Still a force

Roberto Ayala played a hugely influential role in the most successful period of Valencia’s history. The club won the Primera Liga in 2002 and 2004 and reached the Champions League finals of 2000 and 2001. Further glory followed with the UEFA Cup success of 2004, writes Andy Hampson.

Roberto Ayala is a vastly experienced and accomplished defender now in the autumn of his career but still producing assured displays. He is the second most-capped player in Argentina’s history and proof of his value came last summer when, despite being 34, Spanish Primera Liga side Zaragoza paid GBP6 million for his services. Ayala first came to Europe with Parma in 1995 but it was with Valencia that he truly made his name in a glorious six-year stint from 2000 that included two UEFA Champions League finals and two Spanish titles. He was a rock at the heart of its defence, his speed and ability on the ball, allied to his tenacious tackling, strength in the air and good passing, making him a formidable opponent.

Ayala, born in Parana, played football from a young age and began his professional career with Ferrocarril Oeste. It was not long before his talent was noticed and he was snapped up by a bigger club in the shape of River Plate.

His commanding performances made him a target for European clubs and Parma took him to Italy. A limit on non-EU players, however, meant he could not break into the team and was sent out on loan to Napoli, which eventually bought out his contract. He spent three years in Naples before moving on to Serie A giant AC Milan but he failed to establish himself at the San Siro, despite being involved in the 1999 title win. It was not until his subsequent move to Valencia that his career truly began to take off.

He went on to play a hugely influential role in the most successful period of Valencia’s history. The club won the Primera Liga in 2002 and 2004 and reached the Champions League finals of 2000 and 2001. Further glory followed with the UEFA Cup success of 2004.

The summer of 2004 proved the end of an era for Valencia as manager Rafael Benitez left the club for Liverpool. Results suffered a downturn and Ayala, with age and injuries apparently catching up with him, decided to move on when he was not offered a new contract in 2006.

He initially announced he would be joining city rival Villarreal and signed a pre-contract agreement to play for the team from the start of the 2006-07 season. However, when Real Zaragoza later came in with a three-year deal, he offered to buy out his Villarreal contract and so left without having played for it. Villarreal at least benefited handsomely from the deal.

Ayala began his international career in 1994 and played for his country at the Atlanta Olympics two years later, winning a silver medal. He featured in the 1998 World Cup but failed to take the field at the 2002 tournament due to injury. He tasted tournament glory in 2004 when, playing as an overage player, he helped Argentina win the Olympics in Athens and he then shone at the next World Cup in Germany, earning a place in the event’s all-star team. He announced his international retirement after last year’s Copa America. Things began to unravel for Valencia in 2004-05 with form plummeting under new manager Claudio Ranieri, who was sacked before the end of the campaign. It was also a miserable season for Ayala, who missed much of it due to a number of injuries. The team fell below expectations and failed to qualify for the Champions League.

Throughout his career Ayala has been known as ‘El Raton’ — The Mouse — a nickname he inherited from a namesake in Argentina’s 1974 World Cup team, Ruben Ayala, who is no relation.

Ayala is a proud family man. He is married to Veronica and has four children, Pilar, Sofia, Francisco and Cintia. In a recent interview Ayala said he is very domesticated and loves cooking for the family.

Ayala has been seen nipping around in a black Mercedes AMG SL55. This stylish sports car costs around GBP99,000 and even at that price is reckoned to be a bargain, holding its own as it does with the more expensive Porsches, Ferraris and Lamborghinis. It boasts a top speed of 155mph.

Factfile Name: Roberto Ayala Position: Defender Club: Real Zaragoza DOB: 14-04-1973 Argentina caps: 115 Argentina goals: 7 Argentina debut: v Chile, November 1994 Moment to remember

Ayala experienced the best moments of his club career with Valencia, not least the 2004 UEFA Cup final against Marseille in Gothenburg. Valencia won 2-0 with goals from Vicente Rodriguez and Mista. After winning the league it represented the peak of his time there. With Benitez leaving soon after things were not quite the same again.

Moment to forget

Ayala has bitter-sweet memories of the conclusion to his international career. He bowed out of World Cup action at the quarterfinal stage in Berlin in 2006 with a missed penalty in a shoot-out defeat to Germany. He had earlier scored Argentina’s goal as the game ended 1-1. His final game for Argentina came in the 2007 Copa America final when he scored an own goal in a defeat to Brazil. He was his country’s most-capped player at the time of his retirement but has since been passed by Javier Zanetti.

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