It is the opening day of the 2009/10 LaLiga season and all eyes are on Real Madrid’s Santiago Bernabéu. In an all-white kit for the first time is Cristiano Ronaldo, the world’s best and most expensive footballer. Unsurprisingly, it takes little more than half an hour for the Portuguese to score. The opener of what will become a record-breaking haul, it is a disappointingly average penalty.
There is, however, another strike in this game worthy of more detailed description. Standing on the edge of the box, the scorer effortlessly brings a cross down before slotting low into the corner. It does not come courtesy of a man whom Florentino Pérez deemed worthy of paying £80m for, though. Instead, it is scored by a 34-year-old midfielder for Deportivo.
He’s someone who David Silva wears his shirt number in tribute to and Andrés Iniesta categorised as a small number of footballers he would pay to watch. A man who Arrigo Sacchi described in the same breath as Zinedine Zidane. This is a player who inspired a 4-0 comeback over a conquering AC Milan side and is arguably one of Spain’s greatest midfielder talents. The video screen flashes up with the goalscorer’s name for the world to see: 21. Juan Carlos Valerón.
Born in 1975 in the small coastal town of Arguineguín in the Canary Islands, Valerón learnt his trade playing on the streets of Gran Canaria. Starting out in the B team of local giants Las Palmas, he would make the jump to the first team at the age of 20, going on to help his club win promotion to the Segunda División. In 1997 he moved away from home for the first time, stepping up to LaLiga to join fellow island club Mallorca.
An impressive sole campaign in the Balearics, which brought a fifth-place league finish and runners-up spot in the Copa del Rey, prompted further interest in the midfielder. It was now time for Valerón to head to the Spanish mainland, the bright lights of Atlético Madrid the destination. Admittedly not the force they are today, enduring a tumultuous existence under controversial president Jesús Gil, Valerón was relegated in his second season in 2000.
In response, he would move to Spain’s top team, at the time neither Barcelona or Real Madrid, situated in the fishing port of A Coruña. Signing for Deportivo for £7.5m in July 2000 as part of a double deal with Joan Capdevila, for Valerón the move would pay dividends. In the 13 years about to unfold with Depor, he would establish himself as a club icon.
He would score in just his third game for the reigning champions, netting the opener in a 3-0 win over Racing Santander, going on to score three more times that season. It was not the stats by which Valerón was measured, however, for this was a rare breed of midfielder.
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Possessing such finesse that he could dictate an entire game of football, Valerón’s head was always up, with the ball seemingly glued to his foot as he glided around the pitch in slow motion, plotting his next pass with pinpoint precision. Known as El Flaco (The Skinny One) owing to his lanky, slight physique, this is not something that ever caused Valerón issue in his quest for greatness.
His first season in Galicia would end seven points behind Real Madrid as Depor relinquished their title. However, Valerón exacted revenge the following year, with a triumph over the same club to bring his first piece of silverware. The 2002 Copa del Rey final saw the midfielder withdrawn on the hour for the more defensive Aldo Duscher, as Deportivo held on for a 2-1 win. This result ended Real’s hopes of a treble in their centenary year, coming at their own stadium to further rub salt into the wound.
By now, Valerón was being described by the press as “Spain’s Zidane – only better”. Key to this were his imperious performances in the Champions League. In both games against Manchester United, he dovetailed perfectly with the tenacious Diego Tristán, masterminding a 3-2 win at Old Trafford. Following that he ran Arsenal’s Igors Stepanovs and Sol Campbell ragged at Highbury, scoring and creating a goal in a showing so perfect it elevated him to new levels of fame.
This, however, is another part of Valerón’s story, one which the player was openly uncomfortable with. The shy child from a town of 2,500 inhabitants never left him, with El Flaco noted for his unassuming modesty and keeping his private life just that. He frequently made it known how, despite being more than happy to sign autographs or pose for photos, this superstar image made him uncomfortable. Instead, Valerón saw himself as an ordinary man: “I am no more important than a bricklayer.”
Tristán would go on to win the Pichichi for top scorer in 2001/02, with Roy Makaay matching his teammate in the following campaign. No matter how little Valerón sought the spotlight, it is foolish to suggest anything else than he was the fundamental reason for such high goal returns.
In the 2002 World Cup he was a guaranteed starter for Spain, seen as the main cause for a new wave of optimism regarding what were then international football’s most notorious underachievers. A group stage goal for Valerón in the 3-1 win over Slovenia indicated a promising start, although La Roja exitded at the hands of questionable refereeing in the quarter-final with South Korea. Undeterred, Valerón returned to northern Spain in time for the 2002 Supercopa, scoring the opener in the first leg as Deportivo dismissed Valencia 4-0.
Another notable performance – once again coming the Champions League – was a 3-2 triumph at Bayern Munich. Makaay was the man of the hour, scoring a hat-trick against his soon-to-be employers, credit for the goals must go to their creator. For the first, Valerón lifts a sumptuous ball over the defence, while the second sees him cushion a high ball on his chest before sliding through the narrowest of angles for the onrushing Makaay.
