It’s the most wonderful time of World Cup year, it’s the time when fans across the globe debate who should be “getting a ticket” or “earning a seat on the plane” and who should instead be booking that clichéd beach holiday. For Spain, the debate has largely been focussed on the strikers, but Julen Lopetegui seems to have a plan. Barring any major changes between now and the summer, his three strikers for Russia will be Diego Costa, Iago Aspas and Rodrigo Moreno.
They are three very different types of forward, but they have one thing in common – they were all at Celta Vigo in the 2007/08 season. So let’s spool back exactly one decade and look at how the Galician club helped form the strike force that could bring Spain a second world title.
The three players were all part of different Celta teams that season, which makes the fact they’ve all converged on this point even more fascinating. At 20 years of age, Aspas was the oldest, yet he was in the Celta Vigo B squad. Diego Costa was just 18 when he arrived, but considered mature enough to form part of the first team’s squad. 16-year-old Rodrigo was the youngest and was in the Juvenil. While they each experienced very different parts of the petri dish that was Celta Vigo and while they each trained in different areas of the club’s A Madroa complex in that special season, what’s clear is that the 2007/08 campaign was one of the most important in each of their journeys to the top and, in all likelihood, to Russia.
For Costa, these were his first steps in Spanish football. The Brazilian-born forward had already been in Europe since a 2006 move to Portuguese side Sporting Braga, but Celta Vigo was where he made his debut, just across the border. His rights had been purchased by Atlético Madrid in January of 2007, after which he was loaned back to Braga to finish the 2006/07 season there. The Madrid-based club next loaned him out to Celta, whose first team were competing in the Spanish second division at that time.
He was just 18 when he touched down in Vigo, but Costa was experienced. In more ways than one. At the age of 14 he had been making trips over the Brazilian and Paraguayan border to buy fake brands on the cheap and then sell them back in his home country for a profit. This might not have had anything to do with football, but it certainly helps explain how Costa always seems to have been able to fend for himself. His footballing ability was then discovered by one of Jorge Mendes’ scouts and Costa made the move to Portugal, before completing his path to Spain.
In that summer of 2007, Atlético Madrid had no space for another striker, with Diego Forlán, Sergio Agüero, José Antonio Reyes, Luis García and Simão Sabros all on their books. That’s why he was sent to Vigo and he improved there, netting six goals over the course of a turbulent season in which he had four different coaches. He wasn’t perfect and was sent off three times, but little by little he began to learn how to tailor his aggressive style to the slightly softer LaLiga interpretation of the sport’s rulebook. “As he was young, he had to learn how to look after himself and how to control his temper against opponents and referees,” Fran Guillén, author of ‘Diego Costa: The Art of War’, says of that time.
Further loan spells at Albacete, Real Valladolid and Rayo Vallecano were needed, as was a bit more consistency in the dugout, but the long-term benefits of the Celta loan to Costa’s development were huge. “He matured a lot during the loan spells,” Guillén adds. “He arrived as a kid in Spain and ended up finding his place at Atlético thanks to enormous mental strength.”
For Iago Aspas, he enjoyed a lot more stability during his time with the Celta Vigo B team that season. Alejandro Menéndez was in charge for all but one of their matches, having missed the final one at the end of the season because he had been promoted to take charge of Costa’s senior squad’s final five matches. Although Aspas had only scored four goals across 21 starts for the B team that season, his general play was getting better and better and Menéndez trusted Aspas enough to give him his debut with the first team in the penultimate match of Celta Vigo’s season, precisely because Costa was suspended. As such, the two strikers never played together, but they both made their senior debuts in Spanish football that season and they both did so for Celta Vigo, the club Aspas now leads, having returned following a brief and unsuccessful stint at Liverpool.
Rodrigo Moreno never did play for the senior Celta side, yet he arguably grew the most as a player in that 2007/08 season. Like Costa, he was born in Brazil and like Costa he moved to Spain to pursue his footballing dreams, specifically to Vigo.
Football was in Rodrigo’s blood, as his father Adalberto Machado had played as a full-back for Flamengo in the 80s. During his career, Adalberto became good friends with Mazinho, the father of Thiago and Rafinha Alcântara, and the three boys grew up together, essentially as cousins. Rodrigo and Thiago even played at the same school in Rio de Janeiro, and they were soon playing together in Vigo too after Mazinho – who had played three seasons for Celta during his career – moved back to the coastal city to set up a soccer school, where he made Adalberto one of the directors. Playing for Ureca at Alevín level, Rodrigo and Thiago destroyed almost all the opposition in their path, including the much better-funded Celta sides. With Rodrigo’s father also working for Celta as a scout, it was never going to be long before he was offered a move to the big fish in the local youth football pond.
The current Valencia forward quickly progressed through the youth ranks and he really performed to an exceptional level in the 2007/08 and 2008/09 seasons, helping Celta’s Juvenil side to reach the final of the Copa de Campeones, the main youth tournament for the age group in Spain, where they lost to their Barcelona counterparts by a 2-0 scoreline, although it should be pointed out that a perfectly legal Celta goal was ruled out with the match still goalless.
Rodrigo Moreno might not have won that trophy, but he had gained so much more thanks to his young and energetic coach Guillermo Fernández-Romo. He even won a move to Real Madrid’s academy and made his way to the Spanish capital in the summer of 2009 for €300,000, earning some much-needed cash for the club. Transfers to Benfica and to Bolton followed, before he returned to LaLiga with Valencia, where he is fulfilling the potential he demonstrated at A Madroa.
He’s fulfilling his potential so much that he is in line for a place in La Roja’s World Cup squad, along with the other two forwards he shared a club with in 2007/08. Amazingly, these three players have never all been on the same pitch for a competitive match at the same time, while the only occasion on which any of them have ever been in the same XI at the same time was when Aspas and Costa both played the final seven minutes of Spain’s 4-1 victory over Israel in May of 2017. That’s it. These three careers have run similar, but parallel paths. And they all passed through Vigo one decade ago.