Throughout history there are thousands of individuals who, in a literal sense, have given their life to become professional athletes, all with a dream of one day becoming elite-level performers. Some had hopes and dreams of playing for their boyhood clubs; a handful that wanted to achieve greatness. A few also wanted the fame and money, while others simply can’t imagine a life without it.
There are those who have become all-time greats, treasured forever in our memories, who we perhaps wouldn’t recognise if we passed them on the street now. They’re the ones who went under-appreciated and whose memories have notoriously faded. In the case of Rubén Baraja, the latter would be an insult and the former a disservice. This is the tale of an elegant man who gave more than his all to the cause – from day one to year 10, a footballing pathway led him to his seat high in the echelons of Valencian greatness.
Cast your mind back to 1993. Amidst all the Steely Dan reunion nostalgia, the Sleepless in Seattle hyperbole, and the beginning of the Manchester United freight train, there was another significant moment occurring in the surrounding areas of the Iberian Peninsula. On the fringes of major European hubs such as Madrid and Barcelona, in a small Spanish city called Valladolid, a future star was emerging.
At the age of just 17, a promising Rubén Baraja was stepping onto the pitch at the Estadio José Zorrilla for his professional debut at his hometown club, Real Valladolid. Having grown up in the Castile and León region and after rising through their academy, it was time for El Pipo to make his mark.
There for all to see was the beginning of something special. This was a kid with superb technical ability, great accuracy and incredible mobility ready to grasp his moment. By nature, Baraja was powerful and direct with the ball at his feet, his extreme fitness and ability to pass with both feet gave him all the attributes you need to become complete in the engine room of central midfield. These were assets needed to impress growing up in Rayo’s academy, which has a renowned reputation for developing Spanish talent.
Baraja made his debut for Los Blanquivioletas in a season that would eventually turn out to be one of great success. Valladolid had gained promotion from Segunda División, finishing runners-up to the now dissolved Catalonian side, UE Lleida. During the following season they would be competing in La Liga.
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After such a promising start to his career, things began to slow down for Baraja. Two tumultuous seasons would follow the highs of promotion in 1993 and would eventually leave Valladolid scrapping for their lives to avoid relegation to the second tier of Spanish football, under the tutelage of up and coming manager, Rafael Benítez.
Benítez would eventually be sacked as head coach after a dismal run of 23 games without victory, and this too would be the end of Baraja’s spell at the club. It was time for a change. The bright lights of Madrid had come calling as Atlético Madrid were to be his new home. In his three years as a senior at Rayo, Baraja went on to make a total of 87 appearances – 46 for the B side and 41 for the first team, scoring a total of 13 goals.
It was now 1996 and with a new club came new hope. Baraja was faced with a new destination and a new challenge. Atlético had just won the Liga title and Copa del Rey to register the club’s first double in their history. They were flourishing under Serbian coach Radomir Antić and were set to compete in European competition the following season. Baraja was not only trying to cement a place in a squad of newly-crowned champions, but also in a team considered one of the country’s historical giants.
What must have looked like a dream move to begin with soon turned into a nightmare. Baraja couldn’t force his way into Antić’s squad for the season and found himself playing for the club’s B side. He would need to be patient. Three whole years had passed and the now-23-year-old was still waiting to make a first-team appearance since his move. In June 1999, he would finally get his chance. He made his senior debut away to Salamanca in a 2-1 defeat; not the scenario he had likely pictured in his wandering mind.
Atlético were beginning to struggle in 1999 and Baraja found himself in a peculiar position. Having joined the team on the back of a domestic double, he was now faced with keeping them in the division. He began to play regularly during the 1999/2000 season, showcasing his level of skill, calmness and precision. He racked up 34 appearances for the club but it wasn’t enough to avoid the drop. Atleti were down, sandwiched between bitter rivals Sevilla and Real Betis.
Ironically, Atlético’s worst season in a 60-year period coincided with the best of Baraja’s to date. He came out of a dire campaign with his head held high, and appreciation of his talents was starting to emerge across Spain.
Having come to terms with the departures of Gerard López to Barcelona and Javier Farinós to Inter, beaten Champions League finalists Valencia were in the market for the midfield dynamism they would need in their quest for silverware. Baraja was their man. Valencia paid a club record transfer fee of £7 million for him in the summer of 2000, and the rest, as they say, is history. El Pipo was born. Baraja had found a club that would cherish him and build around him. This was going to be his club.
