World football’s most thankless job was Victor Valdes’ bread and butter, cementing his legend in the dynasty that is modern Barcelona.
Building a dynasty requires immense preparation and conviction. Merely believing in your ways did not let the British coin the phrase ‘The sun never sets on our empire’. Through decades of planning, strengthening and internal turmoil emerged the superpower known in history as the British Empire and its colonies.
Stretching from the far reaches of New Zealand to Canada and beyond in the North West, this Empire was built on the most solid foundations – ocean trade. Some would even say its bedrock was the oft-ignored. Hardy sailors who carried the wit and character required to divide and rule over the people with whom they were thought to be merely trading spices amongst. These are the men who, through sheer character and valour, are able to ride the waves of change.
And just as change is the only real constant in life, some men remain steadfast and adapt. Improving their best facets and linking dynasties through nothing but their dedication to the cause and their sheer grit. Victor Valdes was one such player – a man who straddled philosophies and learned from Louis Van Gaal and Frank Rijkaard before taking his game up several notches when the next great sporting dynasty was created at FC Barcelona.
The foundations of Guardiola’s Barca – one that captures the imagination even half-a- decade after its greatest generals have moved onto greater things – had its seeds sown in the streets of Amsterdam in the shadow of Ajax’s monolithic arena nearly 100 years before Valdes and Barca conquered football. But they were built on Valdes’ broad shoulders just as much as in the philosophy of totaalvoetbal.
In 1915, Jack Reynolds, born in Manchester, began to sow the seeds of totaalvoetbal at Ajax AFC – the groundwork for Vic Buckingham and Rinus Michels to reap the rewards 50 years later. Steering the vision of generations on the field was Johan Cruyff – the man entrusted with executing what to many could be considered football of a higher quality.
When Cruyff traded the rasping winters of the Netherlands for the warm beaches surrounding Barcelona, the cultural heartbeat of Spain, donning the famous Blaugrana shirt, he said all the right things. In all his years at the club, he would step out onto the pitch and build a legacy on the field.
In 1988, Johan Cruyff would return to FC Barcelona, this time as manager, smoking on the touchline to calm nerves and to carve his name into folklore. Creating a team in the image of how he thought football should be played, the ‘Dream Team’ swept everything in sight for four glorious years. .
And in the center of this fabled Barca side was Josep Guardiola – indoctrinated and trained by the legend himself. Intelligent, well-built and with a mind that matched that of the great Cruyff, Guardiola would retire from football having won nearly every title that was on offer in the world.
Immediately, as a manager, he made waves. He wasn’t afraid to take the hard call from the word go, insisting that club legends like Ronaldinho, Deco and Samuel Eto’o were no longer part of his plans. Ronaldinho and Deco left the club, making hasty exits as a certain Lionel Messi was brought into the spotlight. Samuel Eto’o remained and was pivotal as Barca won everything in the first season of Guardiola’s reign. From La Masia, Pedro and Sergio Busquets became features of Guardiola’s squad as he bought Gerard Pique back from Manchester United, also acquiring the mercurial Dani Alves from Sevilla to replace players on their way out.
Victor Valdes, like a cornerstone of an establishment, remained in place while the renovation was going all around him.
Guardiola spoke passionately of his love for Barca and how he intended to instill a harder work ethic that was missing once Ronaldinho became the de facto leader of the dressing room. He also spoke of a need to personally improve every player and work hard with them to better all aspects of their game. FC Barcelona played homegrown names – Valdes, Puyol, Pique, Busquets, Xavi, Iniesta and Messi – all graduates from La Masia – all part of a dynasty set in motion by the late Johan Cruyff. And every person within the dressing room believed in themselves and their abilities more. Victor Valdes was among the most improved under Guardiola.
At the start of every season, many would question the quality brought by Victor Valdes to a Blaugrana team capable of dismantling opposition defenses like a hot knife through marmite. But in the mind of Guardiola, Victor Valdes was the most important cog of Barca – the sweeper keeper who started every attack, who pressed from the back and was always active.
‘My formation is not a 4-3-3. I think that disrespects Valdes. My formation is 1-4-3-3. It all begins at the feet of the goalkeeper, everything we build, starts in between the sticks’
And indeed, it did. Guardiola’s team became fabled for their famous ‘tiki-taka’ playing style. Quick passing triangles and brilliant changes in pace, along with the mercurial genius of players like Lionel Messi took the Blaugrana to previously unseen heights – six trophies out of six on offer in a single season – no team has ever matched the feat on the European continent.
Most will point to the genius of Messi, or the brilliance of Xavi and Iniesta, perhaps the grit of Puyol. But, perhaps queerly enough, Victor Valdes somehow escaped the spotlight for so many years. The man Guardiola pointed to as the one who started every Barca attack and ended the opposition’s hopes of scoring was quietly working harder than ever before and improving his game at every juncture.
Valdes was the reason that Cristiano Ronaldo did not score twice in the 2009 Champions League final. Without Valdes, Barca would be forced to play the long ball every time, and can you imagine a version of Barca where Leo Messi would have to cushion the ball back to midfield against the world’s best defenders every time? Everything that Valdes did was to ensure his team went forwards, scored great goals and won titles. He had a habit of celebrating as if he scored the goals himself, even occasionally running the length of the pitch to celebrate with his team mates.
On 1st May 2013, when Valdes announced he would let his FC Barcelona contract run down and leave the club the following year – miles of press were dedicated to the goalkeeper with the most thankless job in world football – guarding the goal of Guardiola’s Barca. He gave his all in every match since his announcement and as speculation mounted as to his next destination, Barcelona began to sweat about his replacement.
On 26th March, 2014 – Valdes injured himself in the 22nd minute – rupturing his anterior cruciate ligament and never playing for his beloved Barca again. It was tragic to say the least that he did not get the standing ovation and the lap of honour he so deeply deserved at the Camp Nou in his final appearance. Going off instead on a stretcher, never to be seen again, was a tragedy in the story of one of Barcelona’s most trusted generals and one who helped to establish and solidify their dynasty.
From that day in 2014 to the 3rd of January 2018, Valdes played at Manchester United, Standard Liege and Middlesbrough but was never the same goalkeeper again. Perhaps, a combination of leaving his beloved Blaugrana and his injury took a toll that was beyond the obvious. Perhaps, Victor was never meant to don any other jersey in his fabled career.
Arguably the greatest goalkeeper modern-day Barcelona have ever seen, Valdes was a record breaker, and always a great presence in the dressing room. He won every title on offer in the world – with both Barca and Spain and his legend will live on in the dynasty that still rolls on today – as Marc Andre Ter-Stegen stands where Valdes once did, playing football and playing in goal, the Victor Valdes way.