la cuna de los campeones (IV)
This edition takes us across northern Spain. From Cataluña, we travel to País Vasco, before ending our trip in Asturias.
Gavà – Víctor Valdés.
The town: Gavà, a town to the south of Barcelona, has a population of almost 50,000. Many Barcelona players live here, such as Leo Messi or Víctor Valdés himself.
The player: the fact that Víctor Valdés is Barcelona’s current goalkeeper and a member of the Spanish national team can be considered somewhat of a miracle. This is because Víctor didn’t want to be a goalkeeper, and he almost gave it up three times. As a kid, he suffered game after game. Nevertheless, his tenacity and above all that of his family made him continue, and now he has become one of the best goalkeepers in the world.
He began at the age of nine, when he joined Barcelona. He tried out in the Peña Blaugrana Cinco Copas, and the club did not hesitate to sign him. The first goal he guarded was in the Camp Nou complex, just 50 meters away from the stadium. The dirt field, which is now a parking lot, was where the league of the peñas azulgranas played. This was where he began to grow as a footballer. Salva Riera, his first coach, says, “he was a good goalkeeper, he had innate qualities and leadership skills.” On this team, he competed with Jordi Codina, who is now Getafe’s goalkeeper, to defend the goal. Riera says, “Jordi was very brave, but he had to learn how to be a goalkeeper. Víctor had it inside of him.”
Fast forward to two years later. Barcelona had decided not to take him in. The problem was that his team was so good that he couldn’t shine, because he had no work to do. His coach, who knew of his potential, pressured Albert Benaiges, the director of Barcelona’s football base, to try him out. Once they did that, they didn’t hesitate in signing him. Víctor went to live in La Masía since his parents were living in Tenerife. He didn’t last long there. He didn’t like being far from his parents and he suffered quite a lot. Five months after moving to La Masía, he left and went to the Canary Islands to be with his family. A short while later, he regretted his decision, and luckily, the doors to Barça were still open to him. But he did suffer. As Víctor told “Informe Robinson,” “going to the game terrified me. The goal made me panic.” He was on the verge of leaving football. His father and brother then convinced him to see a psychologist, and the treatment helped him to overcome the pressure. Víctor saw the goal in another way and he stayed with Barcelona.
At the age of 20, he debuted with the first team. It wasn’t easy. He received a lot of criticism for his performance in a game against Betis and Van Gaal sent him back to the youth team. Valdés didn’t like that at all and so one day he refused to train. He later on realized his error and asked for forgiveness. From there, he made a space for himself on the first team and he’s been there since.
They will never forget… how he spent long afternoons training with his father on the Los Cristianos beach. When he made the decision to return to Barcelona, Víctor was living with his family in Tenerife. He began playing with UD Ibarra, and he knew that if he wanted to be successful when he returned, he had to take the training sessions very seriously. His father José Manuel helped him to do that. After finishing school, Víctor and his father would go to the Los Cristianos beach in Tenerife to train.
Salvador Riera on Víctor Valdés: Salvador Riera was Víctor’s first coach in the Peña Blaugrana Cinco Copas. He remembers him as a “very timid and introverted boy. He was usually silent, but when he came onto the field, he transformed, shouting and ordering his teammates around.” Riera was always convinced that Víctor would make it, “because he had all the qualities to be a good goalkeeper, although he was a bit short.” One time, Valdés’ father asked Riera to speak with his son and convince him not to leave the team: “I told him, ‘you’re going to be Barcelona’s goalkeeper.’ He didn’t know whether to believe me and he told me I was just saying this so that he wouldn’t leave the team.”
Tolosa – Xabi Alonso.
The town: Tolosa is situated in the valley of the Oria River, has 18,000 residents and is known for its paper industry.
The player: it didn’t matter that Xabi Alonso was one of the smallest kids on the Ikastola Ekintza team, or whether he was playing on the sand of La Concha beach or playing on the gravel pitch of Berio with Antiguoko: his passes caught everyone’s attention. Javier García Pitu was his first coach, and he remembers Xabi’s beginnings: “the coaches of the club usually watched beach football games to see which of the kids were good. Xabi was already as good as he is now when he was nine or 10. He was just a lot smaller and had very red hair, very red. Everyone was amazed by his intelligence and his placement of the ball.”
Xabi and Mikel Arteta shared a team during his first years as a player, along with other footballers who are not so well known, Jon Álvarez and Mikel Yanguas. Pitu says that they had an “equipazo” and Barça managed to sign only three of those four, in part because Periko believed Xabi was good where he was and he was too young to leave. He also remembers Xabi and Arteta were very competitive with each other: “we always had to put them on the same team, because if not, there would be sparks. They got along very well, but with a ball between them, they became very competitive.”
