Victor Valdes: A Living Paradox, A Caged Bird

NOT many are afforded the poetic Hollywood-style walk-into-the-sunset retirement. Circumstances rarely present such a perfect ending, even to the most stellar of careers. Many often miss their perfect moment to retire in hopes of prolonging a waning career. But in some cases, it is misfortune that plays the sore loser. Victor Valdes, the ever-present goalkeeper in Barcelona’s greatest era, walked out in his quiet manner as a free agent, an understated ending to a great career.  

In essence, football was the wrong sport for Valdes. The pressure of playing in the Camp Nou for the majority of his career, the stadium whose expectations seemingly enlarged the goalposts, was too much for him to take. He never truly wanted to be a goalkeeper either, he never truly enjoyed it growing up, which makes him a paradox of sorts, and yet a symbol for the working-class men. Some players enjoy and thrive in the limelight, but Valdes was not one of them, he only pined for normalcy and a quiet life. Some would wish to be in Valdes’ shoes, to be in the limelight and his position, but all Valdes ever wanted was to be in the reverse. Valdes is the outlier to the adage ‘grass is always greener on the other side’.

It’s tough to feel bad for a professional player who had a successful career and will lead a happy post-career life with the money he’s earned, but Valdes makes the cut. When one reads what Valdes has to say about his profession, you get the feeling he was a deer caught in the headlights, forced into a fairly exclusive club whose exit he could not find. He once told the Guardian’s superlative Sid Lowe in 2014: “I like the solitude. I’m passionate about windsurfing, two hours on the water is like a week’s holiday, complete disconnection.” Solitude is a concept tough to comprehend in the mad-cap world of today, connected intricately by the web of social media. Like a labyrinth, we all plunge deeper and deeper until it’s too difficult to extricate ourselves.

But Valdes found the way out. After all, social media was not made for a man with his character: he was no show-off, nor did he want his personal life documented in the same way his professional life was. As he confirmed his retirement, he deleted his Twitter and deleted all Instagram pictures. His life was finally in his control, and he was not going to relinquish that.

His quiet exit should not take anything away from his legacy as one of the best goalkeepers of his time, often unfairly overshadowed by his compatriot Iker Casillas. He spent 12 seasons in Barcelona’s first team, 11 as the undisputed No.1, and was the first line of defence, or attack, depending on how you looked at it. That road was rarely smooth, though.

He struggled to find meaning and struggled in the academy growing up. Only a psychologist could convince him to not turn his back on the game. Under Louis van Gaal, he was demoted to the B team after several poor performances. Robert Enke, one of his positional rivals at the time, struggled massively with the pressure too (and eventually committed suicide due to depression in 2009, a sign that the game takes more than it gives).

In 2006, he believed himself to be on the precipice of the team, on the verge of an exit, despite having played fairly well until that point. He considered the Champions League final to be the last chapter, and so played with the freedom that is rarely afforded. Stopping Thierry Henry twice in the first five minutes, then adding another brilliant save on a one-on-one in the 68th minute, ensured that the chapter was not the last, but the first. It’s ironic that his Barcelona career took off when he believed it to be ending, but it sums up his career perfectly. Liberation suited him best; playing with freedom was his bread and butter. It is no wonder that he looks deep into psychology, into how to train the mind into believing certain things, like how his reputation wasn’t on the line. By compartmentalising that pressure and pushing it away to a corner where it couldn’t adversely affect him, Valdes tried to maximize the tools he had at his disposal.

Barcelona has always been a club where politics, pressure and football are intertwined deeply with one another. This is why the unique pressures cannot always be handled; Valdes himself has claimed how a year at Barcelona is like two anywhere else. It’s Mes Que Un Club, for more reasons than one. Light is rarely shed on the psychological side of the game, but in the interview with Lowe Valdes paints that very picture.

