Monday 28 January 2008, on the touchline at Estadio Municipal de Riazor, the fourth official lifted the substitution board to signal a change for Deportivo La Coruña. In red flashed Andrés Guardado’s number: 18. He had been his side’s best performer, as they moved 3-1 ahead of Real Valladolid, and the stadium applauded his departure. But their applause was not simply in light of his magnificent display. It was to welcome Juan Carlos Valerón back to LaLiga football.
He was in slow motion in the centre of midfield, whilst those around him clamoured. On the green canvases of Spain’s footballing amphitheatres and beyond, he was adroit in control of his brushes – humble black boots – as he embellished his teams. He was, as Juan Anquela enthused, a “benchmark” for all footballers. That was until he tore cruciate ligaments in his left knee, rendering him unavailable for 18 months. The damage relapsed three times, in which time Depor became relegation contenders.
Valerón is unassuming. He is a tall and slight evangelist, with a high-pitched voice, who is lauded for being one of the nicest people in football. He does not have a bad bone in his body; just a dead person’s tendon in his knee.
His return to first-team action was the talk of fútbol. More so than the same week’s brawl between Sevilla and Osasuna’s players, Real Madrid and Villarreal’s 3-2 thriller, and Real Zaragoza’s third meeting with Racing Santander in a fortnight with three different coaches.
David Silva chose his shirt number, 21, in tribute to him. Andrés Iniesta described him as one of the few players he would pay to watch. Arrigo Sacchi lauded him in the same breath as Zinedine Zidane. Valerón was one of the finest midfield originators of his generation. And he overshadowed Cristiano Ronaldo on his Real Madrid debut in 2009, too; the Portuguese scored a penalty to put Manuel Pellegrini’s side 2-1 ahead against Depor, but they were pegged back by a Valerón goal of great grandeur.
He controlled Guardado’s cross on the edge of the penalty area, before scoring past Iker Casillas with a sweeping, plenary strike. Whilst Ronaldo was at the beginning of a trophy-laden spell in Madrid, 34-year-old Valerón was in the twilight of his metier, in remission from his sickening injury. Ronaldo would have been well aware of Valerón’s notoriety.
Born on 17 June 1975, in the town of Arguineguín in Gran Canaria, Valerón played for the town’s football club before signing youth terms with Las Palmas aged 15. He began his senior career with the club’s B-side, featuring regularly in the 1994/95 Tercera División. He was furthered to the first-team the following year and helped Ángel Cappa’s side earn promotion to the Segunda.
After a seventh-placed finish and unlikely journey to the semi-finals of the Copa del Rey, where they eventually succumbed to Barcelona, he earned a move to LaLiga with Real Mallorca in time for the 1997/98 campaign. There, he enjoyed an excellent debut campaign as they finished fifth in the league and as Copa del Rey runners-up to Barça.
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He joined Atlético Madrid in 1998 and became a regular starter, notably during the infamous 1999/2000 season besmirched by relegation to the second tier. A once beguiling, attractive proposition, they had endured a tempestuous run under the rule of Jesús Gil. Valerón, though, had done enough to earn a top-flight reprieve as he moved to the reigning LaLiga champions, Deportivo.
It was to be the beginning of a stellar 13-year-long stay at the Riazor, in which he attracted the aforementioned praise from assorted luminaries of the European game. He began to instantly repay the €7.5m fee paid for him, in a deal including Joan Capdevila, with a series of dominant performances and a first goal in just his third game, a 3-0 rout of Racing Santander.
It is indolent, though, to measure his importance via elementary statistics – he never troubled the scoring charts or assists tables. Indeed, he scored only four times in his debut campaign, but 31 ascendant displays made him the totem of an excellent side.
In the early epochs of his time in Galicia, teammates Diego Tristán and Roy Makaay won the Pichichi in 2001/02 and 2002/03, and the latter described Valerón as the “best player I’ve played with”. It would be foolish to presume Valerón was not the main reason for their success. He was powerless to stop Real’s assault on LaLiga in 2000/01. They exacted their revenge a year later, however, at the Bernabéu, Javier Irureta’s Branquiais triumphing 2-1 in the 2002 Copa del Rey final to end Vicente del Bosque’s side’s treble hopes.
