Jorge Valdano: the career of football’s grand philosopher

Jorge Valdano: the career of football’s grand philosopher

IF YOU HAD TO BE STUCK IN A LIFT with one footballing personality, who would you want it to be? You could pass the time asking Andrés Iniesta what it’s like to score in a World Cup final. You could talk about the demands of coaching a superstar dressing room with Sir Alex Ferguson. You could learn the intricacies of the transfer market from Monchi. You could even have a chat about football writing with Brian Glanville or about the demands of the commentary box with John Motson. Or you could discuss all of these things with Jorge Valdano, the man who has done it all.

The Argentine is often referred to as the philosopher of football, sometimes as an insult, usually as a compliment, but always with good reason. He may now be 61 years of age, but Valdano is as studious and as tuned into the game as ever, viewing the sport with an almost divine understanding, one which he is always willing to impart. Skilled at conveying his thoughts, he crucially strikes that fine balance between knowledge and communication that so many other members of the punditocracy struggle with as they for-me-Clive their way through a script of clichéd observations and tired superlatives.

If Valdano is football’s prophet, then he is certainly no Moses. “Pardon your servant, Lord, but I have never been eloquent and I am slow of speech and tongue,” was the Egyptian prince’s get-out-of- prophesying-free card at the Burning Bush, but Valdano could never deny that he possesses a way with words. When it comes to learning more about the beautiful game, he is the professor whose lectures you always enjoyed, the one who was charming, witty and, most importantly, easy to understand.

That is why he is still such a fascinating figure in the game, because he can convey his genius so well and so captivatingly. He may be known in some parts of the English-speaking world as the man who labelled Rafa Benítez and José Mourinho’s style of football as “a shit hanging from a stick” – and, being honest, was he wrong? – but he has so much more to say about the game and Spanish football fans are week in, week out able to treasure his commentary for beIN Sports and his appearances on the popular late night radio shows such as El Transistor. At a time when mediocre punditry is accepted as the norm, his informed comment is refreshing. 

So how did Valdano, a left-wing law student and bookworm from Argentina, reach this status as La Liga’s football laureate? From Santa Fe to Madrid, with significant stops in the Basque Country and Mexico in between, this is his story. 

Many who didn’t see him play will wonder how good a striker Valdano actually was. The simple answer? He was better than Gonzalo Higuaín.

The current Juventus centre-forward is Lionel Messi’s national team sidekick, just as Valdano was Diego Maradona’s, yet many who have seen them both will tell you that the latter was the better striker partner and that Maradona wouldn’t have enjoyed as much glory with La Albiceleste had he not had our protagonist alongside him. As Jonathan Wilson has put it: “Messi’s international record might look rather better if he’d had a centre-forward of the calibre of Jorge Valdano to play alongside.”

Take away one famous punch into the net against England and El Diego would have finished the 1986 World Cup with as many goals as Valdano, who scored four times, including the second in the 3-2 win over West Germany in the final. Like Higuaín, he was played through one-on-one against a German goalkeeper in the sport’s showpiece occasion, but Valdano managed to keep his cool and convert his chance, confidently slotting past Harald Schumacher and into the far corner, a moment he describes as the best of his career.

By that point in his footballing journey, the 30-year-old was leading the line for Real Madrid, but he had meritocratically worked his way up the rungs of Spanish football, starting out by signing for modest Alavés in the summer of 1975. Still a teenager, he was a complete unknown to the Vitoria-Gasteiz locals, but the fact he had netted 12 goals in 49 appearances with Newell’s Old Boys gave them some reason to be excited. He was also aesthetically pleasing; just like Roger Federer’s racket, you never knew if his boot was about to deftly chip the ball or blast it.

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It took the lithe forward a while to adapt to the European game, however, and the young Argentine scored just three times in the 24 appearances of his first season, as Alavés spent most of the year fighting relegation from the Spanish second division, eventually finishing two places above the drop zone. The 1976-77 season was far more successful on both a collective and an individual level, with the player scoring eight from 30 matches and with the club finishing eighth.

