Bad timing was in Pepe Reina’s blood. His father, Miguel, while in goal for Atlético Madrid in the 1974 European Cup final, was guilty of perhaps the most ill-fated premature celebration in European football history.
With the Spanish side leading 1-0 in extra-time of their final against Bayern Munich, the story goes that Miguel was already giving his goalkeeping gloves to the MARCA photographer stationed behind his goal as a memento, leading him to dive far too late towards defender Hans-Georg Schwarzenbeck’s bobbling long-range effort. The German side equalised and forced a replay, in which they sashayed past a dispirited Atlético side for whom any chance of winning the title had evaporated when the equaliser rippled the net.
The story has never been proven – nor, perhaps more tellingly, has it been disproven – but whatever went on behind Miguel Reina’s goal that 1974 evening in Brussels proved vital to the goalkeeper’s late dive.
Reina Sr would later pass on his timing misfortune to his son, even if Pepe Reina’s unfortunate judgement calls have been made off the pitch, rather than on it – at least, for the most part. That is because throughout his career Pepe Reina has been part of some historically excellent teams, with the only problem being that he always happened to arrive just before or just after the championship-winning confetti fell from the heavens like footballing manna.
This is the story of a man who has consistently been in the right places, but at the wrong time.
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In Reina’s 16-year professional career, the glove-wearer has only won a total of eight trophies at club level – of which only the FA Cup, Coppa Italia and Bundesliga would be considered major.
However, having come through Barcelona’s famed La Masia youth academy it wasn’t supposed to be this way. Although he did not know it at the time, when Reina was first called up to the Barcelona first team in the year 2000, the Catalan club had just signed a youngster by the name of Lionel Messi, who was destined to lead himself and his future team-mates to trophy after trophy.
Reina’s Barcelona youth team rival and friend Victor Valdés – who is only seven months older than Reina – knows that only too well. Whereas Reina has just three major trophies to his name, his Catalan colleague would go on to amass six LaLiga titles, two Copa del Reys and three Champions Leagues.
In a parallel universe, those medals could very easily be sitting on Reina’s mantelpiece, yet he decided to leave the Camp Nou in 2002 after the arrival of the late Robert Enke from Benfica. Reina had always been a more talented prospect than Valdés, as proven by the fact that he was the one to have made 45 appearances before Enke’s arrival, not Valdés – who hadn’t even made his senior debut yet.
Precisely because Reina was ahead of Valdés in the Camp Nou pecking order, he was the one who had to leave to make way for Enke as he was the player who was too good – and too expensive – to be sitting on the bench. As such, Reina departed for Villarreal, clearing the way for Valdés’ path to glory.
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Read | Life on board the Yellow Submarine of Villarreal, the club that wouldn’t quit
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The roles could quite easily have been reversed had Valdés been the one to shine the brightest at the turn of the century, but the unfortunate timing in Reina’s blood played its first cruel trick. In a Biblical Abraham versus Isaac type battle for the blessing of being able to play in a Barcelona team that was on the verge of greatness, Valdés – as the less-developed goalkeeper – was the man allowed to stay, whereas Reina was moved on.
Although Valdés played his part in every one of those subsequent title wins, the fact that Reina has 33 international caps to Valdés’ 20 suggests that Reina would have been talented enough – perhaps more so – to win those trophies.
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Although a move to Villarreal was never going to be as profitable in terms of silverware as remaining at Barcelona, Reina could also have been able a part of success at El Madrigal, but once again bad timing let him down.
“I think moving to Villarreal is a step I had to take, it’s not a step backward but a step forward,” he told MARCA as he finalised his move. He was correct, in many ways. As well as receiving the opportunity to play first-team football, Villarreal was also a team on the verge of glory.
Having just missed out on UEFA Cup qualification, the Yellow Submarine had been entered into the 2002 Intertoto Cup, a tournament which offered a UEFA Cup berth for the three winners. Reina and his new team-mates came incredibly close to winning their final against Málaga, but ultimately fell short by one goal.
The following two seasons, though, they would return to the Intertoto Cup finals and they would win both of them, as Benito Floro’s and then Manuel Pellegrini’s teams started to put Villarreal on UEFA’s map.
