BARCELONA, Spain — For someone who never wanted to be a goalkeeper, Victor Valdes made quite a career out of being one. And for someone who wanted to disappear after hanging up his gloves — which came coupled with the deletion of his social media accounts earlier this week — there’s a certain irony to all the tributes which have been posted by former clubs, teammates and rivals.
But whether he likes it or nor, Valdes must be remembered — even if his legacy may not be as big as it could or should have been.
With a photograph of a sunset and the words “Thanks for everything,” Valdes disappeared from the internet this week, and from football. Speaking in 2015, he had said that when his time as a goalkeeper was up, he hoped the lights would go out and people would find it difficult to find him. He’s done that alright.
One word Valdes might use if forced to pick one to describe his career is “suffering.” It’s a word he used often in an interview with Michael Robinson in 2011 as he spoke about never wanting to be stuck between the posts. Every weekend, between the ages of eight and 18, he says, was a struggle.
“I still don’t understand,” he said. “Why did I do it if I didn’t like it?”
At 18, nothing had changed. He was ready to quit the game. He told his family he wasn’t happy playing football, who in turn talked him into speaking to a psychologist. Two visits later, he had changed his mind. He would continue at Barcelona, the club he’d joined as a 10-year-old.
It was rarely straightforward, though. Under Louis van Gaal he was very publicly sent down to the B team after some poor performances.
Even in 2006, before the Champions League final, Valdes believed that his time at Barca was up. Despite being a regular in Frank Rijkaard’s side going into the final against Arsenal in Paris, he was certain his Camp Nou days were numbered. So certain, in fact, that he has since said he felt liberated going into the game, free from the weight of expectation in Catalonia, where one year seems like two.
But a series of brilliant stops, mainly from future teammate Thierry Henry, as Barca won their second Champions League trophy changed his destiny. As did the appointment of Pep Guardiola two years later.
He often made some stunning saves, but under Guardiola it was his feet as much as his hands which did the talking. Guardiola took Johan Cruyff’s idea of Total Football and raised it.
“More than being the first [goalkeeper] to really play with his feet, Valdes was the first to participate actively in the construction of the play,” Catalan journalist Amadeu Garcia says. “If a defender wasn’t sure what to do, they would give the ball to him and he would nearly always find a solution with a pass.”
Garcia notes that Cruyff had deployed similar tactics with Stanley Menzo at Ajax and Andoni Zubizarreta and Carles Busquets at Barca, but that Valdes took things to the next level.
“It was an evolution, if you like, keeping in mind that, as he’s said himself, Valdes would have preferred to be an outfield player,” Garcia adds. “He’s one of the few goalkeepers that became a genuine idol, to the point that shirts were sold with his name on the back.”
Valdes won 21 trophies with Barcelona (including six La Liga titles and three Champions Leagues) but was never appreciated as much as he should have been. It was only in his final season in 2014, with his goodbye looming, that supporters began to chant his name. They wanted him to stay. But his mind was made up, it had been for over a year, and there was no turning back.
That decision, in part, is why Valdes doesn’t have the reputation others — Xavi Hernandez, Carles Puyol, Andres Iniesta — have in Catalonia. The local press were seething when he announced in 2013, with 18 months to go on his contract, he would leave the club. It wasn’t about money. If it was, he would have at least listened to what Barca had to offer. It was about Valdes being Valdes. About seeking new challenges, regardless of how things went next.
According to Catalan journalist Alfonso Callejas, Valdes split the press pack in Barcelona. He was marmite; you either loved him or you hated him. There was rarely a middle ground and many were happy to pull out the knives when he made his announcement.
Not that Valdes minded. He always preferred to dodge the limelight. Describing himself as an introvert, he was never a big fan of the media side of the game. When he did speak, though, he was worth listening to. Even if it wasn’t what you necessarily wanted to hear, he was honest and open about his feelings and his weaknesses.
It’s a shame, then, that the last four years of his career have tallied more with the early stages and the “suffering” of his career than the success he enjoyed at Camp Nou. An injury in his final season with Barca curtailed a move to Monaco and a spell at Manchester United didn’t really work out. After a fleeting loan move to Belgium, he ended his career at Middlesbrough in the Premier League, going out with relegation rather than silverware.
But he should be remembered for what he was. Despite any mistakes early in his career, despite his Marmite character and despite the fact he never enjoyed great success for Spain, stuck behind Iker Casillas in the pecking order, he was a daring goalkeeper, good with his hands and his feet, who led the way for many now coming through at the top level.
He won’t care what anyone thinks — he’s probably off windsurfing, spending time with his children; disconnecting and disappearing from it all — but a goalkeeper who had such an impact on the game really deserved a bigger send-off.
Samuel Marsden covers Barcelona for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @SamuelMarsden.