Tallies of just five goals were then posted in each of the next two seasons, suggesting that Valdano was going to be a decent, but not outstanding, striker. The future footballing prophet would, however, enjoy a meeting with footballing deity when Alavés embarked on a cup run in 1977-78, pairing the Basque side with Johan Cruyff’s Barcelona.

Despite being just 22 at the time, Valdano was already enlightened enough to recognise greatness, as one interaction with the skilful Dutchman would prove. As a player went down injured, Cruyff picked up the ball and tucked it under his arm as if he were the referee, calling the medics onto the pitch. Admiringly, Valdano approached him and joked: “Why don’t you” – using the informal ‘tú’ instead of the formal ‘usted’ – “keep that ball and give us another one so that the rest of us can all play?”

Stunned at the boldness of this mere mortal, Cruyff asked Valdano his name and age, before warning him, “when you’re 20-odd-years-old and speaking to Johan Cruyff, you use ‘usted’,” scolding the Alavés forward for addressing him informally. At that snapshot in history, it would have been difficult to ever imagine the pair as equals, yet that is exactly what they would become when Valdano went on to coach Real Madrid at the same time as the Dutchman was in charge at the Camp Nou – but we’ll get to that later.

Valdano’s immediate priority was making a good fist of his playing career, which he would aim to do in Zaragoza after moving on from Alavés in the summer of 1979. This was a step up, but just a baby one; there was still plenty of work to do.

Real Zaragoza afforded the Argentine his first taste of the top flight and he played every single match of that 1979-80 La Liga season, repaying his employers with 13 goals between the league and cup. Injury hampered his following campaign, before his breakout seasons of 1981-82 – 18 goals – and 1982-83 – 20 goals. Valdano finished the latter as La Liga’s highest-scoring Argentine, which was no mean feat considering he was playing in the same division as Maradona and Mario Kempes.

That kind of form had earned him a recall to the Argentina national team, having already represented his country twice in 1975 as a promising teenager, before disappearing off the radar. He was selected for the 1982 World Cup in Spain and made a couple of appearances in the group stages, but injuries to his knee and ankle against Hungary cut his tournament short. “I thought that was my adventure in World Cups over,” Valdano later recalled in an interview with FIFA. “I thought I had lost my great opportunity because I was in great form and it was played in Spain, my home. I didn’t think I’d get another chance.”

Yet Valdano was afforded another shot at glory. Although he’d fall out of favour again when César Luis Menotti stepped down from the Argentine hot seat, ushering in the Carlos Bilardo era, the Menotti loyalist Valdano would earn his light blue and white stripes once again.

Moving to Real Madrid in the 1984 summer, he thrived in the Spanish capital, breaking the 20-goal mark for the first time in his career as his 23 strikes helped Los Blancos to UEFA Cup glory. They retained the title the following season and added a La Liga crown to boot, making a call-up to Bilardo’s squad inevitable.

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After the disappointment of 1982, there was a sense of anxiety in the Argentine camp as they prepared for their first match in Mexico, but it took just six minutes for Valdano to ease the tension. A blocked Maradona free-kick fell his way at the edge of the area and he swatted it back across goal to kick-start La Albicelestes’ ultimately triumphant quest. “It was important to score this goal at the start of the match, as much for the team as for me,” he’d later tell FIFA. “That removed the angst and the pressure and we started to function like a true team.” By the 47th minute, Valdano had scored another and his team were 3-0 up, seeing out the encounter 3-1.

A similarly early goal against Bulgaria – in the fourth minute this time – rounded off an impressive group stage and helped the South Americans to top Group A, setting up the path to the final. After seeing off their Río de la Plata rivals Uruguay, Argentina faced another grudge match, this time against England.

