To see Iván de la Peña weigh up a pass was to see an artist gaze at his blank canvas. He had a whole plane of creation before his eyes. With the same ball at our feet, we might not have seen these possibilities, for most of us aren’t artists.
When we consider the greatest passers of a ball, we might think of Paul Scholes, Xabi Alonso, Ronaldo Koeman or maybe the dynamic duo of Xavi and Andres Iniesta. Due in part to his lack of silverware, we overlook de la Peña as one of these men. We shouldn’t. His story isn’t one of a complex individual; it’s a simple tale and, because of this, his failure to truly blossom was all the more baffling.
Friedrich Nietzsche, in his conception of the Übermensch, imagined a person capable and willing to push beyond conceivable human endeavour. He stated: “One must still have chaos in oneself to give birth to a dancing star.” In this eloquent turn of phrase, he sets into motion the idea whereby it is out of nothing (chaos) that we are able to produce something truly great (a dancing star). To be great, one must dare.
Rather than chaos and stars, the thought could equally be applied to de la Peña picking up the ball from deep , surrounded by players with seemingly no way out. Yet he was somehow able to pick out an unmarked run with laser-like precision. On the field, on his day, he was an omnipotent force with a crystal-ball, forever aware of everything that might happen.
Beyond his prescience and vision, his true claim to excellence came from his execution. His deftness of touch was uncanny. There aren’t many players that can boast having a passing compilation on YouTube. Rather than highlight-reel finishes, they’re mouth-watering assists with the watchability of our favourite viral hits and the perverse satisfaction of listening to ASMR.
That said, he lacked consistency and, reading between the lines of his nickname – The Little Buddha – he was lazy. He loved to carve open a defence, but he’d never track back to join his own when required. In his early days at Barcelona, debuting at 17, he endeared himself to the fans for the excitement he could produce, but he was unable to get along with cantankerous manager Johan Cruyff.
There were rumours that Cruyff was worried that de la Peña could dethrone his son Jordi, but that seems to be only half grounded in truth. Cruyff still demanded a similarly arduous approach to the Totaalvoetball that he had pioneered during his playing days. Anyone who wasn’t willing to put in the miles was never going to fit. The Little Buddha was a square peg in a round hole.
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Cruyff required possession-hungry and open-to-instruction players to fit his revolutionised yet failing Barcelona and de la Peña was too indolent and complacent. The Dutchman’s stubborn vision that didn’t include the Spaniard. His reluctance to work on his left foot and develop the required team spirit created a chasm between the two.
Barcelona helped de la Peña greatly with one thing, though. Necessity being the mother of invention meant that he was able to hone a special talent. It may be that the midfielder’s aversion to physically demanding football was the impetus to develop his defining feature – the long, frighteningly accurate pass. Think about it. You’re not into running, you’re not blessed with the piston-pivot feet required to dance through opponents and you realise that the ball moves faster than you ever could. What do you do?
Iván de la Peña was born in Santander, Cantabria, in the north of Spain, the coastal city bejewelled with turquoise oceans that reflect the sun like sprinkles of diamonds and with streets bedecked with the cool bricked roads and pavements of Europe’s finest metropolitan centres. To fly above the city, you’d see a juxtaposition of luscious green areas and fiery terracotta tiled rooftops. It was here that young Iván kicked a tatty ball around with his friends. He was clearly nothing like them.
At the age of 15, the prodigy would leave these sun-soaked streets and meandering pathways to make his way towards the Catalonian capital, Barcelona. He was a prodigy. Making his debut for Barcelona B two years later and dutifully impressing, in 1995 he stepped into the big bowl of the Camp Nou.
When Lionel Messi made his own debut for the club almost a decade later, the current Tottenham Hotspur manager Mauricio Pochettino was on the opposing side for Espanyol (incidentally the last place de la Peña would play). With Messi fever-pitch reaching new highs every year, the manager has naturally been questioned about this day. His memory of Messi wasn’t quite what some would expect, though.
