The revival of Pedro León, a tarnished talent finally coming of age

The revival of Pedro León, a tarnished talent finally coming of age

IF FOOTBALL IS A GAME of thrills and spills can someone pass Pedro León the mop bucket? For throughout his remarkable and, as yet, unfulfilled career, there have been plenty more of the latter than the former. In an environment as ruthless as professional sport, the equation is simple, if not all too familiar: supreme talent multiplied by scant application equals the gutter. At age 29, that is where Pedro León was destined. That was until a friendly face from the past offered him a way out. One he took with both hands.

Born in the quaint farming district of Mula, Spain football stardom was not the most apparent path. Pedro’s father was a civil guard officer and Pedro himself wanted to grow up to be a fireman. Most of his childhood was spent playing football on the streets with younger brother Alberto. At this stage, football was little more than a source of fun. It played second fiddle to a more fierce passion in cycling.

The Leóns were a gifted set of boys; four in all. They enjoyed an ordinary childhood by and large, but not without difficult times either. In his youth, Pedro’s father was invalided from the civil guard following an ETA terror attack in Bilbao. In early adulthood, Pedro’s oldest sibling León León tragically lost his life in a quad bike accident. In the same year he also lost his grandfather, but the family stayed strong.

Luis, the cyclist, went on to become a four-time stage winner on the Tour de France. Alberto, the footballer, became a futsal player. Pedro, the fireman, was a searcher. He followed his elder brother into the competitive cycling scene in his teenage years, but fate eventually took its course. Aged 14, Pedro found proper football. He first laced up a pair of boots in the colours of local club Muleño CF – located 30 minutes from the well-known tourist region of Murcia.

After two years at Muleño and a further two for Nueva Vanguardia, the obvious progression for a player of jaunty talent in this area was indeed to the city of Murcia. And so in early 2004, Real Murcia was next.

The industrious club from south-east Spain had just been promoted from the Segunda División the previous season. It was their first return to La Liga in over a decade, battling between Division Four and Division Two between times. After a nine-year stint in Spain’s top flight in the 1980s, Los Pimentoneros had ambitions to re-establish themselves among the elite once more.

However, it would not go as planned. An underwhelming start to the campaign meant by the winter break, Murcia were already scrapping for their lives. Half resigned to their fate, staff had begun plotting for life back in the Segunda. Of course these were not the ideal conditions under which to arrive at a new club, but León was under no illusions. This was not his fight. He had to earn his right – with Murcia B providing the perfect stage to get started.

Just as sure as cream rises to the top, the Murcian had been promoted to the first team squad by January of the following season. He quickly established himself as a key figure for his side, providing goals and assists from the right flank, as well as impeccable service from dead ball situations.

Read  |  Mauricio Pochettino: the Espanyol diaries

In the 2006-07 season, León, along with Uruguayan striker Iván Alonso, propelled Murcia towards La Liga all but single-handedly. Often during the season if it wasn’t the León through ball-Alonso finish combination, it was Pedro’s direct free-kicks sealing the all the points. So impressive were the performances of the 21-year-old that by the January transfer window, interest from Real Madrid and Chelsea arose.

It was Chelsea and a certain José Mourinho that were most keen. An adequate £3.5 million bid was purported but never came to fruition. Murcia finished the season a comfortable third in the Segunda, achieving La Liga status once more.

Desperate to keep hold of their prized asset ahead of such an important season, the club offered León a new contract worth €1 million over the duration of the deal. As much as this represented putting most of their eggs in one basket, it was a big investment attempt. They knew it would strain them financially, but León represented the best chance they had of remaining in the top division.

They were realistic too. Knowing they couldn’t keep hold of their young star forever, just one season under the microscope could double, even triple his value. Smart money says it could provide financial stability for years. In the end, though, Murcia had all of those eggs smash back in their face. León declined the contract offer, citing a poor relationship with coach Lucas Alcaraz. He moved up the coast to Valencia that summer, joining Levante for £2.5 million. And with that, the rollercoaster ride began.

Another relegation battle was not what León believed he had signed up for, but three games in and the pressure was already building. No goals scored and one point earned. After seven games, manager Abel Resino was sacked.

