Deep in the Barranco Seco, a light-hearted game of tag broke the morning sun. Pre-season in Gran Canaria’s capital was officially underway, while the promotion celebrations of June were finally put to an affirmative end. In little over a month’s time, the bibs, cones and heart monitors of pre-season would make way for the sounds of the Vicente Calderón; one of Europe’s most primitive footballing amphitheaters, and a far cry from the lower league strife of the past decade. ‘The times they are a-changin’, Bob Dylan might say. But Las Palmas have no time to lose.
It’s been thirteen long years since they last graced Spain’s top flight, and 27 years since they last played Atlético Madrid. A large portion of the current squad were not even born the last time los Amarillos jollied up the Calderón-hugging Manzanares river; back when football in La Liga was the norm for the islanders. For the next group who make the trip, it will not. The challenge is exciting and something that a Canario-heavy squad has dreamed of for many years, but it’s equally tense and butterfly inducing. Foraying into the unknown always is.
Yet when the Las Palmas team bus pulls into the confines of the Calderón next month – humming with the pounding heartbeats and racing imaginations of many players preparing for the biggest challenge of their career – one man will feel something very different entirely, for he has made this walk many times before. Though as always, his senses will remain masked behind an eye-suffocating, eternal grin.
In those precious moments before the squad disembarks the bus at the stadium to commence mission one in the year of their lives, they will look for him. Heads will turn, scanning the length and breadth of the vehicle in search of his awkward, unassuming figure one last time, just to know he is there. Like a wise, old wizard who has led his accomplices to the doors of the battle, he will surface only temporarily in the true firefight, but his presence will stand unquantifiable. Juan Carlos Valerón played at the Vicente Calderón for the first time almost 17 years ago.
The ‘magician from Arguineguin’ is now in his forties, and still he remains. With the realisation of each passing season, he appears to edge closer and closer towards his footballing exit, just without ever tipping the scale completely. ‘Ah, that’s got to be time now’, the murmurs echo; for no other reason than it’s the logical thing to do. His playing generation should be extinct by this point, and actually would be if flaco (skinny) had conformed to the unwritten rules of footballing lifecycles.
Calling time on his career isn’t something Valerón has learned to ignore, though. He knows that every day could be his last, and each contract extension is weighed up for many months beforehand. He’s made for the exit a few times already in fact; seemingly at ease with stepping away, but only before poking his head back into frame just when it looks like his languid frame has finally pierced the horizon.
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Following his renowned 13-year stint with Deportivo La Coruña, Valerón went home to Gran Canaria in 2013, aged 38, with the aim of offering whatever he had left to the club where it all began. While his story had been busy taking flight in Galicia, hometown club Las Palmas were in the doldrums; even dropping down as far as Spain’s third tier in 2004. It all meant that sixteen years after setting sail from the island, and with retirement looming following a painful end to his playing days on the peninsula, Valerón was pulled back to the Canaries by one lasting fantasy. “It was impossible to say no,” he said at his unveiling. The prospect of helping his boyhood team back to La Liga was just too romantic to pass on.
Year one back on the motherland would not grant him his wish, however. Though he had dazzled in a low-octane, wandering midfield role – crafted specifically to protect his physical state and allow his intellect to prosper – Las Palmas were agonizingly edged out by a 93rd minute Córdoba winner in the playoff final. And to make matters worse, the last-gasp goal only arrived after the home supporters had invaded the pitch in celebration; unaware that a final punt into the box following lengthy delays would ruin their confused, uncalibrated side’s promotion party. It would have been very easy to assume it was the end for Juan Carlos Valerón, but we know by now that un año mas (another year) is his perennial mantra.
Las Palmas exacted playoff revenge in June against Real Zaragoza, 364 days after they had been felled at the finish line. Valerón started just three of his 21 appearances last season, having swapped his direction of contribution in alignment with his declining condition. Instead of taking on another main role in the team, flaco became more of an inside intermediary; an angle from where he could live closely by the side of a young team, particularly the midfield area which hosts a core of recent first team graduates, and who, to this day, must pinch themselves every time the Godfather of Canarian football comes close. Valerón knew it would be they – the young bucks and future of the club – who could push Las Palmas back to La Liga, but he knew that he could help them to bring it to life.
