Gaizka Mendieta: the midfield master who worked his way to the top

Gaizka Mendieta: the midfield master who worked his way to the top

This story starts in Valencia, but not where you might expect. The year is 2015 and Benicàssim is hosting one of biggest music festivals on the continent. Thousands of sunburnt revellers are being serenaded by indie group Los Planetas, when they announce the arrival of a special guest for their next songHe’s used to performing on the big stage, albeit whilst pulling a different set of strings to those adorning the bass guitar in his hand. As the crowd sings his name, they confirm what the footballing world already knows – Gaizka Mendieta Zabala is a rock star.

With his cherubic face and flowing blond locks, he wouldn’t have looked out-of-place waxing a surfboard on a Malibu beachfront. Beneath the unkempt exterior, however, lay a footballer with an insatiable desire to improve, and an unstoppable will to learn. Still, few could have predicted the heights that the boy from Bilbao would go on to achieve, captaining Valencia to consecutive Champions League finals at the turn of the century, and etching his name into Spanish football folklore.

There may not have even been a Gaizka Mendieta had a dodgy-haired teenager decided to pursue a burgeoning career in athletics. Mendieta only began playing seriously in his mid-teens, having been an accomplished runner who broke regional records in Spain with his natural athleticism.

Eventually he decided to follow the career path laid out by his father Andrés, signing for his old club CD Castellón. Sixteen energetic performances in the Segunda convinced Guus Hiddink’s Valencia to take a punt, but the B team was a natural home for a player who had a long way to go to break into the starting line-up.

So Mendieta got to work, and wouldn’t stop for another 15 years. After 12 months he’d improved so much that he forced his way into the first team squad as a leggy right-back. Guus Hiddink was sacked after a 7-0 European humiliation by Karlsruhe was followed by a defeat to Sporting Gijón, and his eventual replacement was Héctor Núñez.

The Uruguayan had played for the club in the 1960s and it was he who decided that Mendieta would play in the centre of the field, trusting him to deliver in his preferred position.

It was a boon to the young Spaniard’s morale, but it wouldn’t last long. Off the pitch, president Arturo Tuzón was forced out, with his replacement swiftly ejecting Núñez and reinstalling Hiddink less than a year after he was sacked. Carlos Alberto Parreira, Luis Aragonés and Jorge Valdano had subsequent and very different spells as coach, in a turbulent period for the club in which Mendieta failed to nail down a regular place and position in the starting line-up.

After a successful spell with Fiorentina, Claudio Ranieri was the man tasked with bringing stability and progress to the Mestalla after Valdano’s removal. The Italian immediately set about mending the cracks in the Valencian defence, adding steel to his team of silken artisans.

Mendieta was moved to the middle of the field alongside Javier Farinós and Luis Milla, the latter of whom had just signed from Real Madrid among many other important players. With his midfield partners acting as anchors, Mendieta was given licence to roam forward by Ranieri, in a tactical switch that would start the club and player on the road to European glory.

The 1997/98 season would be a disappointment for the team, who climbed from the relegation places to a mediocre ninth-place finish. For Mendieta, though, it was a year where he finally established himself as one of the countries’ most promising players. Ten goals in 30 games was the result of a fantastic campaign, but it was at the San Mamés where Europe caught its first real glimpse of his potential.

Receiving the ball outside the box, Mendieta burst away from the sliding challenge of one Bilbao defender, before a quick feint to shoot on his right. Another feint on his left sent a second defender skidding across the turf, before a cool finish was slotted past Imanol Exteberria and into the net. As applause began to ripple through La Catedral it was becoming clear that we were in the presence of an ethereal talent.

Ranieri summed up the wonderment of all observers when he stated: “I can only compare that goal to Maradona.” It was no surprise that Mendieta was given the armband of a club for whom he was quickly becoming irreplaceable.

Ranieri would remain as coach the following year, in a campaign where Valencia would dilly-ding their way to a first trophy in two decades. An inspired run in the Copa del Rey saw them topple Barcelona and Real Madrid, including a 6-0 hammering of Los Merengues at the Mestalla, earning a place in the final against Atlético Madrid.

On a moonlit evening in Seville, Valencia put on a footballing masterclass, overwhelming the Madrileños courtesy of two goals from Claudio López. But it was Mendieta’s goal in between those strikes that would live long in the memory.