Read | The rise and fall of Deportivo La Coruña
A horrific challenge from Real Valladolid’s Juan Manuel Peña in the late September contest saw Valerón fracture his fibula. Sidelined for two months and with his Bolivian injurer widely condemned in the press, Valerón shrugged it off in characteristic style: “That’s football.”
The 2003/04 season started with a goal of incredible nonchalance, as Valerón effortlessly lifted a breathtaking chip over Athletic’s Dani Aranzubia. For both his unwavering influence and loyalty to the club, he was rewarded with a new six-year contract extension in February 2004. Little over two months later, Valerón would repay that faith in arguably the greatest Champions League comeback in Spanish football history.
Returning home 4-1 down from a bruising quarter final first leg with AC Milan, it appeared a lost cause. However, an early goal from Walter Pandiani was followed by Valerón heading in Albert Luque’s cross, and Deportivo went on to win 5-4 on aggregate. The first time a side had come from three down to win in the Champions League, it was made all the more remarkable by the fact Milan were the holders and going into the match hadn’t conceded an away goal in Europe all season.
Unfortunately, Deportivo were to fall to Porto in the semi-finals, and following that the decline began. After finishing six points behind champions Valencia, in 2004/05 they were to end in eighth. Meanwhile, their final Champions League campaign was to end in disaster, exiting at the group stage having not scored a goal. This signalled the departure of iconic coach Javier Irureta, alongside several of the Super Depor team. Luque went to Newcastle, Pandiani to Birmingham, whilst Mauro Silva and captain Fran retired.
Valerón, however, remained, and in the absence of all these former icons started the season well. He opened the scoring in a 3-3 draw with Barcelona, going on to net a wonderful goal against Celta Vigo in the Galician derby. Leaving Matías Lequi flailing on the floor after a futile slide tackle, Valerón turns before sliding coolly under José Manuel Pinto. Little over a month later he would again open the scoring against former side Mallorca, although would fail to complete this match.
Two minutes from time he tore cruciate ligaments in his left knee, and over the next season and a half would play just two minutes of competitive football. Arsène Wenger believes this injury nightmare stole his career, with the damage relapsing three times over the following 18 months. Deportivo suffered in his two seasons away, with both campaigns ending in, albeit successful, relegation dogfights. It proved that the Depor orchestra was nothing without its skinny Canarian conductor.
It was a painstaking road back to fitness, with Valerón detailed to wear a different coloured bib in training to warn teammates not to tackle him. Naturally this singling out embarrassed the midfielder, who made his long-awaited return in January 2008. Coming on for the final 15 minutes of a 3-1 win over Valladolid, with a dead man’s tendon inserted in one of his knees, it was a sight many thought they would never see again.
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It would take another six months until he was fit enough to start again, with this milestone coming in an Intertoto Cup match with Israeli outfit Ihud Bnei Sakhnin. In his first full season back, Valerón’s influence was enough to lead Deportivo back up the table. The 2008/09 campaign ended in seventh place, although there was an embarrassing 6-1 UEFA Cup defeat to Aalborg to contend with.
Foreshadowing the imminent earthquake, Valerón’s entire career path was then altered by events on the pitch in 2010/11. Now approaching 36, he was thinking of retirement at the conclusion of the season but ended it with relegation. A 2-1 loss to Valencia on the final day confirmed the drop, triggering an outpouring of tears. Even as a man of few words, the incoherent post-match interview from Valerón that day spoke far more than his notoriously high-pitched voice: “It just … I mean, if … all it would have taken … man, just one of those … how could that ball have not … I can’t”.
With the club that he had openly declared as his home in freefall, Valerón postponed hanging up his boots in obligation. It would prove inspired, as the drop down saw Depor win the Segunda and head back into LaLiga. This trophy meant as much as the other five he would win in his career. In a rare outpouring of emotion, Valerón declared: “It’s the greatest thing that has ever happened in my life, I could not go without returning the team to the Primera.”
Unfortunately, it now appeared Valerón was outstaying his welcome. An underwhelming season back saw Depor drop down to the Segunda once again and, realising his waning powers, the midfielder decided to leave. In another move of poetic proportions, he decided to return home for the first time in 16 years and sign a one-year contract with Las Palmas.
Stating how it was “impossible to say no”, his first season back would end in heartache as Córdoba triumphed in the dying seconds of the playoff final. A reduced role in the side for Valerón came during the following season, a campaign that saw Las Palmas bury their playoff demons with a late winner against Zaragoza.
Now aged 40, the fairy-tale every fan in Spain wished for came true as Valerón returned to LaLiga for one final year. Like a rock legend performing a farewell tour, in all of the matches Valerón played that season he received a hero’s welcome, universally applauded at both the Bernabéu and Camp Nou. After his final match, a 0-0 draw with Athletic, he was given a standing ovation twice, and thrown into the air by his adoring teammates.
Juan Carlos Valerón was fiercely loyal and principled man who never sought the spotlight, but whose otherworldly talents so awkwardly found it. “He’s a player that we must put on a pedestal as high as the moon,” commented Quique Setién following his retirement in May 2016. Whilst Valerón may disagree, the rest of football certainly wouldn’’t.
By James Kelly @jkell403