The 40-year-old Juan Carlos Valeron returns to La Liga this season with Las Palmas. Adam Bate examines why he'll be applauded everywhere he goes...
When Andres Iniesta got to drink in the applause on his tour of La Liga's grounds in 2010, there was a certain logic to it. This was the man who'd won Spain their one and only World Cup after all. But another midfield maestro looks set to enjoy that same privileged status this season. Juan Carlos Valeron didn't win a World Cup. Just the admiration of a nation.
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“I think everyone enjoys watching Valeron,” said Iniesta. “He’s one of those players you’d pay to watch.” It’s a sentiment shared by many. But it’s not just because Valeron in his pomp was among the very best. There is a sense that he really shouldn’t be here. The man who once lost three years to injury is back in La Liga with home-town club Las Palmas at the age of 40. It’s extraordinary.
But then Valeron always seemed to have time on his side, bending it to his will with that sublime control and vision. If he’d possessed anything resembling pace, he’d have been incomparable. Even without it, he was nominated for the Ballon d’Or. In his first four seasons at Deportivo, only Real Madrid reached the business end of the Champions League more often. Valeron was the architect.
Valeron is the best player I played with.
Though not prolific himself, his influence was obvious. Diego Tristan and Roy Makaay won the Pichichi Trophy for Spain’s top goalscorer in back-to-back seasons and the strikers at the Riazor were in no doubt who was responsible. Tristan was a mere muse, admitting that anyone could forge an understanding with Valeron. Makaay went further. “Valeron is the best player I played with.”
The list of admirers is lengthy and distinguished with iconic Italian coach Arrigo Sacchi among those who compared him favourably with Zinedine Zidane at his peak. Team-mate Vladimir Jugovic argued that he could be “just as great” as the Frenchman. Zidane’s view? "Football would have been easier if Valeron had played with me.”
Typically, the man whose biggest prize was a Copa del Rey was rather more modest. “He achieved great things in the World Cup and with Real Madrid. I did not, so we are different.” But Valeron left an impression nevertheless. Manchester City’s David Silva, born in the same fishing village in Gran Canaria, used to collect stickers of Valeron and still wears the No 21 shirt in honour of his hero.
That upbringing on the Canary Islands continues to inform Valeron’s personality and has brought him back to Las Palmas for an unlikely swansong. This was the club at which Pacuco Rosales gave El Flaco – the Skinny One – his debut when “50 kilos wet through” in Spain’s third tier in 1995. He feels an affinity with the people and he plays on for the love of the game.
Las Palmas came within seconds of promotion last season only to be denied by a late goal but Valeron took it in his stride and was persuaded to play on for another season. “The rise is about to arrive,” he declared in his distinctive high-pitched voice. “If not this year then very soon.” Promotion is not a matter of life and death, he reassured the local press.
When it finally came, courtesy of Sergio Araujo’s goal with five minutes of their play-off against Zaragoza remaining, Valeron was overcome. Pride in a team where a third of the players are youth-team graduates and delight for the supporters who had cheered them on. “The greatest joy is that we were able to make so many people happy,” he said. “That was our aim. That’s why I came.”
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And yet, even in the moment of triumph his principles remained intact. “We had to play sometimes too direct,” was his verdict on the game that won his team promotion. Ever the aesthete. Others were not so concerned. Despite Valeron sitting out the second leg, Marca’s Amalio Moratalla announced: “Araujo was the hero of the day but Valeron is the legend for eternity.”
That legend with the fragile frame has already enjoyed one farewell tour with Deportivo but will now be heralded once more in Spain’s biggest league after Las Palmas president Miguel Angel Ramirez, with whom he goes for dinner once a fortnight, persuaded the veteran to play on for yet another season. “He should say goodbye to all the fields of the Primera,” said Ramirez.
It’s a heart-warming tale but there have been other greats. Perhaps what makes Valeron so special is that he was wedded to neither Real nor Barcelona – he unites rather than divides; he brought fun to La Liga without taking the silverware. Moreover, he seems to belong to a bygone era where power and athleticism were not a prerequisite for success. And this God-fearing man did it all with a smile.
“He’s applauded at every ground because he’s an honest guy and he never bragged,” said Las Palmas team-mate Javi Castellano. Valeron, meanwhile, ventured as close to immodesty as he’s ever likely to get in saying: “I always tried to behave in a sportsmanlike manner. People have seen that. It started as an ovation to play again and has continued over the years.”
The acclaim will continue at the Vicente Calderon on Saturday when Las Palmas make their return to the big time against Atletico Madrid – one of Valeron’s former clubs. His two years in Jesus Gil’s madhouse ended in relegation, and yet team-mate Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink still rated Valeron alongside Dennis Bergkamp and Gianfranco Zola among the greatest players he’d ever played with.
Like Atletico, Valeron is back again. Arsene Wenger, having watched him dismantle Henry, Pires, Vieira, Bergkamp and the rest on a memorable Champions League night at Highbury, once said he had been “robbed of his career”. But, against all odds, Juan Carlos Valeron’s career goes on. And all to the sound of warm applause for a player who continues to defy time.
Watch Atletico v Las Palmas live on Sky Sports 3 from 7.30pm on Saturday