Gaizka Mendieta and a gilded career that may never have happened

One of the finest midfielders of his generation, a young Mendieta very nearly chose a different path.

The cross slightly behind him, Gaizka Mendieta adjusted his run, jumped and cushioned the ball on his chest in mid-air.

Landing with his back to the Atletico Madrid goal, he afforded himself another touch on his thigh before a deft right-footed flick over two leaden-footed defenders.

Now for the final act: swivelling back around, he darted into the penalty area, steadied himself, then coolly slotted home past the advancing goalkeeper.

It’s clear - even now, 20 years on and in the grainiest footage YouTube has to offer - that Mendieta’s goal for Valencia in the 1999 Copa del Rey final was something special. The kind of goal that typified the technical brilliance he was capable of at the peak of his powers.

Having scored a goal of such quality that night in Seville, few would have been surprised if Mendieta had spent the days that followed watching it back on loop several hundred times.

But this wasn’t the case at all. He had no interest in reliving one of his greatest moments.

“I knew it was special from the reaction to it,” says Mendieta, speaking exclusively to JOE. “But I wasn’t one for watching my goals, even if they were great goals. That one, I didn’t watch for a long time afterwards - years.

“It was always about trying to get better and trying to improve, so I didn’t need to look at the things I did well. I just wanted to get better.

“Sure, I might have scored an amazing goal, but if I missed the next pass, people might remember that instead. That’s how I saw the game.”

This anecdote is an insight into the mindset that helped Mendieta reach the dizzying heights he achieved during his playing career. The rigorous self-analysis and determination to improve served Mendieta well in the years prior to Valencia’s Copa del Rey success. Only 25 years old at that juncture, he had already come a long way.

Born in Bilbao, Mendieta and his family moved to the town of Castellón - about 40 miles north of Valencia along the Mediterranean coast - as a child. His father, a goalkeeper, had finished his playing career with the local town team before moving into a coaching role.

As a boy, Mendieta’s footballing allegiances lay with Athletic Bilbao, though living away from the city of his birth meant that opportunities to see them play were limited. 

Football was central to his early life, but playing wasn’t always a priority. The young Mendieta had also shown plenty of promise in athletics, even breaking regional junior records. Such was his talent, that at one point he decided to turn his back on football completely.

“I remember the day like it was yesterday,” he smiles. "One morning my dad woke me up to go to play and I told him I didn’t want to play football anymore. I just wanted to do athletics. 

“At that time I did basketball, athletics and football. It becomes difficult to balance all that as you grow up, especially with studying, so I decided I would go for athletics. For a couple of years I did cross country running and didn’t play football at all.”

It was only when Mendieta reached his mid teens that he decided to return to football and start playing seriously. Fearing his son would change his mind again, his father arranged for him join a local junior side for a year instead of going directly into the youth system at Castellón.

“I was about 15,” Mendieta recalls. “My dad put me in a small club where the coach was one of his friends. He told me to see how it went and that after the season he’d consider getting me into Castellón’s academy.”

His father was true to his word. Within a year, Mendieta was in the youth ranks at Castellón, where he felt the benefit of his education in athletics.

“I could run for fun on the pitch but it wasn’t just this that helped me. Athletics gave me a lot of discipline. I trained a lot - often on my own - because of what I had learned in athletics. This was very important in helping me develop as a footballer.”

As well as his natural athleticism, Mendieta credits his ability to read the game for helping him progress in those early years. Even after he’d earned a move to Valencia as an 18-year-old, he was aware he had work to do; that he was inferior to many of his peers. 

“Technically, I wasn’t very good,” he admits - a startling thing to hear from a man who would later be named the best midfielder in Europe for two consecutive years. “I was a long, long way from the player I would become.

“Luckily for me, I had enough confidence and perseverance to get me through. Those two things are a lot better than just being technically gifted when you’re young. 

“I had teammates who were unbelievably technical as kids - Barça wanted them, Madrid wanted them, all the big clubs wanted them - but they never made it because they didn’t have that those qualities.”

Originally recruited to join the first team at Valencia, most of Mendieta’s playing time during his first season came with the club’s B side. When he did appear in the senior squad, Guus Hiddink, the manager, decided to utilise his physical attributes by fielding him as a right-back.

“I hated it,” he laughs. “I remember my first pre-season game, we played in a town near Valencia and he put me at right-back. I was like: ‘Why am I at right-back? I’m a midfielder!’ 

“Looking back now, I understand why he played me there. Physically, I could go up and down but I wasn’t the type of player that could make the right pass or take on defenders. 

“Technically, I wasn’t at the level to play in midfield compared to the players we had in the first team. I had to get better.”

Mendieta did get better, and Hiddink played his part. The Dutchman held additional training sessions for Valencia’s youngsters twice a week, focusing entirely on honing the technical aspects of their game.

“We’d cover all different things: long passes, short passes, finishing - it was all about technique and we did that for the whole season. It made a big change to my abilities.”

By the time Hiddink left in November 1993, eventually replaced by the Uruguayan Héctor Núñez, Mendieta was in contention for a regular berth in Valencia’s starting line-up - not at right-back but in midfield.

