Ah, it was a wonderful break. After coming back on this page after almost a year or so, I was asked to write prolonged pieces and was quite befuddled among the various topics I wanted to warm my fingers with. It was yesterday. And tonight, as I buffered the 2011 Champion League’s final match tally against the Reds, what made me a little forlorn was the fact that even though we completely outplayed them and made them eat mud throughout the entire game, we, as fans never really gave the due credits to the gigantic saves made by our wall, Valdes that night. The game was surely beyond United’s reach. Xavi and the entire team controlled each and every second of those 90 minutes and there was no chance they could outplay us. Except twice. Almost when they had a lifeline in the form of Hernandes, the Mexican striker was through on goal until Valdes easily managed to get in front of the shot. Minutes later and it’s Nani on the attack, and although he does well to cut inside and smash in a shot, ball bobbles harmlessly past Valdes’ goal. And there, those two saves were underrated yet vastly important. Barcelona goalkeeper then picked up a yellow card from Viktor Kassai for wasting time on the resultant goalkeeper. Barcelona won 3-1 and lifted the Champions League Trophy. With the Pep’s Barcelona side, that was surely an easy catch. And even though Xavi earned the man of the match, for me that night has always been not just because of him and Messi but also, the always ‘secondary’ man, Valdes. Even so, it was peculiar to believe Victor Valdes was Spain’s third choice keeper heading into previous year’s World Cup. But the then as-quick-as-a-flash 29-year-old would walk into just about any football club in the world, and one or two other sports teams too. He was that good.
With serated movement around the box, and an intuitive eye for an incoming ball, any shot that made it past him was one of some quality. Infact, he has always been an unsung exemplar and admist him being continuously compared to the likes of De Gea and Neur and Zoff, fades all his contours and contributions.
“Don’t belittle anyone who you don’t recognize. Don’t be fooled by anybody who underrates you.”
Most of his professional career is spent in the hearts of the Blaugrana, which counts 22 years, 535 appearances, 21 major titles- 6 La Liga, 3 Champions League , 5 Zamora trophies and yet, there is something more to all this than these accomplishments. It was 2004 when he played almost all games for the club and it was th first league title in 6 years which he lead on the club to win. Now here, let me tell you why many fans chose to ignore his genesis in the club’s comeback is this-
In the footballing world, much lesser light is glanced upon the keeper and that is a huge reason why Lev Yashin is the only goalie to have won the Ballond’or. Okay, now, let me be again clear that here, I’m not saying whether Valdes was worthy enough to win a Ballond’or or not. But my case rests upon again, to the velocity of a goalkeeper’s presence in the field.
As for most football watchers, while Valdés wasn’t the most ‘stylish’ or say, ‘technically’ gifted GK in history, but he was probably the most enigmatic, equipped and overall a smart footballer in his position. There are two things needed for a passing goalkeeper – the technical ability, and the mentality. And he had it both in right proportions.
He had a seemingly unrestricted view of the entire pitch and it is his perfect field strategy that makes him my personal favorite.
Infact, even before the epic win against United, it were the whites who almost took away our glory through Valdes’s first opening goal against them in the semi final night. It was salivating. And it almost felt like the herd took over our men and were about to end the ‘ Barcelona era’. Victor was criticised. A silly mistake. He curled down the ball to Maria instead of Puyol who seemingly pushed the ball inside the net as Eric kept on looking, helpless. Valdes looked on as through his shoulders, Barcelona’s dreams had been crushed. 23 seconds in and he had easily endowed them an easy goal. One could hear the knives being sharpened. He was going to be slaughtered if the Blaugranas lost. But he never stopped playing the ball and as Pep had said, “Real Madrid steam-roller you. Most goalkeepers would boot it. But Víctor kept playing the ball. I prefer us to lose the ball like that but give continuity to our play. He had shown a commitment to our approach.” And with all the moral support, instead of, “You made us look like fools”, there was a rush of back thumps from Dani, Busquets and Puyol which might have sounded something like, “Carry on, Victor”. And absolutely, it did work. He was an absolute pass maker and that’s what he did that night. With an 85% passing accuracy, the thing about Valdés was that he read games like a field player would, and his passing was smart; it attacked precise points once he found a rival weakness, and that made him grow both as a keeper and an overall footballer. So Valdés did what he had to. He kept on passing the ball. And so did Barcelona. Even as a throughout pressure coming from the opponents, Barcelona continued to take risks. And by huff and puff, they got into the game and by the second half, after the assist by Messi with the equaliser and the 2-1, Barcelona took a dominating control over the game. They completed 681 passes that night and by the end of the game, the Madrid part looked like a fool. Valdés’s mistake threatened to change everything but it changed nothing. On Saturday night, Barcelona did what Barcelona do. They won.
Victor’s anticipation developed on the basis of his better understanding of the overall game. In the final clash, with just over 20 minutes of the game remaining, Arsenal were 1-0 up through Sol Campbell’s first-half header, despite having gone down to 10 men after just 18 minutes when Jens Lehmann upended Samuel Eto’o. The decisive moment of that final was when Henry was face-to-face with Valdés after a counter. Victor made a spectacular save, nearly impossible. If they had scored for 2-0 there, the game would have been decided. I don’t think that the the team could have pulled off a comeback. And that’s why it was ninety percent because of him and rest because of the team that the Barcelona lifted the Trophy that night.
While the CL final in 2006 was his coming out party as a game-winning goalkeeper (something that he had always lacked, especially in comparison to Iker Casillas), the arrival of Pep was key to turn him into a regular field player. Victor has always time and again said, that it was Guardiola who taught him to enjoy playing the game and earlier it was just a job for him to earn the bread. Moreover, Valdes was at his peak during Pep’s reign over the club. He was instrumental at the starting play that Guardiola proposed inspired from the Cruyff Positional Football ethos and, for a while, the LaVolpian Play Start. Sure, he did blunders and I have no idea how good Victor Valdés would be if he played at another club, but I know that he was jigsaw goalkeeper for FC Barcelona who fit in exact right places. Also, this has nothing to do with the possession-pass-mechanic that the anti-Valdés people often use as an excuse, saying that anyone could be a goalie for a team that keeps the ball so much. In their recent history, FC Barcelona has always had that kind of possession in their games and yet still they have always had huge goalkeeper problems.
One of the sole reasons as to why Victor Valdes has been made a comic keeper by the now generation of football fans, is, because of his then competition with Casillas and if we look back at the history of goalkeepers, they have been timely criticised for ‘one’ bad game despite their presence in the field in previous matches. Keepers have been criticized for mistakes and maybe Valdes is long forgotten by the current generation of fans is partly because he was not as good as what his team did. But to say that he was NOT the greatest the club have had, is purely false. He surely is underrated and to not fall into the comic manifestation of the current football fraternity is what I wholly want out of the next generation of Barça fans. And as a true watcher of the game, and keeping in mind the fact that there is no trace of Valdes on internet after his retirement, my only sincere wish is that in future, kids who don and collect the club’s jerseys must also buy that mustard green shirt with his name etched at the back and by that way, make him a little more memorable. He deserves that.