Still, every time manager Paco Herrera convened him from the bench, the eternal man wore a smile indicative of a debut, and suggestive of his continuity. Immediately after promotion was confirmed on 21 June, club president Miguel Ángel Ramírez addressed the media on the field amid frenzied celebrations – his mind scrambled with the euphoria of the moment, but in confidence of delivering news to delight the masses.
“[Valerón] will play in the first division next year so he can say farewell to all of the [major] stadiums in Spain,” he barked into a concoction of microphones, sending editorial assistants far and wide scrambling back to their keyboards. The headlines weren’t about Las Palmas returning to La Liga after thirteen years anymore. They were about Juan Carlos Valerón’s return.
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When he trots out onto the various stadiums up and down the country in 2015-16, stadiums will rise to their feet in celebration of his presence. For a brief moment, score lines, frustrations, and rivalry will make way for an observance universally felt to be owed to him. It’s an honour that is lavished upon few in Spain, and scoring the winning goal in the World Cup final is usually the requisite for fortnightly standing ovations. Yet even the great in question, Andrés Iniesta, is reduced to another pair of eyes that twinkle when the 40-year-old comes into sight. “He’s an example both on the pitch and away from it,” the hero of 2010 assures.
Valerón’s farewell tour that will commence on 23 August will not be a celebration of an exquisite footballer; Spain has had hundreds of them over the years – though of course, he was. Instead, it will be a devotion to a man who seemingly had it all but never felt like he did; a small-town kid who squirmed out of a reclusive corner of the Canary Islands, and made success at the top level uniquely palatable. Life’s rule of thumb for prospering in any populated field is often to be ruthless and willing to hand out a few bruises in order to make it. But not Valerón; he was always looking down, trying to irk out who he could help up.
Even in times of anguish, his character would not alter. For the moderate glory he experienced in Deportivo La Coruña’s heyday, Valerón’s career will inevitably come to a close with just one major trophy. That came back in 2002, when against all the odds, the Galicians ascended on the capital to take down Real Madrid at the Santiago Bernabéu. Other than that, a couple of Supercopa triumphs, an Intertoto Cup co-win and a second division winners medal make up the rest of his modest haul.
There is no scorn on his perceived underachievement of honours though. Of course it would have been nice to have added a few more, but don’t ache for him. “I’m just as excited to play for Deportivo in the second division as I [was] to play for Spain,” he once said. His modesty as such would have probably prevented him from being a part of a team that won everything anyway – this being a man who admitted winning ‘at all costs’ never interested him.
To this day, he shirks the spotlight and craves only good will. At his family home, the photos and honours on display make him feel uneasy; an “excess of vanity” he calls it. Ask him for a photo or an autograph in the street and he will oblige with a warm, self-effacing smile, but that too feels uncomfortable. If there’s one thing in the world he dislikes – probably the only thing – it is being treated exceptionally because of his career path. “I’m no more important than a bricklayer,” he pleads, with not even a whit of false modesty. And it’s that intertwined alchemy of footballer and human being that makes him so cherished.
The opportunity to say goodbye for good is one that won’t be missed. Not this time. After Valerón’s relegation with Deportivo La Coruña in 2013, which also looked likely to end his playing days, it seemed as if he would just retreat into the shadows without the universal fanfare he deserved, but never expected. For many, that would have been a tragedy. The world had watched him get up from career-sabotaging injuries to try and safeguard his Galician love from their plummet; a situation he never deserved to be put through, but one he vowed to fight against. And when they fell despite his admirable resistance, his tears melted an audience that had rooted for him all along.
Soon he will be gone for good; back into the heart of sleepy Arguineguin from where he first ventured more than two decades ago, fuelled by little other than a virtuous affection for the game. His gift has kissed all corners of the world during that time, far more than he could have ever imagined, and in ways that he never even intended.
Juan Carlos Valerón might finish his career with a serious dearth of sporting honours, but when it comes to love, he has taken it all. And Spain can’t wait to show him how.
By Jamie Kemp. Follow @jamiemkemp