although he continues biting his nails and changing watches.
I love that all three of our goalkeepers have so much personality (and such distinct ones), and really, each of them has found his own style, no? And speaking of goalkeepers, Iker made an appearance in El Mundo’s Magazine yesterday, speaking about beards, beauty secrets, books and more. You can find that here.
And no, I haven’t forgotten that I promised more Javi!