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He made an immediate impact and forced his way into Héctor Cúper’s star-studded line-up. The squad was bustling with talent from top to bottom, but Baraja was key. They played a 4-4-2 diamond formation with Pipo in his new-found deeper role, piecing every little thing together. The squad had it all: Cañizares, Angloma, Ayala, Pellegrino, Carboni, Đukić and Albelda were tough as nails; Baraja, Mendieta, Kily and Aimar were cunning and crafty; Ilie, Sánchez and Carew had pace and power. Many of them kept the experience of Didier Deschamps and fresh-legged Vincente warming the bench. This was a team destined for the top, and Baraja was the orchestrator.
Having narrowly missed out on the title by four points to Deportivo the previous season, there was a real belief amongst those at Los Che that this was to be the year to end their 29-year hiatus for the top prize in Spain. Valencia started the season with a defeat against their Champions League final opponents from the year before, Real Madrid. In hindsight, it was to be the game that spurred them on for the season and gave them the realisation that it wouldn’t be an easy road ahead. Valencia then went on an inspiring run of seven without defeat, eventually tumbling to Espanyol. Throughout it all, Baraja was superb. Controlling game after game, he was a general of war in the heart of midfield, with the composure to back it up.
His form led him to his first international call-up with Spain – a proud moment that he never looked back from. Becoming a regular in the national set-up for years to come, his style of midfield play helped lay the foundations for the generation of success in the years that followed.
Valencia gave as good as they got in the 2000/01 season, finishing in third place. Perhaps the league title was a step too far at this stage of their inevitable rise to the top. Despite a relatively disappointing domestic campaign by their newly-acquired standards, European aspirations were still alive. They’d knocked out all that England had to offer in the shape of Manchester United, Arsenal and Leeds. All that stood between them glory was the gargantuan task of overcoming Bayern Munich at the San Siro.
During a back and forth game that had an array of world-class talent on display, Baraja did what came naturally to him, with intelligent distribution and effective space clearing for the mercurial Argentine, Pablo Aimar, to do his thing. Unfortunately, much like their league season, it wasn’t to be. The game went to penalties and, as the story often goes, the Germans reigned supreme.
It could have been damaging for Baraja and his Valencia career to look back on a season of such shortcomings with anguish and despair. Losing in your first major European final on penalties, the club’s second in two seasons. Yet the character of the man and of this squad was proven in the season that was to follow.
Rafa Benítez was appointed as manager of the club at the beginning of 2001/02. It was a reunion with Baraja after their short time together in Valladolid, but this time, it had a much more ominous feel to it.
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Benítez quickly moved to tighten his defence and placed a hungry David Albelda to sit alongside the assured Baraja. The two grew together into a seismic partnership and it would take something special to breach the guile and aggression they imposed upon the opposition. This was the backbone of what would be a historic season for all at the Mestalla.
It was the rigid defensive block in the all-conquering cohesive unit that Benítez had put together that was the catalyst behind the class of 2002. This stability and assurance led Valencia to their first league title in 31 years, something that was achieved with a mere 75 goals scored and a miserly 29 conceded for the entirety of the season.
Baraja had suffered from injuries throughout the campaign, however upon his return netted an incredible seven times in just 17 games, roaming the midfield areas and linking intelligently with Aimar. His brace in a game against Espanyol was crucial in the run-in; they were goals that helped clinch the title. Baraja astoundingly went on to finish as the club’s top scorer that season.
He was an integral part of the club’s dominance in the years that followed and is widely regarded as the most influential player during this period. In 2003/04 he lifted the league title for the second time, and he was pivotal in the UEFA Cup victory over Marseille that same year. His ability to conduct the game from midfield and his quality in both attack and defence made him one of Europe’s best midfielders.
Although playing a more peripheral role in the years that followed due to various injuries, he went on to make a total of 262 appearances for the club, netting 42 times. As well as two La Liga titles and a UEFA Cup, he added the Copa del Rey and a UEFA Super Cup to his trophy cabinet during his time on the coast. El Pipo decided to call it a day during his 10th year at Valencia.
On 16 May 2010, Baraja played his final game for a club that had seen the highs and lows of his incredible journey. He left the pitch to a standing ovation and a bombardment of praise and emotion. He made a return to the club in a coaching capacity for a short term in 2013 and would eventually go on to become first team manager of Valladolid in 2016, but after a poor run of results, was sacked from the club where it had all began.
As the old saying goes, home is where the heart is. For Rubén Baraja, home may be Valladolid, but his legend and legacy will forever be associated with the part he played during Valencia’s most fruitful period. The Mestalla, it seems, is his spiritual home.
By Ger Deegan @gerradeegan