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Xabi’s beginnings weren’t easy, because Antiguoko’s field was paved with gravel, and since there were so many teams, each one only had a fourth of the field or a half to train on. Sometimes, they even had to go to a nearby school to train on concrete. His first coach says there was only one time he had to scold Xabi: “it was in the cadetes, when we saw that he wasn’t making an effort in training and so we put him on the bench. We told him that, if he gave it his all each day, he could get very far. From then on, he always gave 100 percent and that has been very important to helping him get to where he has.”
Xabi was very close to joining Athletic, but that club did not make such a strong effort to get him as Real Sociedad did. Pitu says, “in Antiguoko, we had an agreement with Athletic and Amorrortu asked us for Mikel and Xabi Alonso. They wanted Xabi for their second youth team, the one in the Liga Vasca, and not for the División de Honor, so Xabi was against it. Then Real Sociedad showed up, offering just that.”
They will never forget… how Antiguoko got rich when he went to Liverpool. Xabi and Arteta are the reasons why Antiguoko was able to renovate their social headquarters and purchase new sporting material. Their directors had included a clause in their contracts to receive 10 percent of any future transfer, up to €600,000, which made the club rich when Xabi was sold to Liverpool for 18 million. It was also at Antiguoko that the first ever meeting between Vicente del Bosque and Xabi took place, during the Copa de Campeones Juvenil. Antiguoko won the first leg against Real Madrid (Xabi, Iraola and Aduriz all played), and it is said that Del Bosque asked about that blond kid. In the second leg, Madrid made a comeback and went on to the final.
Imanol Arcelus and Josean Ortego on Xabi Alonso: Imanol Arcelus was Xabi’s teammate on Ikastola Ekintza and on the beach football team, and he remembers how good Xabi was with the ball when he was all of 10 years old: “it was amazing how he played. He was so small and physically one of the weakest on the team, but he already had this bestial quality that made a difference. He made all of us much better. It was a pleasure to share a team with him.” Imanol played football and basketball at the same time, and reveals that Xabi was also quite good with a basketball: “he’s good at all sports. I also played on a basketball team and sometimes when we needed one more, he would come join us. He developed physically much later than the rest, but he was very intelligent both on the football field and on the basketball court.”
Josean Ortego was Xabi’s tutor and math teacher, and one of his biggest fans: “it was already a pleasure to watch him play on the beach when he was nine. He knew where he had to pass the ball before he received it.” Ortego also reveals two anecdotes: “Xabi was good at all sports. One time we needed one more to play basketball and he put on the shirt. He handed out lots of assists. In mathematics, his lowest grade was an 8 (on a scale of 0 to 10). Everyone was envious, because he got such good grades even though he didn’t study a lot and trained every day.”
Oviedo – Santi Cazorla.
The town: although the capital of Asturias only has slightly more than 200,000 inhabitants, it has produced many footballer players. Santi Cazorla, Juan Mata and Adrián López have all suited up for Real Oviedo, although not all of them were born in the capital.
The player: when Luis Aragonés announced the list of players called up for the 2008 Eurocopa, many were surprised to see Santi Cazorla’s name there. In the end, it proved to be the right decision, especially for the penalty he scored against Italy in the semifinals. Cazorla was born in Llanera, and began to play futsal with Covadonga. He caught the eye of Real Oviedo, who signed him when he was 10. Cazorla rose through Oviedo, and during his second year as a juvenil, he was ceded to Astur. Nacho Canal, who worked for Oviedo, says, “the club wanted him to compete in the División de Honor. He had an excellent season.” He then returned to Oviedo. Back then, the club didn’t have the El Requexón training grounds, so the club had to look for outside fields for their teams to train on. Canal remembers that the teams could train on three different fields during the course of one week. In 2003, the club was facing economic problems and so it dissolved the youth system, allowing all the footballers to go free. Some decided to stay, but Cazorla went to Villarreal to play with its reserve team.
They will never forget… how he played in the same Brunete Tournament as Torres and Iniesta. When he was an alevín, Santi Cazorla played in the Brunete Tournament, the same year Fernando Torres competed in it with Atlético and Andrés Iniesta with Albacete. Iniesta ended up as the best player of the tournament. Cazorla was considered back then as the most precocious of the three, since he was born at the end of 1985, while Iniesta and Torres were born in 1984. Years later, the three of them would become teammates at the Eurocopa.
Nacho Canal on Santi Cazorla: Nacho Canal worked for Oviedo when Cazorla was there and today he works with Juan Mata Sr. representing footballers. He says, “the thing that caught my attention was that the ball practically came up to his knee. But what was really incredible was that he was equally adept at using either leg to kick the ball. Technically, he was a 10, he really shone.” Canal also reveals one anecdote from those years: “some days, after the training sessions, we would practice goal kicks and make the boys use their weak legs. When it was Santi’s turn, he always asked, ‘which one should I take it with?’ He was equally skilled at taking it with his right as with his left.” In addition, Canal says, “he was always very nice and humble. He’ still in contact with his former teammates. Each time he comes to Oviedo, he meets up with many of those teammates, and he’s always willing to help them out.”