This was not Valdano’s moment in the spotlight. Instead, this was the defining match of his strike partner Maradona. The Real Madrid striker did, however, enjoy the privilege of a front row seat; he is the player running alongside Maradona throughout his dizzying run, eternally waiting for a pass that would never come. Unlike some modern-day Real Madrid strikers, Valdano didn’t throw his toys out of the pram at having been overlooked, as he could appreciate that he had just witnessed history. “Had he passed it to me” – as Maradona later told Valdano he had been trying to do – “then it wouldn’t have been the best goal in the history of World Cups,” Valdano said in explaining why he was content not to have received the ball.

That booked a semi-final berth and it was Belgium who awaited Argentina, not the Spain team they feared. Sure enough, Bilardo’s men progressed, setting up Valdano’s date with destiny. “Is this real life or is this a repetition of the dream I’ve been dreaming my whole life, of scoring in a World Cup final?” was his first thought as he saw the scoreboard click onto 2-0. His second thought was that the match was won. “With the score at 2-0 I remember looked at the stands and saying to myself ‘we’re world champions’. But I’d forgotten one small detail, which was that we were up against Germany and they never give up.”

With 10 minutes remaining, the Europeans had brought the score back to 2-2, but Jorge Burruchaga was as cool as his namesake had been before him, converting his own one-on-one chance to secure the title.

For Valdano, this was the high of his career, but the low was just nine months around the corner. It was discovered that he’d had hepatitis B for several years, but the symptoms were only starting to show and one fateful night in Belgrade, in March 1987, Valdano played his final match against Red Star.

“That day I needed an injection,” he told AS several years later. “I thought that would calm me down, but during the flight home I started to feel the same old effects. Unluckily or perhaps luckily, I was sat behind [Real Madrid president Ramón] Mendoza. He looked behind and, seeing my convulsions and spasms, he told me ‘Jorge, until you’re cured you can’t play again as you’re putting your life at risk’.”

He never did wear the Real Madrid shirt again, but the episode earned his further loyalty, with the club offering to extend the 31-year-old’s contract even though there was so much doubt as to whether or not he’d be able to play again. He may not have stepped onto the field for them again, but he’d serve the capital city institution for several more years from the dugout and boardroom. 

He could use ‘usted’ now. On this day, 7 January 1995, Valdano was an equal to his idol Cruyff, sitting in the opposite dugout from the maestro who had had to ask him his name in that Barcelona-Alavés clash nearly two decades previously. There was nothing equal about the scoreboard, however, with the Santiago Bernabéu proudly proclaiming ‘Real Madrid 5 – Barcelona 0’. Valdano had won La Liga with Real Madrid as a player and, as a coach, he was on course to bring them their first title in five years.

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It had been quite a journey from having his playing career cut short during that flight back from Serbia to taking over as coach of his former side. Just a few months after illness hung up his boots for him, Valdano was already embarking on a career in football journalism, spreading his insight onto the paper of El País and through the radio waves of Cadena SER.

Yet the pain of never being able to cross that white line still hurt Valdano. “Having to quit football was so much harder than processing the fact I was ill,” he wrote, which is why it was unsurprising that he was tempted into a comeback. Having bumped into Argentina coach Bilardo as he covered the 1989 Copa América, Valdano was told: “Give me six months of your life and I’ll give you another World Cup”.

After pondering the offer, he gave Bilardo the OK in November and went into full Rocky Balboa montage mode, starting his training programme for a return at Italia 90. After regaining his fitness in a number of swimming pools from Madrid to Buenos Aires, Valdano returned to action in January of 1990, featuring in Argentina’s friendly against Monaco. After a hiatus of nearly three years, he was back.

The reigning world champions lost that match 2-0 and also played out a goalless draw against a Guatemala XI a few days later, but Valdano impressed in both matches. Then, his illness struck. Representing a Rest of the World XI in Zico’s farewell match, Valdano suffered a spasm. Then, in May, an ankle injury proved to be a further setback. Yet Bilardo insisted he was still keen to take the striker to Italy, where he planned to play Valdano for around 20 to 30 minutes per match.