Receiving Adrian Ilie’s hopeful cross with his back to goal, Mendieta chested the ball whilst spinning in mid-air, killing it dead with a deft touch off his knee. In the blink of an eye, the ball was flicked over two hapless Atlético defenders before a left-footed strike was buried past José Molina. It remains one of the greatest goals ever scored on any football pitch.

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What was most astonishing about this one-off goal was just that; it wasn’t a one-off. In the quarter-final against Barcelona, Mendieta had silenced the Camp Nou with another sublime finish, a goal that continues to act a reference point for his quality. Adrian Ilie was again the provider, having spotted the Basque free on the edge of the box from a corner. Mendieta approached the ball in slow motion, before sprinting towards it like he had suddenly decided exactly where it should go. A magnificent volley was still accelerating as it exploded into the top corner, scything past a helpless Ruud Hesp in the Blaugrana goal.

It was an incredible strike and testament to how far Mendieta had travelled since signing for the club. Years of relentless self-improvement, of knocking on the door, before he tore it down with a cannon blast from his right foot. Thousands of hours of perspiration had been transformed into one moment of timeless footballing art, and every one of his teammates shared it with him.

Things would continue to get better. Having just beaten Atlético in the Copa del Rey final, Ranieri decamped from the Mestalla to take over the job at Los Colchoneros. His replacement was Héctor Cúper, the chain-smoking student of the Helenio Herrera school who had worked miracles with Mallorca.

The Argentine would build on the foundations Ranieri set, kicking off with a 4-3 Supercopa victory against Barcelona. By virtue of their third-place finish, Los Che would enjoy their maiden campaign in the Champions League, being drawn into a group of what seemed like certain death alongside Bayern Munich, PSV and Rangers.

Fans of the Glasgow club won’t need reminding of the torment Mendieta inflicted on them at Ibrox that night in October 1999, where a sumptuous left-footed volley was the apex of a breathtaking display of football from the Valencia captain.

His team qualified easily, enjoying their sojourn with the European elite before the second group stage pitted them against Manchester United, Bordeaux and Fiorentina. The Bats qualified again, before petrifying Lazio 5-3 on aggregate in the quarters.

Their opponents in the semi-final would be Barcelona, in a last four stage that was dominated (as is so often the case) by Spanish clubs. Los Cules are revered for their tactical blueprint, but at the time the insistence on their own style appeared churlish as Valencia had the beating of them yet again with a magnificent 4-1 victory in the first leg. Two strikes from Angulo cancelled out Mauricio Pellegrino’s own goal, before Mendieta scored a decisive penalty before the break.

The entire stadium knew it was a goal as soon as the penalty was awarded. They had learned from experience, Mendieta’s faultless record from the spot almost guaranteeing that the net would ripple gratefully. He hardly ever missed, trusting his technique and temperament to such a degree that even looking at the ball was deemed an unnecessary part of the process.

Mendieta would rest his ice-cold eyes on the goalkeeper, waiting on him to make a move before passing the ball into the net. It was just another skill from a player who looked like a master of all footballing trades. As he told Graham Hunter in a fantastic interview, Mendieta’s penalty technique was a result of observing his former teammate Oleg Salenko take penalties during his time in Valencia. It was typical of a player who was always learning, always improving, always getting better by gleaning information from his teammates to improve his own performance.

When Claudio López added a fourth, passage to the final in St. Denis was effectively secured. Valencia would be facing Real Madrid, the doyens of European football, a club that had made the Champions League their own personal playground. The descendants of Ferenc Puskás, Paco Gento and Alfredo Di Stéfano wouldn’t surrender their legacy easily, not in the same city where their competition was first conceived almost 50 years before.

Valencia choked, in a lifeless performance that contrasted sharply with their vibrant European campaign. Madrid were irresistible, Steve McManaman’s stylish goal a classy kick in the teeth. As Miroslav Đukić fell into the net trying stop Raúl’s finish and Real’s third, the message was clear: know your place.

It would be the highlight of the summer for Spanish football fans, whose national team would ultimately fall short at Euro 2000 in Holland and Belgium. Mendieta’s sumptuous form had already resulted in his first call-up to the national squad, lining out as a sub for La Roja on his birthday at a packed-out Mestalla on the 27 March 1999. Spain poured through a weak Austrian side that night, sinking the visitors with nine clinically taken goals.