In an interview, Pochettino said: “You say to me, ‘You played in Messi’s debut’ … no, I don’t remember it. I was at centre-back and he played on the side. We didn’t face each other. When Messi made his debut, it was like another youngster that had arrived to the Barcelona team from the academy – like it was Xavi or Iniesta or Iván de la Peña. Actually, no. When de la Peña started to play for Barcelona, there was an explosion of excitement. I always remember Ronaldo saying he was the best player that he saw in his life and he played with.”
It’s worth bearing in mind that Ronaldo thought so highly of a man during a season at Barcelona that many would argue to be the greatest single campaign any player has ever had. That’s how good he was at the Camp Nou.
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This outpouring of respect is all for a man who was a little over five and a half feet tall. Yet his talent, measured in tankards and not buckets, was able to speak volumes, and despite it sadly never manifesting to the anticipated heady heights, it made rare appearances with an otherworldly magnitude. Some people can give you goosebumps, but he always managed butterflies.
Having made it through Cruyff’s torrid finale at the club, de la Peña reached his own Catalonian crescendo under his replacement Bobby Robson after inspirational displays for Spain’s Under-21s during the 1996 European Championship final helped him recapture the club’s attention. It was here, back in Barcelona, that his partnership with Ronaldo developed and it was here that Ronaldo witnessed his teammate’s star quality.
An important member of the 1996/97 side, de la Peña helped Barça to a Copa del Rey, Cup Winners’ Cup and UEFA Super Cup treble alongside a second place finish in LaLiga, only two points shy of winners Real Madrid. In both 1996 and 1997, de la Peña was voted Best Young Player by Spanish newspaper El País. He believed in himself as much as anyone.
After his unimaginable yet short-lived success, Robson left for a sabbatical and Ronaldo made an unexpected transfer to Internazionale. Robson’s replacement, Louis van Gaal, was similarly unbeholden to the Spaniard, much like his Dutch predecessor. A move from Barcelona was in order for the diminutive youngster.
Lazio came calling but he was never able to rise to the demands of Serie A. President Sergio Cragnotti was assured the £10m fee for the 22-year-old, “Spanish Maradona” would be money well spent. It wasn’t. Sven-Göran Eriksson gave him the odd run-out but his displays were clumsy, almost comical. All the spark that he had yielded in Spain seemed extinguished.
Loan spells at Marseille and back at Barcelona were similarly barren of success, so it was at his next club that he had to make an impact – and he did. Still only 25 and with a right foot as gifted as any, he legged it back to the city that once cherished him: Barcelona. Only this time it was to rivals Espanyol.
De la Peña got what he needed: the respect he felt he deserved, the loving embrace of a club and fans, and, most importantly, the consistency and stability to build a steady foundation of growth. Arriving in 2002, it was two years later, in the club’s 2004/05 season, that he wrote himself into their history books.
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Virtuosic performances throughout that year led to his side finishing fifth in LaLiga, their highest in a decade, subsequently reserving themselves a place in the UEFA Cup the following year, where they fell 5-1 to Schalke in the last-32. Although their league place dropped considerably that season, ending in an uncomfortable 15th place, Espanyol managed to win the Copa del Rey against Real Zaragoza in a display masterminded by de la Peña.
Zaragoza had a difficult run to stake their claim in the final. Defeating Barcelona in the quarters and Real Madrid in the semis, momentum was on their side. Espanyol opened the scoring in the game’s second minute after striker Raúl Tamudo headed in a de la Peña free-kick that had rebounded off the bar in a jam-packed and equally electrifying Bernabéu.
Sloppy goal-line defending allowed Zaragoza back into the match 25-minutes later, but that was their lot. Luis García gave the Catalans another headed goal five minutes later, before the tie was sealed beyond any doubts when de la Peña sent a signature pitch-perfect ball to launch a defence-splitting run from Ferran Corominas, who comfortably put the ball through the goalkeeper’s legs with 20 minutes left on the clock. A late strike from distance to double García’s tally sealed the deal and gave de la Peña his elusive first piece of silverware with the club and an automatic place in the next season’s UEFA Cup.
Following their early exit the season prior, Espanyol, with galvanised zeal and led by the creativity of a peaking de la Peña, were out to make a scene. The Spanish side were rampant in the tournament with de la Peña and new acquisition Walter Pandiani creating a unique and effective force.