Levante finally registered their first league win of the season on 4 November, but by then, León had long lost interest. He was starting to become a nuisance at the club. Disputes with staff and squabbles with teammates lead to him rarely featuring and later training alone.

Twenty-four appearances and three goals are what came of his season. Levante finished rock bottom, four points behind Real Murcia who also went down. A Spanish under-21 debut was the only light that came from an otherwise dark year. It was clear Pedro had to leave Levante for more reasons than one, and despite a bad season, there were no shortage of suitors.

Real Valladolid manager José Luis Mendilibar showed a keen interest in León, something which was noted by the player himself. Negotiations were swift and a miserly €300,000 deal was agreed. He joined up with a workmanlike squad that mixed experienced heads with a couple of younger prospects. Highly sought-after goalkeeper Sergio Asenjo was part of the setup, beginning to establish himself having come through Valladolid’s youth ranks.

León made a starting berth his own relatively early in the campaign and stood out in a hearty side that liked to go at their opponent much to their detriment at times. Five5 goals and 12 assists, including a run of seven assists in six games in the first half of the season, was an impressive return.

Read  |  What if success looked a lot like failure? The story of Juanma Lillo

In reflection, not enough was made of his exploits that season. The club finished 16th in the table, only a point off the final relegation spot. The winger’s contributions had largely kept Valladolid in La Liga; so to say it was surprising that the side emerging as favourites for his signature was Getafe – who themselves had only remained in La Liga on goal difference  – was an understatement.

Nevertheless, León was eager to make the €4 million move to Madrid. Maybe our Murcian saw something. He must have done. He must have foreseen the havoc Getafe would go on to wreak on Spanish defences that season.

What we witnessed that 2009-10 season was an unlikely trio that will be spoken about at Coliseum Alfonso Pérez for decades to come. Messi, Suárez, Neymar? Bale, Benzema, Ronaldo? Bitch please. This was the enigmatic trident of Pedro León, Roberto Soldado and Manu del Moral.

The three registered 38 goals and 22 assists between them and were ably backed up by the likes of Javi Casquero, Derek Boateng and Dani Parejo and in midfield. Miguel Torres and Cata Díaz brought up the rear.  The style of football was emphatic, unequivocal, and at times, irresistible.

Coming off the right side, León snared nine goals alone that season, and there was not a bad one among them. With his long baggy sleeves and wavy mane of hair, a strut that oozed Zinedine Zidane and Adidas Predators to boot, the 23-year-old looked like he was destined for the very top. And he knew it.

He was taking on shots that even the best would pass up, and they would often go in. His goal in the final home game of the season against Malaga served a recap of his brilliant season. A misplaced pass intended for León inadvertently found him 40 yards from goal on the right wing by way of a deflection off Malaga’s out-of-position left-back Patrick Mtiliga. Now in full recovery mode, the Dane races back towards León.

To his surprise, he finds that the winger hasn’t used this head start to bomb down the wing. Instead, León noticeably slows down, waiting for Mtiliga to get back. Luring him in. At this point León is like a black widow spider, with Mtiliga tangled in his web. As he stalks, menacingly creeping towards the defender, ball glued to his feet, Mtiliga is backs up at the same slow, rhythmic pace.

If you lean in you can almost hear the full back whisper, “Shit”. There is only one outcome now.

As if dropping a gear, León suddenly accelerates. Step over with his right. Feint left. Slide back onto his right, all in one motion, and bang. Except, it wasn’t a really a bang. It was more of a whoosh. A technique straight out of the David Beckham free-kick handbook, beautifully whipped into the far top corner. Not even a slip mid-strike could stop the inevitable.

When all was said and done, Getafe finished the season in 6th – an 11 place improvement on the previous. León, Soldado and del Moral had launched Getafe to the Europa League for only the second time in the club’s history.

Read  |  José Mourinho and the dark triad at Real Madrid

Unfortunately, the Mula Maverick would not remain with the Azulones long enough to sniff the Europa League. There were bigger fish to fry. He would remain in the city, though, because Real Madrid came knocking, and this time they were serious.