Managerial change was a regular feature during Mendieta’s time at the Mestalla. Carlos Alberto Parreira, Luis Aragonés and Jorge Valdano were amongst those to follow Núñez, none of them remaining in charge for more than 16 months.

“They all helped me develop, even though they weren’t there too long,” he says, “but it was under Claudio Ranieri that things started to change.”

Appointed in November of 1997, it was in the Italian’s Valencia teams that Mendieta’s performances would start to turn heads. 

“The style of football suited me - the way we pressed and played quickly on the counter attack. It suited my game.”

Though the 1997/98 campaign was an unspectacular one for Valencia, finishing ninth in LaLiga, on a personal level it was the best of Mendieta’s career to date. He scored ten goals in a single campaign for the first time, including a memorable strike against his boyhood club.

His family watching from the San Mamés stands in Bilbao, Mendieta burst into the Athletic penalty area, evading one sliding challenge only to immediately be faced by another red and white shirt. Feinting to shoot with his right foot, he dragged the ball wide, and onto his left. A sharp turn back inside was enough to send the defender skidding across the turf. From there, he calmly guided a shot into the far corner, receiving warm applause from all four corners of La Catedral as he celebrated.

“Like Maradona,” Ranieri would later remark.

Still a year out from his Copa del Rey heroics in Seville, this was a seminal moment for Mendieta.

“Before that I was seen as a team player, but that season, and that goal in particular, gave a different version of me to other people - maybe even to myself.

“If I had to pick one goal in my career, that would be the goal because it was in San Mames, in Bilbao. I got more exposure after that. It changed everything.”

Within the next year, the consistency of Mendieta's performances saw him receive his first international cap for Spain.

There was interest from Real Madrid and Barcelona too, along with several of the most prominent clubs in Serie A.

But leaving Valencia didn’t appeal to him.

“I didn’t want to leave. I was enjoying it there so I improved my contract regularly. I was happy to stay and the club knew I was comfortable. There was also the Champions League, too. I had no reason to look for a move.”

A fourth-place finish in 1999 saw Valencia secure qualification for the Champions League for the first time in their history.

Ranieri had departed for Atletico Madrid following the Copa del Rey victory at the end of the previous season, leaving Héctor Cúper to steer Los Che through their maiden campaign in Europe's elite competition.

Buoyed by a Spanish Super Cup win over Barcelona at the start of the season, Mendieta was instrumental in Valencia’s unexpected journey to the final - where they were downed 3-0 by Real Madrid in Paris.

A year later, they made it to a second final, losing on penalties on that occasion to Bayern Munich in Milan.

“They both hurt but for different reasons,” he recalls.

“When you look at it analytically now, years later, we didn’t have a chance against Madrid. We didn’t play well; Madrid didn’t either but they knew what they were doing and how to do it. 

“We’d played very well all season but the situation got to us that night. A team that was playing like a machine week in, week out, in a systematic way, weren’t the team they were in previous games.

“Bayern was different. We played well. I scored the penalty early on and we were controlling the game and creating things by following our plan and making the most of our strengths. We didn’t do that against Madrid. Sadly, it wasn’t our night again.”

Though Valencia missed out on both occasions, Mendieta’s starring role in reaching consecutive finals had seen his reputation soar.

In both 2000 and 2001, he was named Europe’s best midfielder - no mean feat at a time when Zinedine Zidane was doing enough at Juventus to convince Real Madrid to smash the world record transfer fee.

The final against Bayern proved to Mendieta’s final game for Valencia. After a decade with the club - one that had seen him transformed from a technically limited youngster to a genuine world-class talent - he completed a move to Italy, with Lazio. 

Hindered by a change in manager and president, he struggled for form in Rome and eventually returned to Spain with Barcelona a year later.

“I was really unhappy about the way things went but I did everything I could. I trained the best I could, I played the best I could. I did everything in my hands to make it happen but there were a lot of factors that didn’t help. It wasn’t to be.”

Much like his time in Rome, Mendieta was again the victim of timing during his year on loan at Camp Nou.

Signed in the final months of Joan Gaspart's presidency, it was inevitable his stay would not be extended beyond the end of the 2002/03 season when it emerged that the ambitious Joan Laporta, eyeing a complete overhaul of the Barça squad, was likely to be elected. 

Middlesbrough was Mendieta’s next and final port of call, but while there were some highlights - the League Cup win in 2004 being the obvious example - his playing career never reached the same heights it did during his time with Valencia.

In his absence, his former club became champions of Spain under Rafael Benitez while Mendieta endured his difficult year in Italy. Two years later, they won LaLiga again, as well as winning the Uefa Cup. 

These successes considered, it would be perfectly understandable for Mendieta to harbour a few regrets at his decision to leave. In actual fact, he has anything but.

“It was my decision to go, so I can’t regret it. I felt my time was over at Valencia, but I was still happy for them when they won LaLiga the next season. Somehow, I felt connected to it. All the players who had been involved in the years leading up to it felt connected to it.

“I look back at when I was starting to play football seriously and I was a kid who dreamt of playing football professionally, to play for my national team and at the highest level. I look what I’ve achieved and that I got to live and play football in three different countries and I exceeded my expectations. I can’t really complain.”