Following a rollercoaster 2004-05 campaign in which Reina was so good that even an X-ray would even struggle to get past him, never mind a football, there was to be no Intertoto Cup appearance the following summer as tiny little Villarreal from a town of 50,000 people had secured their first ever qualification for the Champions League.
Yet Reina would not stick around to be a part of that incredible journey to the semi-finals of UEFA’s most prestigious tournament, where one Juan Román Riquelme penalty miss proved the difference and allowed Arsenal to advance. It may seem crazy in hindsight to think that he would forfeit that opportunity, but his 2005 transfer to Liverpool made plenty of sense at the time.
The Reds were the defending European champions after that night in Istanbul and, on paper, Reina had a stronger chance of obtaining his own Champions League winners medal by joining Rafa Benítez at Anfield, where he would relegate Jerzy Dudek to the bench. Liverpool, though, did not enjoy the same success of the previous year, losing the Club World Cup final to São Paulo, before crashing out of the Champions League in the last-16 at the hands of Benfica.
Although he would save three penalties on his way to winning that season’s FA Cup final – his first major trophy, following the 2005 UEFA Super Cup win – Reina could only look on from afar as his former team-mates at Villarreal advanced to a dream Champions League semi-final and as his former team-mate Víctor Valdés gave the most sought-after trophy in club football a smooch in Paris.
The saddest part of all was that this was exactly what Reina had wanted: “I am excited because Villarreal is a great shop window,” he had said as he joined the Valencian Community club in 2002 and, sure enough, he had impressed enough to move to a bigger club. However, just as the characters in Toy Story 2 come to realise that life isn’t always greener on the other side of the yard sale, Reina too learned that moving to a bigger club doesn’t always guarantee success.
The number 1 would go to become a Liverpool legend over the next several years and at the beginning of the 2008 summer he collected his third consecutive Premier League Golden Glove award, but his individual excellence hadn’t been properly reflected in the Anfield trophy cabinet.
By that time the team had won the 2006 Community Shield in addition to the FA Cup and UEFA Super Cup wins of his first season, but had won nothing more. A Champions League final rematch with AC Milan had afforded Reina the chance to finally hold the Champions League trophy himself, but the Italians swatted the Reds aside in Athens in an act of revenge.
European glory did not completely evade Reina, however, as in that summer of 2008 he formed part of Luis Aragonés’ Spain squad that won Euro 2008. On one hand, Reina’s timing was finally perfect as he had been lucky enough to coexist at the same time as the best generation of footballers in Spain’s history. On the other hand, his peak years had happened to coincide with those of Iker Casillas, probably the best goalkeeper the nation had produced since Ricardo Zamora.
As such, Reina played just one match in Austria and Switzerland, having been handed the driving seat for the final group stage game against Greece – which had zero significance given that Spain had already secured top spot in the group with wins over Russia and Sweden.
With the Liverpool man watching from the bench, his club team-mate Fernando Torres netted the winner in the final against Germany and Reina was a European champion, but – as would be the case in the subsequent 2010 World Cup win and the Euro 2012 win – he was little more than a passenger along for the ride.
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Returning to Liverpool after La Roja’s 2008 success, Reina came back to a club in disarray, with Tom Hicks and George Gillett infesting the club from the inside out as the stepfathers that nobody wanted. Yet on the pitch, Benítez’s team somehow managed to put together Liverpool’s best Premier League campaign in eight years. Only the attacking firepower of Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney, Carlos Tevez and – for a vital few minutes – Federico Macheda denied Reina and his colleagues a Premier League crown.
By that point, Reina’s team-mates had the foresight to sense that an end of an era was descending over Liverpool and that the current owners were hardly likely to revive the club’s fortunes anytime soon. So Xabi Alonso and Álvaro Arbeloa made returns to Spain in the 2009 transfer window, before Fernando Torres and Javier Mascherano similarly activated the ejector seat the following summer.
“Maybe it’s time to get realistic and not think about the title but just about winning the next game,” a frustrated Reina said after the 2009 exodus was followed by two defeats from the opening four matches. “We know what’s in the squad, but we can’t do anything about it. Teams like Manchester United have lots of players who can tip the balance; we haven’t got the individuals. It would be good if the owners made an effort economically, if they pushed.”
