The recent period of sporting inactivity has given some of football’s stars a chance to think through their career – from becoming a professional in their teens to starting a new journey after retirement. We start this special series by hearing from Spain’s Gaizka Mendieta.
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I achieved things in my career I could never have even imagined. To play at World Cups, EUROs, in the UEFA Champions League, you never think you can achieve this. To play in La Liga and to play for the club I always supported. These were not even dreams.
I always loved to play, but the truth is, I once gave up on football.
I know now as a retired player that if a footballer tells you they don’t miss it, they are lying, and it was just the same for me when I was young.
My dad was a former player, a goalkeeper, so maybe it is even more surprising that for a time I stopped playing, but I never felt pressure to follow my dad, and my parents were so supportive.
As a kid, around 10 or 12, I would practise for hours with things my dad had shown me, and sometimes put my brother in goal and take shot after shot at him.
At this same time, I started to play basketball with my school, and I was quite good at it. I did athletics, I was a runner, middle and long-distance, cross-country, and I was quite good at it. I even held some records.
I was doing three sports, so my schedule was tight, but I couldn’t train for three of them. I dropped basketball first. I dropped athletics eventually, but at one point I made the decision to drop football and went into running.
I would still play with friends, but I stopped playing competitively. We played on pitches with gravel, with sand – grass was a luxury. Nowadays, kids seem surprised but there were no artificial pitches. For us, if you tackled on the floor, your leg would be hurting for weeks.
To think about those early games now makes me nostalgic, happy, but back then I could never have dreamt of what was to come.
So, by professional standards, it was quite late, maybe at 13 or 14, when I decided finally to focus on football. I started playing for a small club in Castellón, based around a sports shop in the city, owned by a former player. Our team was made up of friends, which is everything you want as a kid.
I remember the first time I thought seriously that maybe I could be a footballer. We were in the sports shop, and my dad gave me the choice to buy the expensive football boots or the expensive running spikes.
I chose the football boots, adidas World Cups. But actually playing and scoring in one still felt so far away.
I joined Castellón, my first professional team, at 16 or 17 and made my debut in the Spanish second division. That is still one of my favourite memories, but not long later, I was signing for Valencia.
Making the grade
At the start of my first season with Valencia, the squad was presented to the fans, with a training session at the Mestalla. The stadium was full, and I remember that so vividly. Arriving in the big time.
Looking back, joining Valencia was when the whole thing started to fall into place for me. It might seem obvious now, but it really didn’t work the way I expected. My story isn’t like some other players.
I had to work hard for a long time to reach the levels I needed, and my progression was slow and the coaches didn’t trust me to play. They wanted to send me on loan, but I thought if I leave on loan, it will be difficult to ever come back and succeed. So, I just kept working, every day, to stay there.
Those first few years were difficult – leaving home, living on my own, being away from family and friends. It all takes time, and that’s without the football.
There were other setbacks on the pitch too. I remember once I was told I was going with the first team to a match but had a cut on my knee that needed stitches, so I couldn’t travel. You think then you have missed your chance and you don’t know if another one will come.
At times like this it always helped me to have other things than football in my life. When you are thinking about one thing 100% of the time it’s not good, you need to disconnect, you need to see other things and gain inspiration from them. Different sports, music, museums and things like that. It gives you balance. It meant when I then went back to training, I was refreshed, focused and had enough energy for the challenges I faced.
I played a bit as a right-back in my early days, but I always wanted to be a technical midfielder who scored goals. I had an offensive mentality, so even as a right-back, I was desperate to impress. I would be up and down like a Brazilian trying to get into the box.
Eventually, things started to turn for me. When Héctor Núñez arrived as coach at Valencia, he told me I would play every game, in midfield, and that I had his full confidence.
From that moment on, I believed in myself and realised I had the talent to succeed. I went back to what I loved, having more of the ball and creating chances and participating more in games.
I didn’t score so many goals, but some of them I will never forget.
People still talk to me about that volley against Barcelona, or the one against Athletic Bilbao when I dribbled from the centre-circle. It’s great to look back, and it means all that training was worth it. All those hours paid off.
The best feeling
It’s a pride, an honour to look back now and have people sometimes speak to me about this goal, that goal or a game I played in. It’s the best feeling.
It’s the best thing as an athlete to feel you have a legacy and left something there for younger generations to look at and try to emulate somehow. It’s the best feeling, not just in sport, but in life.
Eventually, I had ten years at Valencia. We achieved some amazing things and played in two Champions League finals.
Rome and the Riverside
By this time, I thought it might be time to experience something in another country. Italy had a very strong league and I wanted to try it. The opportunity came to join Lazio, which was a big challenge at a time when they signed a lot of new players.
It just didn’t work the way I expected. Sometimes football doesn’t.
When I look back now, I don’t think I had the time to adapt to a new situation. I played very few games, we signed six or seven new players, we had two presidents, three coaches, and it just didn’t go the way I thought it would.
Barcelona came along with the possibility of a loan move back to La Liga and a style of football that I knew suited me, and of course I said yes. But that year, Barça was the same as Lazio, three managers, two presidents, but I played regularly and enjoyed my time there.
I was also keen to try England and the Premier League, so I was looking at the bigger clubs to make my next move, but at that point Middlesbrough came along.
They weren’t one of the big teams, hadn’t won lots of trophies or played in the Champions League, but the club appealed to me, so I thought, “Why not?”
It was exciting to try and build something special there. It was a great time. We won the League Cup in my first year and played in the UEFA Cup final in my third year, after an amazing route to the final.
It proved to be a good move and shows there are many different ways you can succeed in football. I thought I would play for Middlesbrough, I probably couldn’t even find it on a map when I was young, but I loved the area, and stayed living there for another two years after I retired.
Coming to the end… and new beginnings
Retiring was difficult. I know some guys that don’t miss matches, pressure, tension and attention, but playing on the field, the adrenaline, the hype, the feeling when you walk into a full stadium, score a goal, there aren’t many things in life that can give you that.
Finishing playing was a time to think – what do I do? Did I want to be a manager? Not my thing. Did I want to be an executive, or sporting director? I don’t know, I never did it, and I didn’t have coaching badges at that time.
I started to look at my coaching licences and started to do courses that would be interesting for my development, such as the UEFA Executive Master for International Players – a course for former players to help you prepare for a second career in the football industry.
So now, I have an executive master’s degree. I have a UEFA A-licence coaching badge and will look to do the Pro Licence next year. I always like to keep learning and when an opportunity arrives in the game, I will be ready.
Now, looking back on my playing career, like I said at the top, I achieved some things I could never even dream of.
Would I change anything? Maybe I would tell my team-mates where to kick this penalty or that one, there are always things in life you want to do, but I look back and I had a career I loved.
I played in the best leagues and competitions in the world, I won trophies in some of them, and experienced life in different cultures with people of many different backgrounds.
That made me who I am today. I think it worked out better than it would have done as a runner. And I was never tall enough for basketball anyway.
Gaizka Mendieta played 40 times for Spain, scoring eight goals, and played at UEFA EURO 2000 and the 2002 FIFA World Cup.
He was a UEFA Champions League runner-up with Valencia in 2000 and 2001 and was named as the UEFA Club Football Awards Best Midfielder in both seasons. Mendieta also helped Middlesbrough to the UEFA Cup final in 2006 and was a UEFA European Under-21 Championship runner-up in 1996. He is a UEFA EURO 2020 ambassador.