Long before the famous blank chequebook came out, León was visualising lighting up the Bernabéu as part of Real Madrid’s second galáctico era. This was the realisation of a dream. €10 million? Sure thing. A drop in the ocean compared with the €350 million already spent in the past 12 months.

For the money, the likes of Kaká, Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema, Xabi Alonso, Ángel Di María and Mesut Özil had joined José Mourinho in the Spanish capital. Real meant business.

With all of these stars suddenly rocking up at the Bernabéu, one had to wonder where that left León in the pecking order. Los Blancos fans were curious too – excited by this swaggering, handsome Spaniard who may one day fill the void left by the tapering Raúl. The answer was mundanely predictable.

As Mourinho looked to build a multifunctional side, León only collected scatterings of minutes off the bench in the opening months. Fans pined to see more of the wide man, but whispers emerged that León wasn’t a Mourinho signing after all. It was reported that Real’s sporting director Jorge Valdano was the man behind the transfer and that Mourinho was earlier left alone to watch footage of a player he knew little about.

Not one to feel undermined, Mourinho began to target León in a way much like we have seen in his first season at Manchester United. And while it works for some players, for others it does not. León failed Mourinho’s infamous ‘my way or the highway’ screening, only providing useful as a dressing room scapegoat.

Truthfully, León was never going to be Mourinho player. He did his talking on the pitch but was shy and hesitant off it. Following a league game at Levante as early as September, Mourinho would question the player’s commitment to the cause.

A cheery León believed he was in line to start the Champions League game against Auxerre a few days later. Little did he know that the previous day, Mourinho had watched in fury as León stood by the corner flag when he should have been warming up. “Look at his lack of effort. And he gets offended when he doesn’t play,” Mourinho was heard saying in the dugout.

Read  |  Jorge Valdano: the career of football’s grand philosopher

The next morning the squad were called to the centre circle during a training session, and Mourinho took aim at León in front of the group. “I’m sorry, but you are not interested in playing for Real Madrid. Others would give their lives for this shirt, but not you.”

He wasn’t finished either. Humiliation in front of the group obviously not enough; he called León out individually later in the session. “You are unprofessional. You think you’re cheating me? No. You’re cheating your teammates. I saw your warm up. You couldn’t care less about it – but I put you on anyway. Two balls you had to deliver. Two balls for the strikers to put into an empty net. But you were not prepared. Do you care about playing for Real Madrid? Everyone has their five minutes here. You’ve just had yours.”

The fact that the winger played as much as a minute for the rest of the season was a personal victory in itself. Amid further altercations with the manager, León’s only significant contribution of the season came at the San Siro. It was the double header phase of the Champions League group stage, but this one felt like a knockout tie.

Real had beaten AC Milan 2-0 at the Bernabéu two weeks earlier but were 2-1 down in Milan when Mourinho unleashed Benzema and León with 10 minutes to go. By the time the clock struck 90, the two subs had combined, and León had his first Real Madrid goal – a low drive going between the legs of Christian Abbiati. Mourinho ran down the touchline in celebration. The new boys had earned an important point.

At this stage there was a danger of it looking like a man management masterclass from Mourinho. Maybe to him it was. After all, he got all he wanted from the player in that ten minute period. Fans thought this could be a turning point, but back to the bench it was. Reporters probed for an explanation. “You [journalists] talk of Pedro León as if he is Zidane or Maradona or Di Stéfano. Last year he was playing for Getafe. I don’t have to justify his absence.”

With the season winding down there was no let up in Mourinho. Determined to leave an enduring message to the players he would keep at the club, he told León, as per Sid Lowe in the Guardian, that even if the aircraft carrying the team crashed without him on board, leaving him the only player left, he still wouldn’t play. León later alleged workplace bullying.

And so that was that. León never started a league game for Real Madrid, playing only 132 minutes in total. The season ended and an exit plan was quickly hatched. He had to find somewhere that would not only revitalise him but where he could feel comfortable. He rejoined Getafe on an initial loan deal.

