There are some football teams whose brilliance flickers for a couple of seasons, their star joyfully ascending until the forces of superior finance snuff out their challenges. In recent years, the bulk of those teams have been Spanish. Javier Irureta’s Deportivo La Coruna rest fondly in the memories of many football fans, as do the Sevilla side of Juande Ramos. Yet perhaps supreme among this cluster of clubs — the forerunner to Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid — was Valencia in the era of Hector Cuper. That team went to two consecutive UEFA Champions League finals, in 2000 and 2001, only to find itself outsmarted (by Real Madrid) and outlasted (by Bayern Munich) at the last hurdle. On the way, though, it played some of the most thrilling football Europe had seen for some years, with a fine defence supporting a midfield and forward line that counterattacked at warp speed. And central to their efforts, the Tasmanian Devil with one hand on the ship’s helm, was Gaizka Mendieta.
There are a few players in that side whose prominence was startlingly brief. The most notable was Gerard Lopez, who scored a hat-trick against Lazio in the 1999-2000 UEFA Champions League quarter-finals before moving onto Barcelona and subsiding from view. Then there was Claudio Lopez, who though he moved onto Italy never quite electrified Serie A as he had La Liga. Mendieta, though, is the undisputed talisman of that side. Like Valencia, he played with a spectacular intensity; like Valencia, his reign was over almost as swiftly as it had begun. No matter, though. He gave world football two remarkable seasons, winning UEFA’s award for best midfielder in Europe two seasons running. (This, it must be noted, was in the time of Fernando Redondo, Stefan Effenberg and Zinedine Zidane.)
What made Mendieta so good? Well, what didn’t? He moved everywhere about the field at terminal velocity, a blizzard of limbs. Yet he was no needlessly frenetic player: he combined speed and precision about as well as the rapping of Kendrick Lamar. God knows how he got rid of the adrenalin at each match – come the final whistle, he seemed as if he could still do a triathlon before his next breakfast. Mendieta was so gifted at so much that it almost shamed his fellow professionals. He reminded me of those days at school when I was struggling to play the saxophone, only to look up and see that I had classmates who had already mastered five instruments.
What made Mendieta so good? Well, what didn’t?
Just look at his selection of goals. He scored on the counterattack, racing away from defenders with possibly illegal pace. Long-range drives and volleys from either foot seared into the top corner. He rolled home penalties as if aiming at an empty net. He dribbled with the flair of an elite winger before finishing with the efficiency of a pure poacher.
And yet, despite his taste for goal – during those two superb seasons, he netted 31 times in 100 matches – he still found time to disrupt, and to create. His passes were superbly weighted, his tackles arrived with the force of the Berlin wind. And, beyond all that, he inspired his team to surge forward in rare style. He supported a forward line that, at various points, contained Kily Gonzalez, Vicente, John Carew, Zlatko Zahovic and Pablo Aimar – and, though they were all devastatingly effective in their own ways, he consistently emerged as the team’s leading influence. If Bryan Robson regularly cast his eye over Valencia’s play, then he might have found his Spanish equivalent in Mendieta.
Yet such a wonderful period of form could not last. Mendieta did not win La Liga in his time at Valencia – they did so the next season, after his departure to Lazio, a particularly ill-fated move. This seemed to be precisely the worst home for him; he was now a drum-and-bass midfielder in a smooth jazz league. In his only season in Rome, he failed to score in thirty-one appearances. After much less despondent but surprisingly quiet season at Barcelona, he ended his career with four years at Middlesbrough, where he attracted little fanfare but found great personal happiness. Viewed from a distance, it was a strangely swift demise for a player who, at just 27, had twice led his team to the last stage of Europe’s elite tournament. At the same time, it is a reminder of just how demanding the standards are at the very highest level, and how unsparing the game can be to anyone who loses their momentum.
Still, Mendieta put together enough magnificence in his peak years to be ranked as one of the finest players of his generation. It may be that, in a decade or so to come, his name – to quote television show The Wire – will not “ring out” as much as you would expect; but, as the saying goes, “those who know, know”.