After cruising through qualifying, Espanyol topped their group, winning all of their games, leaving Ajax in second place. Their run to the final consisted of wins against Livorno, Maccabi Haifa, Benfica and Werder Breman. Fellow Spaniards Sevilla occupied the other final place and, after a hard-fought 2-2 draw, the serial UEFA Cup winners triumphed 3-1 on penalties. Despite their loss, it had been a dream season for Espanyol. De la Peña saw his contract renewed before a series of injuries hindered his ability to play consistently during the following two seasons.
After the tragic death of captain Daniel Jarque in 2009, de la Peña was named as his replacement. Unfortunately it was a band he would rarely pull on and, having promised to hang up his boots less his injuries abate, he followed through on his word in 2011, aged 35, after a match against Sevilla.
An uncommon name on the scoresheet, de la Peña had his swansong in 2009 amidst this uncertain period. In the Catalan derby, Barcelona had gone undefeated in 27 years. At the time of the match, they sat atop of LaLiga, a position not foreign to them in what was a glorious period for the Blaugrana. Espanyol, on the other hand, were floundering at the foot of the table.
Sid Lowe, after the match, admitted that this would “be the most uneven contest in history. Even the Bible couldn’t match it – at least David had a catapult and a stone.” This is before recalling a preview he read of this match being more akin to “fighting King Kong with a teaspoon.”
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It turned out that Espanyol still had hope in their diminutive midfielder. It seemed, as if to vindicate his entire career, de la Peña decided on this most unsuspecting of nights to illuminate the footballing world in a way that everyone had hoped for. Lowe continues his Biblical metaphor accordingly: “… because while Revelations described God as having a head and hair that were white like wool, eyes like blazing fire, feet akin to bronze glowing in a furnace, a face like the sun, and a voice like the sound of rushing waters, he is in fact a pint-sized parrot with a long tail and fancy feathers.”
Football, as we all know on such occasions, is infinitely capable of conjuring an upset, although rarely on such a scale. To paraphrase one of the tenets of Stoicism, ‘We are hurt a lot more by things we don’t expect to happen to us.’ The same is true of surprise; we are profoundly more surprised when the truly unexpected occurs. It sounds obvious, but that’s only because it’s viewed with hindsight. Contextually, given the gulf between the players, this was the shock of the season.
It was a bonkers derby from the moment the whistle echoed through the arena. To set the scene, there were 14 yellow cards and one red, plus a headed goal from possibly the smallest man on the park. This was the first goal and it was an easy nod-in for de la Peña, who waited unmarked at the back-post for the incoming cross. His second goal led to a universal sigh of relief from the blue and white section of the stadium. After intercepting a pass from Víctor Valdés, who had been forced off his line, he proceeded to eloquently lob the ‘keeper with a cultured looping ball that was caught by the side netting.
Barcelona pushed back but only managed a solitary goal. De la Peña had, with one fell swoop, struck at the heart of his opponents’ lead at the top of the table, whilst giving his side a lifeline. The boost was enough as Espanyol managed to claw their way back to a mid-table finish. That they almost derailed their rivals LaLiga victory felt nearly as good. It seems perversely fitting that in such unique circumstances, it would be the most unique talent that will be remembered.
Iván de la Peña was difficult. He was moody, he often believed his own hype and he daren’t be told to put in a tackle, less he have to track back to do so. Despite all of these traits, which ultimately held him back, he wasn’t a complex figure, rather a simple, understated man with an extraordinary ability in his right foot.
Iván de la Peña offered fans, players and coaches a thrill that we all waited for, even if it was fleeting at times. Alfred Hitchcock said, “There is no terror in the bang, only the anticipation of it.” Likewise, seeing the thrill of such unquantifiable greatness is only topped by the moments that we longed for it. It is a story of unrequited love that fans still refer to with fond superlatives.
He wasn’t only the Little Buddha because of the way he looked, but because he held such a great, unsullied, yet rarely evoked power. His heavenly right foot – blessed are those who bore witness to it – belonged to a demigod all too rarely worshipped in football. He stood there, alone in a team of players, safe in the knowledge that he was capable of things beyond their wildest dreams.
By Edd Norval @EddNorval