He was merely being realistic, rather than defeatist, but it is still a testament to the player’s loyalty that he remained with that sinking Liverpool ship like a footballing Captain Edward Smith, even though he had been linked with plenty of clubs – including with a return to Barcelona – in those two summers of mass departures. Yet as soon as Reina’s own performances began to deteriorate in the same way that the team’s showings had been worsening, his loyalty was not repaid.
In the summer of 2013, now under new ownership, Liverpool loaned the player out to Napoli, but did not even inform him until after the deal was agreed.
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Reina in action for Napoli
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A move to Barcelona had once again been on the table but had never materialised after Reina’s former – and now decorated – colleague Valdés decided to see out the final year of his contract, after which he explained to fans that he hoped to continue at Anfield. The club’s hierarchy had different ideas, though, and a ticket to southern Italy was booked in his name to make way for Simon Mignolet in a decision that came to look even more ill-advised over the following seasons than it initially appeared.
“It’s only natural I’d be disappointed that Liverpool agreed to loan me to Napoli without telling me first,” he said at the time as the jaws of Liverpool fans were still being picked up off the floor. “I thought I deserved better than that, even though I understand that difficult decisions have to be taken in football.”
It was just the latest instance of Reina’s poor timing costing him a chance of true glory. Had he known in advance that there was no future for him at Liverpool then he would have found no shortage of suitors and could have elected for a more suitable choice than a reunion with Benítez at Napoli. Although the Partenopei had been the closest challengers to Juventus in the 2012-13 season, the idea of them actually claiming the Serie A title was unrealistic, and so it proved as they finished 24 points behind the Turin-based outfit in 2013-14.
Silverware did not, though, prove as scarce at Napoli as Reina may first have imagined, with Gonzalo Higuaín’s post-Real Madrid revival leading the team to Coppa Italia glory – just Reina’s second major club trophy following the 2006 FA Cup triumph eight years previously. For once, Reina had ended up at a winning team – thanks, curiously, to a decision made by Liverpool and not by himself.
Up next was perhaps the strangest move of the Spaniard’s entire career, as Reina joined former team-mate Pep Guardiola at Bayern Munich to back up Manuel Neuer, making him the first ever Spaniard and the first ever goalkeeper to play in the Spanish, English, Italian and German top tiers.
While he was never going to win the starting berth ahead of Ballon d’Or finalist Neuer, the move did at least suggest that Reina would finally add some more medals to his collection, but in yet another case of sickeningly bad timing, his time in Bavaria coincided with the least successful season of Bayern Munich’s Guardiola era.
In his time at the Allianz Arena, Guardiola won seven trophies in total over three seasons, but in 2014-15 only the Bundesliga title was secured, with Reina playing just three matches and even collecting a red card in one of them. Meanwhile in Naples, his former team conquered Juventus in the Supercoppa Italiana to win a medal that the Spaniard – who would likely have started and who could have, therefore, been the penalty shootout hero instead of Rafael Cabral – would surely have treasured more than his token Bundesliga souvenir.
As if to further highlight his glory-dodging transfer moves, Reina then returned to the Stadio San Paolo for good in 2015 for a 2015-16 season in which Napoli won zero trophies – one fewer than the previous Reina-less season – while Bayern Munich won two titles – one more than the previous Reina-including season.
That sums up the shot stopper’s career in a nutshell. While Reina has consistently been one of the best goalkeepers on the continent over the past 16 years, he has never been able to join or leave clubs at the right time. On average, Barcelona, Villarreal, Liverpool, Napoli and Bayern Munich have won 15 total trophies each since Reina made his senior debut in the year 2000, but Reina himself has collected just eight total trophies in those 16 seasons.
While any outfield player can, on their day, take a game by the scruff of the neck to win a match or a cup final on their own, a goalkeeper is always reliant upon the performance of the ten men in front of him. Unfortunately for Reina, the 10 men attacking his opposite number’s goal were never as successful as they had been just before his arrival or just after his exit.
With Higuaín leaving Reina behind at Napoli, in the same way that Liverpool’s Panini sticker shinies of the late noughties abandoned him at Anfield, Reina’s underwhelming trophy haul does not look like improving anytime soon.
It remains to be seen where the goalkeeper will go once his time in Naples comes to an end, but fans of whatever club he moves to should be concerned. If Pepe Reina chooses to join your club, you’re getting a fantastic goalkeeper, but trophies will likely not accompany him.
By Euan McTear. Follow @emctear