Victor Valdés: the under-appreciated mainstay in Barcelona’s greatest era

Victor Valdés: the under-appreciated mainstay in Barcelona’s greatest era

The English media, fans of the Three Lions, and Premier League aficionados were aghast when Pep Guardiola arrived in England in 2016 to take over at Manchester City, almost instantaneously declaring then national team number one Joe Hart surplus to requirements at the Etihad.

The Claudio Bravo experiment proved that the Catalan’s decision-making in terms of recruitment is far from infallible, yet in 24-year-old Brazilian Ederson he finally seems to have his man, the promising former Benfica stopper adapting brilliantly to the rigours of English football.

At Bayern Munich, the custodian of the number one jersey was hulking German international Manuel Neuer, who became the best goalkeeper in the world during Guardiola’s time in Bavaria. Seemingly bored with Bayern’s Bundesliga dominance, the giant German often emerged from the relative safety of the penalty area to involve himself in the play, a key tenet in Guardiola’s philosophy which requires a goalkeeper to be adept with his hands as well as becoming the 11th man in possession.

Víctor Valdés is perhaps the least heralded – at least in terms of far-reaching mainstream acknowledgement of his qualities and achievements – of Guardiola’s goalkeepers. Valdés was born in 1982 in L’Hospitalet de Llobregat, a modest municipality south-west of Barcelona city centre.

One of three brothers, Valdés joined Barcelona’s academy at the age of 10, returning to the famed talent factory in 1995 after a three-year stint with the family in Tenerife. Upon his return to the Catalan capital, Valdés rose swiftly through the club’s ranks, making his first-team debut in August 2002 against Legia Warsaw in a Champions League qualifier.

His first taste of competitive action came during the reign of rigid Dutchman Louis van Gaal. Valdés made 20 appearances in his debut season, sharing goalkeeping duties with veteran Argentine Roberto Bonano. Van Gaal was sacked in early 2003 and replaced by Radomir Antić, whose six-month assignment unthinkably included the brief of preventing relegation from the Spanish top flight.

Van Gaal’s complex and restrictive patterns of play were cast aside, and the players given more license to enjoy themselves. The Serbian coach placed his faith in Valdés, who became more of a fixture than under his former coach – and the Catalan club’s fortunes changed for the better.

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Joan Laporta won the landmark elections of 2003, assuming the club presidency after garnering almost 53 percent of the vote. Despite his promising but short spell, Antić wasn’t kept on and Frank Rijkaard was appointed in his place. Valdés was now playing for his third boss in 12 months, yet he kept his place in the face of a huge spending spree that saw the likes of Ronaldinho, Rafael Márquez, and Ricardo Quaresma join the Camp Nou outfit.

Andrés Iniesta, a close friend of Valdés, was promoted to the first team to augment the squad. Barça regained some pride in Laporta and Rijkaard’s first season, finishing second despite stooping as low as 12th in January. The rise in the table was driven, in part, by the winter loan signing of tireless Dutch midfielder Edgar Davids from Juventus.

In 2004/05, the L plates were well and truly off, Valdés winning the coveted Zamora Trophy – awarded to the goalkeeper with the lowest goals-to-games ratio in LaLiga – as Barcelona won their first title in six years. The Catalan giants finished four points ahead of Real Madrid, their fierce rivals from the capital. Ronaldinho, midfield genius Deco and Cameroonian striker Samuel Eto’o, the latter two signed in the summer of 2004, starred as Rijkaard’s squad began to take shape.

The 2005/06 season would prove to be a momentous one for Barcelona as the club completed a historic LaLiga and Champions League double. The final of Europe’s premier club cup competition didn’t start so well for Barcelona, with Arsenal captain Thierry Henry forcing Valdés into a couple of smart early saves. Despite a red card to his opposite number Jens Lehmann, 10-man Arsenal still took the lead. Henry whipped in a free-kick which was met by the head of Sol Campbell, giving Valdés no chance.