At the time, however, the national team were tormented by a history of underachievement on the international stage. They lost their first game against Norway in a physical scrap, before a routine win against Slovenia meant they had to beat Yugoslavia on the final day.

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They were moments away from crashing out the tournament, losing 3-2 in the dying minutes before Abelardo went down to win a penalty. Everybody knew what happened next, Mendieta equalising before Alfonso scored a late winner to set up a clash against the reigning world champions.

France had laboured to the knockout stages, qualifying second behind joint hosts Holland in Group D. After Zinédine Zidane opened the scoring, Pierluigi Collina pointed to the spot for Lilian Thuram’s foul on Pedro Munitis. Yet again, Mendieta tucked it away, before Youri Djorkaeff nudged the French ahead shortly after.

The decision to withdraw the Valencia captain on the hour mark would prove deadly when Spain were awarded another penalty just a minute from the end. Raúl’s strike sailed over, the Real icon crumbling with the weight of a nation on his back.

Spain were out, but Mendieta’s stellar performances for club and country resulted in him being voted the best midfielder in Europe that year. He had already been voted the joint best player in the country alongside Raúl, and both were rewards for a season of unparalleled excellence. Mendieta, however, was focused on the new campaign, and a chance to right some wrongs in the Champions League.

Valencia began by topping a group containing Lyon, Olympiacos and Heerenveen, before advancing to face Manchester United, Panathinaikos and Sturm Graz. Three wins and three draws set up a clash against Arsenal in the knockout stages, where two goals from John Carew were enough to see them past Arsène Wenger’s team.

Another English foe awaited them in the semi-final. Leeds United were riding high on a hollow wave, the tenacity of Lee Bowyer and the temerity of Mark Viduka pushing them to the brink of Europe’s footballing showpiece. A 0-0 draw at Elland Road was followed by a 3-0 cruise at the Mestalla, Mendieta setting up Juan Sánchez’s first of two goals before he himself added a wonderful third. Valencia were going to the San Siro, with a chance to salve the previous years’ burning memory.

Their opponents had their own recompense to collect. Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s boot had kicked Bayern in the guts a few years before, and they wouldn’t suffer the same trauma without a desperate fight.

Like so often that year, Mendieta set the tone, tucking a third-minute penalty into Oliver Kahn’s bottom corner after a handball in the box. Bayern had their own penalty shortly after, but Santiago Cañizares managed to block a poor effort from Mehmet Scholl.

If the trophy looked destined for Valencia, it wasn’t. Steffen Effenberg scored another penalty for Bayern, before a turgid match went to an inevitable shootout. Who else but the Valencia captain stepped up first, scoring what would prove to be a pointless goal after Pellegrino’s effort was saved by Kahn. Bayern were European champions, and Valencia, who had shown such grit and determination to reach a second consecutive final, were jilted once again.

When Mendieta was voted the best midfielder in Europe for a second consecutive year, it mattered little to a man who knew his time at Valencia was up. A press conference in early summer 2001 confirmed his intention to leave, with AC Milan and Real Madrid among several interested suitors.

In the end it was Lazio who secured his signature, forking out £30 million to replace the Old Trafford-bound Juan Sebastián Verón. The sixth most expensive transfer in football history saw Mendieta join Alessandro Nesta, Diego Simeone and Hernán Crespo in the Italian capital. Despite selling Pavel Nedvěd to Juventus, the Romans hoped to build an empire at home and abroad under the president and magnate Sergio Cragnotti. It wasn’t long, however, before Mendieta’s dreams began to crumble alongside those of his team.

Coach Dino Zoff had been reluctant to use his new Spanish midfielder, starting him on the bench whilst he adapted to life in calcio. An indifferent start was made worse when Zoff was sacked, and his replacement put an end to Mendieta’s Lazio career before it had even started.

Alberto Zaccheroni largely ignored a player who, at the time, was Spain’s most expensive footballing export, preferring the likes of Fabio Liverani and Stefano Fiore in his starting line-up. A desperate campaign was plagued by Lazio’s perilous financial state, as they finished well below the Champions League places.