Valerón had been described by the Spanish press as the closest facsimile of Zidane. His displays in LaLiga had grabbed the attention of football zealots the world over, but his ebullience with Tristán in a 3-2 victory against Manchester United and mockery of Arsenal at Highbury, in which he subjugated Sol Campbell and Igors Stepanovs, induced a new level of eminence.
He was a guaranteed starter for Spain, who were infamous underachievers at the time, ahead of the 2002 World Cup. He scored in a group stage 3-1 victory against Slovenia but José Camacho’s side infamously succumbed to South Korea at the quarter-finals stage. He returned to Spain for the 2002 Supercopa de España final, to score the opening goal of a 4-0 aggregate victory against Valencia, and he continued the 2002/03 season in fine fettle.
In a 3-2 victory against Bayern Munich, in which Mackaay earned the majority of the plaudits for a hat-trick against his soon-to-be suitors, Valerón was the provider. For his first, he lifted a perfectly-weighted pass over the defence. Naturally, against Valerón’s vision and Mackaay’s speed, Ottmar Hitzfeld’s side sat deeper as the game progressed. This was of no matter to Valerón: he cushioned a looped pass, turned in a crevasse and passed through the tightest of angles to Mackaay for his second.
He began the 2003/04 season with homogenous distinction: he scored a nonchalant chip over the head of Athletic’s Dani Aranzubia on his way to earning a six-year contract in February 2004. Soon after, he repaid the faith shown in him by playing his part in one of the finest spectacles in Champions League history.
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When 29,000 Depor fans crowded into their home for the visit of AC Milan in the second leg of the year’s quarter-final, after a 4-1 defeat at the San Siro, they could be forgiven for feeling dispirited versus the might of world football’s protagonists at the time. Considering that Milan were the title holders, a three-goal swing felt unlikely. Irureta’s side, though, saw it differently.
Walter Pandiani’s opener was followed by a headed finish from Valerón and goals from Albert Luque and Fran González to complete a then-inimitable 4-0 victory. It was the first time a team had recovered from a three-goal deficit going into the second leg of a Champions League knockout tie.
Alas, they were vanquished by José Mourinho’s Porto, the eventual winners, in the semi-final. For many, it was the juncture at which Depor began to decline; they finished six, then fell to eighth the next season after a dismal Champions League campaign. Irureta departed and was followed by Luque, Pandiani, Fran and Mauro Silva. Valerón, however, remained and began the 2005/06 season in form again.
He opened the scoring in a 3-3 draw against Barcelona before netting a wonderful goal against Celta, in which he finished under José Manuel Pinto after evading Matías Lequi’s challenge. Later, he scored against his former club, Mallorca, but his display was marred by a career-threatening cruciate ligament injury.
During a painstaking journey back to full fitness, he was enjoined to wear a bright bib in training to remind his teammates to not tackle him. Stories about him sounded like obituaries; an indictment of his absence was the use of the past tense. A Galician guidebook noted: “Valerón might never play again, but he’ll always be a great.”
But he did play again. He waited six months after his fleeting return against Valladolid for his next start, an Intertoto Cup tie against Inud Bhei Sakhnin. In his first full season back, in 2008/09, Depor rose to seventh in LaLiga, earning qualification for the UEFA Europa League.
He considered retiring after the 2010/11 season until a 2-1 loss to Valencia confirmed relegation. To repay the loyalty shown in him, he reversed his decision and stayed as they returned to the top flight for the 2012/13 season. He did eventually leave Depor in 2013 for a return to Las Palmas. Aged 40, he played a reduced role as they earned promotion to LaLiga for 2015/16.
Like a musician enjoying a farewell tour, he was applauded off the fields of all LaLiga stadiums and given two standing ovations in his final game, a 0-0 draw against Athletic. Whilst he was salient during his return to Las Palmas, he will be best remembered for his part in the Depor side of the turn of the 21st century. A quiet, loyal man, his thaumaturge in a 13-year spell was as seminal as he was adroit.
By Ryan Plant @ryanplant1998