León’s first season back in blue was a frustrating one. Injuries and a knee operation curtailed his season and led to only 13 league appearances. His solitary goal away to Malaga, a 30-yard left foot volley, was arguably the best of his career. It showed us that the 25-year-old hadn’t lost it. Getafe had seen enough to extend his loan for the following campaign.

Read  |  The renaissance of Iago Aspas

Eight league assists came in the 2012-13 season as he looked to make up for lost time. León was just glad to be back on the pitch week in week out. His performances weren’t exactly stealing the headlines, but he was still Getafe’s guiding light.

When another knee injury came around Christmas, the side struggled. winning only one game out of six in his absence. Another stop-start season culminated in a tenth-place finish for Getafe. León got three league goals and eight assists in 29 outings. At the end of the season, Getafe made León’s stay from Real Madrid a permanent one for €6 million.

Now 27, relieved to finally leave Real Madrid for good, León was made one of Getafe’s three club captains. Journalists speculated that this could be León’s chance for a rebirth. It certainly looked that way early in the season. León created the match-winning goal against Osasuna with an assist and scored an audacious 50-yard free kick in a brace against Real Betis. The swagger was back.

By October he had scored as many goals as the previous season, and his consistent creating of chances both from open play and set pieces had brought Getafe five wins in six games. The club had a decent squad but you can only go so far without an out and out goalscorer. Had the blues still had a player in the mould of a Soldado, we could be talking about another European qualification run. A lack thereof meant mid-table mediocrity despite León top scoring with seven league goals.

After a strong individual season where León only missed one league game, Getafe’s president looked to cash in. Again there were esteemed suitors, but the player dithered, still haunted by the Real Madrid ordeal. Club president Angel Torres mistook León’s prudence for disruption of his long-term vision for the club. When León declined offers from Qatar and Russia, Torres was incensed and tried to sabotage the winger’s career out of spite.

It was now August 2014, marking the season where financial fair play rules were tightened across European football. A salary cap system was introduced to La Liga clubs, and Torres, unfortunately, was the man responsible for Getafe’s budgeting. First he tried to impose a revised contract on León, which included a significant pay cut. The player rightly declined. Why should the club’s best player be punished for his loyalty to a club he could comfortably step up from?

In a move akin to cutting off his nose to spite his face, Torres aligned the club’s salary cap to exclude León. In an effort to prevent the salary cap being breached, the league had no choice but to ban the club from registering the player for the upcoming season.

For the second time in his career, León faced a situation where one man’s spite was holding up his progression. “There is no problem here. I am happy with the squad I have,” declared Torres.

León addressed the situation on his Twitter account. “The funniest thing about the situation is that I have done nothing wrong, nor have I committed an illegality towards my profession – yet I am the only one who pays for it.”

Read  |  The reinvention of Aritz Aduriz

For months, León would watch from home as his replacement in the side, Karim Yoda, filled his role impressively. Guillem Balague reported that during his enforced sabbatical, León was planning on taking the club to court. The situation was finally resolved on 24 November 2014 – León’s 28th birthday.

He slowly worked his way back to form and fitness but it was a slow procedure after so long in the stands. After regaining the club captaincy, León started all but one game between February and the end of the season. He felt like a new signing. In adding four assists in the closing months of the season, León kept Getafe comfortably above the relegation scrap.

2015/16 was León’s final season for Getafe. As the club struggled throughout the campaign, the winger couldn’t make his mark. Getafe were relegated after 12 years in the Primera División, and León, one of the club’s top earners, had to be offloaded.

The open market beckoned, and succulent offers from farther afield again came in. But none felt right. León had unfinished business in his homeland. He was too young and far too good to end up in some football wasteland. In the end, a face from the past came in for León, and this one did feel right.

It was José Luis Mendilibar and humble Eibar. The tiny basque club from the Gipuzkoa region were promoted in the 2014/15 season but were immediately threatened with relegation directly to the third tier due to a financial inability and lack of capital. The Defiende al Eibar movement was set up by the club and, within two months, reached the minimum share capital required for La Liga participation.