With the game 1-0 to Arsenal, Valdés made another superb point-blank save from Henry, thwarting the Frenchman once again with 68 minutes on the clock. This proved crucial, and paved the way for Barcelona to make their late comeback to win 2-1 on a rain-soaked night in Paris.

Valdés was called up to the national team for the first time at the start of the 2005/06 season, although he wouldn’t earn his first cap until June 2010 when he appeared in a friendly against South Korea. Valdés went on to make 20 appearances for La Roja and was named in the squad for both the 2010 World Cup and the 2012 European Championship, picking up winners medals in both tournaments despite not taking to the field.

Far from being bitter about his lack of international action, Valdés was the consummate professional, assisting Pepe Reina and undisputed number one Iker Casillas. “I watched him train every day and support his teammates with intensity, despite knowing he would not play,” wrote Graham Hunter in Spain: The inside story of La Roja’s historic treble. 

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Far from ushering in a new golden period, the victory in Paris in May 2006 signalled the beginning of the end of the Rijkaard era. Two trophyless years, barring one Spanish Super Cup, saw the Dutchman relieved of his duties and replaced by Pep Guardiola, who had spent a year cutting his teeth with the club’s B team.

On a personal level, Valdés reached several milestones at the tail end of Rijkaard’s tenure. In 2006/07 he matched former Barcelona star Andoni Zubizarreta’s record for a goalkeeper by playing every minute of all 38 league games. In the 2007/08 season, Rijkaard’s last, Valdés broke another club record by going almost eight hours of European competition without having his goal breached, also making his 250th appearance for the club he joined as a boy.

Guardiola, who had famously been a ball boy, player and captain for Barça, couldn’t have made a better start to his life as the first team manager. They completed an unprecedented treble of LaLiga, Copa del Rey and Champions League titles in 2009. The European final was fought against Manchester United in Rome, and although Barcelona’s 2-0 victory was fairly routine, like in 2006 the goalkeeper was forced to make saves from one of the most feared forwards on the planet, in this case Cristiano Ronaldo.

Important moments bring out the best in big players and personalities, and it was no fluke that Valdés had once again performed solidly as his side lifted the Champions League trophy.

Barcelona won the next two LaLiga titles although they lost their grip on the trophy in 2011/12, Guardiola’s final season, with the Copa del Rey providing scant consolation. Valdés broke another of Zubizarreta’s records during this season, becoming the all-time leading appearance holder for a goalkeeper of La Blaugrana. He also won four consecutive Zamoras, one in each of Guardiola’s seasons, becoming the first goalkeeper to achieve such a feat, and equalling the total number of five with another former Barcelona goalkeeper, Antoni Ramallets.

Guardiola departed in the summer of 2012, the exhausting pressures of heading a club such as Barcelona, almost a de facto political entity, proving too much. His replacement was former long-time assistant Tito Vilanova, who helped the club regain their LaLiga crown in his first season. However, the coach stepped down in July 2013 due to ill-health, sadly passing away from cancer just a year later.

In May 2013, with the winds of change sweeping through the club, Valdés announced he would not be renewing his contract, due to expire in 2014, echoing Guardiola’s feelings of exhaustion due to the pressure of representing such an iconic and grand institution for so long.

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In January 2014, halfway through his final season, Valdés signed a pre-contract with French side Monaco, then backed by ambitious and big-spending Russian billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev. Two months after putting pen to paper, disaster struck. Celta Vigo were the visitors to the Camp Nou, and after 22 minutes Valdés was stretchered from the field after damaging his anterior cruciate ligament, signalling the end of his Barcelona career. It also ruled the 32-year-old out of the World Cup in Brazil, and effectively ended his career at the top level both for club and country.

The injury to Valdés caused Monaco to renege on their deal, leaving the goalkeeper stranded and without a club for the first time, deprived of the safety net that his boyhood side had provided throughout his whole career. An unlikely reunion with Louis van Gaal, who had given him his debut yet never truly trusted him during a turbulent time for both club and coach, offered Valdés the chance to train with Manchester United in order to regain his fitness in October 2014.

The future of incumbent number one – compatriot David De Gea – was far from certain amidst regular interest from Real Madrid, and it seemed that Valdés could challenge for the starting spot or at least provide stiff competition and back up.