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The Lazio fans needed a scapegoat, and the pricey, disappointing Mendieta suited that purpose well. As The Guardian’s John Carlin noted, the Lazio faithful were less than kind to their new midfielder, with Gazzetto dello Sport even describing him as a ‘terminally ill patient’. A career that had been on a star-ward trajectory seemed, for the first time, to be crashing back to Earth.

Mendieta’s only refuge was the thought of the forthcoming World Cup in Asia, and his inclusion in José Antonio Camacho’s squad offered a chance for footballing redemption. His horrible year had been worsened as Valencia went on to secure a stunning league triumph in his absence, but as Spain kicked off their tournament against Paraguay, the Basque had a chance to remind the world of his quality.

His performance against South Africa exemplified his enduring ability as he set up Raúl’s opener before converting a glorious free-kick. His contribution against Ireland in the second round was equally crucial, scoring the winning penalty off the bench to quash a spirited performance from Mick McCarthy’s men.

Unfortunately for Mendieta and his countrymen, this was where the romance ended. South Korea’s victory in the quarter-finals is still lamented in the tree-lined avenues of the Spanish capital 14 years later, but for Mendieta, it was back to porridge. He returned to Lazio, and both the club and the player were desperate for a way out.

Louis van Gaal was his salvation, taking him on loan at Barcelona for the 2002-03 season. The Dutchman was in his second stint at the club and Mendieta’s signature was captured alongside that of the tragic goalkeeper Robert Enke, as well as Argentines Juan Román Riquelme and Juan Pablo Sorín.

The signings made little difference for van Gaal, who was sacked in January after an uninspired campaign saw them chasing the tails of Real Madrid and surprise package Real Sociedad. Mendieta would be victim once again to timing, his spell at Barcelona falling into a particularly fallow period for a club that was in the dying embers of the Joan Gaspart era.

The following year, another Joan would begin the Laporta revolution to give us the Barcelona we know today. In truth, however, Mendieta was solid and unspectacular for a team that was struggling for an identity and purpose.

Before the ‘Wally with the Brolly’, before the disaster of St. James Park, Steve McClaren was regarded as the brightest young manager in England. Having proved his coaching mettle under Sir Alex Ferguson at Old Trafford, he was given the Middlesbrough job by chairman Steve Gibson, immediately building an impressive team in the north-east. Boudewijn Zenden signed from Chelsea, joining the likes of Carlos Marinelli and Doriva in a team that already boasted the likes of Juninho and Gareth Southgate. His most inspired signing, however, was that of the former Valencia captain.

That summer, McClaren had personally visited the Spaniard at the Lazio training ground. Mendieta, after consulting with friends, decided it was a risk worth taking. He had seen how Geremi had transformed his career with the Teessiders, and glimpsed an opportunity to be part of a project of which he could be a vital component.

It was a chance to reinvigorate a flailing legacy and a phenomenal coup for a town that was so often sneered at by its local neighbours. Middlesbrough, in so many ways, was a million miles from Rome, but for Mendieta it was another chance to learn, improve and, most importantly, play.

The Spaniards’ signing ushered in a glorious time on Teeside. After a brief settling-in period, he made the Middlesbrough midfield his own, lighting up the Riverside and endearing himself to the fans with a number of incisive performances. McLaren led his team to 11th place in the league, but the highlight was a League Cup triumph against Bolton in 2004, the club’s first prestigious trophy in over a hundred years and one of Mendieta’s most prized moments as a player.

His later years at Middlesbrough were spoiled by injury before he was frozen out under new manager Gareth Southgate after McClaren took the England job. After a frustrating time, he retired from the game in May 2008.

It was a bittersweet end to a career that had reached the apex of modern football. Mendieta came from humble beginnings, a journeyman youth player who transformed himself into the captain of one of his country’s biggest teams through sheer force of will.

At the turn of the millennium, he was one of the best footballers in the world, an undisputed starter in any global 11. He was a master technician who made the impossible look possible, whose legacy proved that hard work and education can take you anywhere. His career is an example to young footballers the world over, not only about the staggering highs you can achieve with persistence and dedication, but also about how luck and timing can take your career in unexpected directions.

For the city of Valencia and for football fans around the world, however, only one thing will be remembered – the beautiful music played by this most accomplished of conductors, an unassuming legend who led a Valencian orchestra to the brink of European glory.

By Christopher Weir @chrisw45

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