After finishing their first ever season in the top flight in 18th place, the club were spared from relegation when 13th place Elche suffered enforced relegation for financial impropriety. Two seasons on and the fan-owned side were among the favourites for relegation. Eighteen goal loan striker Borja had just fired them to 14th, but the club simply didn’t have the funds to replace him. Pedro León’s signature on a free therefore represented a major coup.

The sole reason behind León’s choice was the opportunity to work with manager Mendilibar again. The two had clicked during León’s single season stint at Real Valladolid, and the player knew that in the season he turns 30, he had no more time to waste.

León has always been a player who needs a sense of belonging to perform at his best. He had it in Murcia and then at Getafe as part of that dangerous front three. He joined Eibar in the belief he would get this from Mendilibar the manager, but also from the strong cultural identity of the Basque region in which he now calls home.

Mendilibar runs a hard working side at Eibar and knew he had to persuade León to buy into the group effort. So after deputising in an opening day defeat to Deportivo, León was put into the starting side the following week. The winger was the matchwinner on his full debut, scoring the only goal of the game in front of the 7,000 capacity crowd at the pocket sized Ipurua Stadium.

Read  |  Asier Illarramendi: giving back, not giving up

This is a stadium that León later admitted he hated visiting as a player. Compact, hostile and often not the best playing surface, the Ipurua stands as a throwback to a forgotten generation of football stadia. Playing here as an Eibar player has changed his opinion. He now calls the ground his encanto – his charm.

After three full games, he had three goals. León continued to decide games for Eibar, who by now were chasing a Europa League spot against all odds. After a 93rd-minute equaliser against fellow Basques Real Sociedad on the last day of February, it was calculated that León had won Eibar 12 points on his own. In Spain they have been calling it his “second youth”.

With a further year left on his contract, questions quickly came in about his future. So too the warnings about what happened before. León retorts: “The best and most important thing is to turn the page. Forget all that and focus on the present, and Eibar, where I would like to continue beyond this year. 

“I came to Eibar for Mendilibar)because I had him as a coach in Valladolid and wanted to work with him again. When I learned he was interested in me I did not hesitate, because he was the coach that marked my career.

“After two bad years on an individual level, I knew I’d be back with him. He was going to make me show my best level. There were bigger offers, but he trusted me and I trusted him.”

In the end, Eibar just missed out on Europa League qualification, but similarities were drawn to Getafe’s 2009-10 season, both in the performance of the team and León’s scintillating individual form. “In sensations, I feel very similar to that year. In the collective we are also doing very well. I also knew that the coach trusted me and could reach this level.”

Things look promising and it makes you wonder just how far Eibar can go. Their finances won’t enable them to bring in a household name, but the payout for an amazing eighth-place finish certainly helps. Many teams will be looking for a new manager in the summer, so Eibar were keen to tie up Mendilibar as soon as possible. They did so and in turn guaranteed that the player they call Brilló (Brightness) will at least see out the second year of his contract.

Eleven goals and six assists represent León’s best season in professional football and, at 30, one feels he is only getting better. So could he possibly take the next step and head into international football? If his form continues, it’s the least he would deserve. After all, Spain have had a tendency to call up some unexpected but equally in-form wide men in recent times. Vitolo, Mikel Oyarzabal and Nolito spring immediately to mind. Moreover, the careers of Marcos Senna, Aritz Aduriz and Bruno Soriano make you ponder whether a first International call up beyond 30 really is that farfetched.

Even if it is through slightly rose-tinted glasses, it’s worth keeping an eye on.

After going full circle it is fitting that such a remarkable career arrived at such a remarkable club. Away from the bright lights of Madrid, Pedro León appears to have rejuvenated his career in a town of only 27,000 inhabitants. A diligent and down to earth setting akin to his Mula roots, not by chance.

What’s next for this unassuming maverick is anyone’s guess. We have seen highs followed by monumental lows before, but somehow this feels different. Football is a capricious mistress – merciless but also forgiving, insistent on giving second chances to those who refuse to surrender no matter how adverse as the circumstances may appear. Today, football once again shines on Pedro León.

By Cameron Strutt  @CameronStrutt95

No Comments Yet

Comments are closed