Ball-playing goalkeepers are the latest fad in football these days, and for good reason too, but before Ederson there was Victor Valdes. Johan Cruyff’s Total Football was a tactical phenomenon in its own time, but integral to that system was the keeper with the quick feet. Cruyff had Stanley Menzo at Ajax and Andoni Zubizarreta at Barcelona, but Pep Guardiola took the system, Valdes-inclusive, and moulded it in his own image. The Spaniard once wanted to be an outfield keeper, and this was the next-best option, making his role more tenable. As a result, he was an idol at Barcelona, selling shirts, even if he wasn’t a show-stopper. His impact was consistent, but it was not blaring in one’s face.

Growing up, this writer always wondered why Iker Casillas was not at Barcelona. After all, Barcelona seemingly had the best team in the world, Spain’s core, but not the best keeper in the world. Looking back, it’s clear how Valdes’ brilliance was too subtle for my young mind to comprehend. It’s also evident that Valdes was unfortunate to exist at the same time as Iker Casillas, who was great in his own way too, but often edged him out of the national team. The former Real Madrid stopper played 167 times for Spain; Valdes just 20, a sign of the times back then. The World Cup and Euro medals must feel bittersweet, another snapshot of his career.

He deserved a better ending to his career, but life was cruel: an ACL tear pushed him out of the club, and his mooted move to Monaco was off the cards too. His mind had been set on leaving Barcelona; he had enough of the calm within chaos. It may be why Valdes is not held in the same regard as several other icons: Andres Iniesta, Xavi, Carles Puyol. He announced, with 18 months to go, that he was not going to renew his contract. That injury may have been fate, the club pushing him out of the backdoor without the ovation he deserved from Camp Nou.

He sought a new challenge, and being a back-up keeper at Manchester United may have been it, but a falling-out with his favourite manager, van Gaal, saw him demoted to the B team once more, amidst some frustrated Instagram posts. It was out of character for an introverted individual. He remained on the periphery for the best part of a year, and then went on loan to Standard Liege, where he didn’t fair much better. One final swansong at Middlesborough culminated in relegation, and that was that. The curtains were drawn, but in typical fashion, no one knew it then.

Valdes was a rarity: a man who spoke rarely, but when he did it was with gravity and a sense of purpose. He spoke the truth, harsh or not, and that did not resonate with the press pack in Spain, whose relationship with the keeper was either one of love, or one of hate.

Valdes did not have the perfect career: it started off shakily, he was plunged with self-doubt throughout, and his international record was poor. But there is no denying he was a great goalkeeper on his day, excellent on the ball, and a trailblazer, who wasn’t not truly appreciated in his own time. His last few years were more of the same suffering that he endured through his career. As part of a superlative well-oiled machine, personal accolades rarely came his way barring the Zamora Trophy, awarded to the keeper with most clean sheets in La Liga. He won five, four in consecutive years, an astounding achievement. He’s also won all there is to win in club competitions. It’s a fair haul to end up with.

Now free from the constraints of football, Valdes must be enjoying his life, maybe living in a camper van somewhere, having a barbeque by a picturesque beach with his family, away from the madness that is football. Like the sea, Valdes longs to be free in solitude, with and amongst his thoughts, surfing away. He’s at peace now, and no one can begrudge him of that. Unlike some retired professionals for whom the absence of football is like a gaping hole in the heart, Valdes is content without football: it was simply a means towards enjoying life post-retirement. He can now breath freely. It is unlikely to see him involved majorly in the sport again, airing his thoughts on the sport. As an introvert, modern-day football was not for Valdes, and he knew it too: he was an outsider to the clique.

His retirement was with typical grace: a simple post of a sunset, and then immediately wiped off the face of the earth. Like the sun, he faded away quietly, slowly, and before you knew it, he was gone. His announcement took people by surprise, but it should not have surprised those that knew him well. If Valdes wrote a book on his career, it may be the most engaging read in some time, but who knows if he will? He’s at peace away from the game. In the inter-connected world of today, Valdes is a refreshing change, and in some way, an inspiration for all of us caught up by the daily hustle of life. If we stop to look around and reflect, we could perhaps achieve what Victor has tried to do all his life: to live, without pressure.

Gracias por todo, Victor. The cage you’ve been in has been opened, and you’re free to fly.

You’ve deserved it.

By Rahul Warrier and artwork by @takaisayakabento

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