Timing is everything in football, but Gaizka Mendieta arrived a few years too soon to ride the wave of Spanish success that began with Euro 2008. His prodigious technique and vision would have allowed him to slot in seamlessly into that Spain side. Instead, Mendieta won hearts in Valencia and Middlesbrough alike as he ran the midfield with his trademark artistry.
Mendieta did make 40 caps for La Furia Roja across a three-year span, although a player of his calibre should have made far more. Domestically he fared better, becoming a mainstay of the Valencia side in the last few years of the millennium. He was instrumental in Valencia’s Copa del Rey glory in 1998/99, delivering some memorable goals on the path to the final. These were the glory days of Valencia, with the Spanish team reaching consecutive Champions League finals. Unfortunately, they lost both.
Their second loss, a defeat in 2001 on penalties to Bayern Munich, was particularly tough for the player named the best midfielder in Europe. That accolade attracted irresistible attention, as Lazio swooped in with a €47.7 million transfer fee. The Italian side needed someone to replace the departing Pavel Nedved, but such pressure would have been too much for any player. Mendieta was deemed a disappointment, failing to score in his solitary season in Italy.
This disappointment is borne from circumstance rather than lack of ability. Mendieta’s finely-honed skills enabled him to complete passes and finishes that few could. The midfielder can still strut his stuff with a football, demonstrating the permanence of class in a crossbar challenge undertaken against a representative from bettingexpert. With such impressive pedigree, it is no surprise that the Spanish star began the challenge as heavy favourite. Even when events did not go his way, Mendieta retained the composure and humility that made him such a popular player. In many ways, that crossbar challenge serves as a snapshot of his career.
Mendieta may not have anticipated ending his playing days at Middlesbrough. Following the disappointment at Lazio, he became a central component in a Barcelona side. Unfortunately, it was a Barcelona side that only finished 6th in the league; again, Mendieta had arrived just before the glory days began. The 30-year-old elected to join Middlesbrough and helped the club to claim their first silverware in the form of the 2003/04 League Cup.
While that event made the Spaniard an instant cult hero, it would be the pinnacle for Mendieta in England. Having made 31 appearances in his debut season, injury reduced him to the same number across the following three campaigns. Middlesbrough manager Gareth Southgate considered Mendieta surplus to requirements, a bold decision from a young coach. Mendieta displayed his trademark character in a desire to fight for his place, but sometimes the legs can’t keep up with the heart. He retired at a relatively young 34.
Failure to make a significant impression on the international stage inevitably ensures that Mendieta’s name is overlooked when considering Spain’s very best midfielders of the past 20 years. There is no denying that Mendieta had to endure more than his fair share of bad luck, from the two Champions League final defeats to the unfortunate pressures that came with his big move to Lazio. Yet those who saw him in action will focus on just how lucky they were to see a master at work.