However, just two weeks before the tournament, Bilardo changed his mind and Valdano had to retire for a second time, once again with the decision made for him. “I spent six months swimming and I drowned just as I was about to reach the shore,” he told Clarín in his own poetic way, even if he admitted that this was perhaps for the best. If to retire was like a footballing death, Valdano would never have committed suicide and admits he’d probably have retired beyond his sell-by date had it been left up to him.

Rather than sulk, Valdano channelled his hardship into producing something magnificent, like all great artists. He continued to write and to work as a pundit, while he soon embarked on a career in coaching, answering the call of Tenerife in April 1992. The 36-year-old – who had experience within the Real Madrid academy and who had taken the necessary coaching courses the previous year – took over for the final eight matches of the season, losing just once to propel the Canary Island club away from the relegation zone. For the following two seasons, Valdano remained in charge on the island and he led Tenerife to a fifth-placed finish just a year after they had been fighting relegation. 

His Tenerife team had, however, cost his dear Real Madrid the league title by defeating them 2-0 on the final day of the season and he made a vow that day. “One day I will give back what I have taken away,” he promised.

When given a chance to take charge of Los Blancos in the summer of 1994, he duly returned Real Madrid’s missing league title to them, swatting Cruyff’s Barcelona aside 5-0 on the way. “We didn’t just take the league off Barça, but we took the ball off them,” Valdano said, pointing out that his club had won the points and the stylistic battle. After sharing two more Clásicos together, Cruyff was gone.

Fifteen years later, Valdano would oversee the attempt to topple Barcelona’s next great total football disciple, this time from the directors’ box. To do so, however, he would have to do the one thing he hates to do: bite his tongue. José Mourinho and his stick-of-shit football were about to touch down in Madrid.

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While Valdano’s managerial career had started so well, it would be a short one. Like a midwife, he safely delivered Raúl and Guti from the pregnant youth academy, but he wouldn’t be around to enjoy their success and, after a brief stint at Valencia, Valdano soon retreated even further from the pitch and into the boardroom, forming an alliance with new Real Madrid president Florentino Pérez. 

At the time of Pérez’s 2009 re-election, Los Blancos were a team in the shadow of Pep Guardiola’s treble-winning Barcelona and another trophyless season required the hiring of a hitman, the coach who had just knocked the Catalans out of the 2009-10 Champions League.

Mourinho’s first season in the capital was far from as tempestuous as his final one, but it still didn’t take long for general manager Valdano and Mourinho to make enemies of each other. With the Portuguese coach pinching the Copa del Rey from Barcelona, Pérez sided with the manager once the relationship had soured so much that Mourinho banned Valdano from team trips. He already had to step away from the club as a player and as a coach and now he had to do so as a director.

It was yet another experience for Valdano to savour, and it completed his adventure through every key position in football. From player to coach to director, he had seen it all and he was even more determined to keep telling his stories to the world, having already published a number of books and given several lectures since his retirement. “If anybody wants to know anything, I’m right here,” he told El País.

That passion for describing football can be traced back to a hospital bed in Argentina, when the four-year-old kid was unable to attend Newell’s and Racing with his father. Stuck in his ward after getting his tonsils removed, the only way he could learn what had gone on during the match was through the words of his father – who would pass away just a year later.

He still remembers that Road to Damascus moment and the joy he felt from getting his footballing fix through those descriptions of the action, essentially dedicating his life to telling others about the sport, with his playing days, coaching days and directing days a convenient excuse to enjoy a front row seat.

Of course, the Argentine was a skilled player, coach and director, but he himself admits that his real talent is in communication, telling Simon Kuper, “I’m convinced that I can describe Maradona’s goal much better than he ever could, but I could never have scored it.”

So if you ever do find yourself stuck in a lift with Jorge Valdano, asking football’s great philosopher to describe to you that piece of footballing history he witnessed from just a few metres away might be a good place to start.

By Euan McTear  @emctear

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