Valdés accepted an 18-month contract in January 2015 with Monaco contributing to his reported £150,000 per week wages, a condition of their withdrawal from the deal signed 12 months earlier. His debut for United came not under the bright lights of Old Trafford but instead for the reserve team at the altogether less salubrious setting of Leigh Sports Village. Valdés immediately earned the respect of his colleagues before the game, showing an inspirational video and combining it with a moving speech which was reminiscent of his former manager, Guardiola.

His first action for the senior side came in the last two games of the 2015/16 season after De Gea picked up an injury against Arsenal at Old Trafford in the penultimate fixture. His full debut, against Hull on the final day, ended in a goalless draw thanks to a string of fine saves from Valdés, although he was lucky to be saved by the linesman’s flag after dropping a cross. Were De Gea to leave that summer it appeared Valdés was in pole position to assume the mantle of Manchester United’s number one.

However, less than two months later, the goalkeeper had been placed on the transfer list and the circumstances surrounding the fallout were pure Van Gaal. The Dutch coach claimed Valdés had refused to play for the second team, a suggestion refuted by the Catalan goalkeeper who posted cryptic social media messages with pictures of his three appearances for the reserves. Van Gaal also claimed he only played Valdés against Hull and Arsenal because he “wanted to help”. because he is a “social human being”.

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A move away from Old Trafford failed to materialise for Valdés in the summer of 2015, and he had to wait until January 2016 and a loan agreement with Belgian side Standard Liège before temporarily departing. In the six-month loan spell, Valdés helped his young teammates to a Belgian Cup triumph before returning to England.

Valdés signed a two-year contract with newly promoted Middlesbrough that summer, then managed by compatriot Aitor Karanka. Despite some superb performances, Valdés was unable to save the Teessiders from relegation, Karanka having already paid with his job after the club entered the drop zone in March.

The former Barça man cut short his stay in the north-east after just one year, and all but retired in the summer of 2017. The official announcement that he was hanging up his gloves for good came in January 2018, Valdés commenting that he wanted to focus on his family before deleting all of his social media accounts. By the very nature of their position, goalkeepers are solitary creatures, and the fact that Valdés wanted to disappear into obscurity should be a surprise to no one.

Valdés’ career can be separated into two distinct chapters: after the knee injury in March 2014 and before. The periods of inactivity afterwards, and less than successful spells at Manchester United, Standard Liège and Middlesbrough, proved a sad and messy way for the career of a great goalkeeper to end. Before the injury Valdés had a hugely successful 12 years with his hometown club, winning five coveted Zamora trophies, six LaLigas, two Copa del Reys, and three Champions League titles. He was part of the Spain team that won the World Cup in 2010 and Euro 2012, supporting and pushing number one Iker Casillas all the way.

Valdés made mistakes, as all goalkeepers do, although you cannot swim without getting wet. Generally, his style of play, ability to receive the ball, and spray passes both short and long with accuracy that would make many midfield players feel inadequate, was a vital part of the success of Rijkaard’s, and primarily Guardiola’s, sides. It’s a complete misnomer that Valdés was somehow lucky to have landed the role of goalkeeper in Barcelona’s all-conquering side, and nonsense that any other man in the world could have filled the role with such aplomb. He may not have been the best goalkeeper in the world but very few, if any, could have filled his boots.

No goalkeeper has made more appearances for the Camp Nou outfit, and although he rarely stole the headlines and won’t be high up the list when people remember Guardiola’s 2008 to 2012 side, Valdés was a Barcelona stalwart. Fiercely competitive and demanding, he demonstrated great mental strength and concentration to be alert during long spells of ball domination, and was superb at one-on-ones.

“For me, Valdes is the best in the world,” the iconic and eccentric Paraguayan stopper José Luis Chilavert said in 2013. “When Barça need calm, he transmits that. He also has great capacity and handling.” Perhaps it’s one member of the mythical goalkeeper’s union looking after another, but when one legend speaks, it makes sense to listen.

By Dan Williamson

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