The meaning of Mendieta

Published : Jun 23, 2001 00:00 IST

ARE footballers born or made? And what of the increasingly alarming Children's Crusade whereby even little children of six years old are being wooed by leading English clubs; and those elsewhere in Europe? How many of them will survive, succeed? How many of them will burn out, with nothing to show for their endeavours than the original bonus payment, having neglected school studies or any alternative from soccer? The original medieval Children's Crusade saw pitiful infants sold into North African slavery when they landed on the coasts, lured by an inspirational child who truly believed. He was leading them to bliss in the Holy Land. I deeply deplore the new tendency but goodness knows you can understand it, with star footballers now literally earning millions of pounds. Football fathers are the new equivalent of what are known as stage mothers, pushing their offspring ruthlessly to what they hope will be success. From Judy Garland to Natalie Wood. Doomed film stars.

Which brings us to Gaizka Mendieta. One of the brightest stars in the European football firmament, the player who pulls the strings for the enormously successful Valencia club, and for the Spanish international team. Technically adroit, clever user of the ball, powerful striker for goal when he has the opportunities. Yet look into the story of his career and you will find it a question of mind over matter.

Mendieta was born, a Basque, in Bilbao, the son of a goalkeeper for a number of Spanish clubs, among them Real Madrid. He was brought up in the town of Castellon where his father had ended his playing career, was signed in turn by the local club, and made a reputation chiefly as an athlete, a junior champion over the hurdles, notable for his stamina. Nearby Valencia thought enough of him to sign him for &pound60,000 but it took quite a while for Mendieta to justify their belief in his future.

He was farmed out to Mestalla, the Valencia hurdery club, and quickly given a chance in their Division 2 team by the former French international, Lucien Muller, but he failed to convince, deployed sometimes at right back, at others as attacking midfielder. It was the Uruguayan manager of Valencia at the time, Hector Nunez, who used him instead as pivot of the midfield. At that time, Nunez had said, you needed a tin opener to get a word out of Mendieta, he was so paralysingly shy. But Nunez left and the successor, that much travelled veteran coach, Luis Aragones, dropped Mendieta from the first team. There was renewed hope when the former Argentine star, Jorge Valdano, took over, but then the Dutchman Guud Hiddink was appointed and Mendieta was out of favour again.

"The Mendieta of today," says Hiddink, "has nothing to do with the lad that I knew. Certainly he had remarkable physical qualities, but his technique was rudimentary and he had scant positional sense." Valencia were ready to sell off Mendieta for &pound800,000 but neither of the big Basque clubs, Athletic Bilbao and Real Sociedad, wanted him. How they must regret it now!

Kevin Keegan, twice in succession voted European Footballer of the Year, now the new manager of Manchester City, was another shining example of the self made player. Yorkshire born, the son of an ailing minor, he was a very small boy, who initially though just 5 feet tall, played in goal. He was distressed when his games master at school decreed that he was too short to stay a goalkeeper, and banished him to the right wing; but this would turn out to be the making of him. At the age of 15, he was offered a trial by Coventry City and asked for time off school. The headmaster called in the games master who opined that Kevin would never make a professional player.

Nonetheless Kevin went for his trial and was one of just two players picked out of a hundred for a six weeks' trial. But at the end of it Coventry sent him home with the familiar mantra that he was just too small. So at 16 leaving school he got a job in a local brass works: where he couldn't even get into the factory's first team!

He still managed to play there times a week and at last was spotted by the modest club Scunthorpe United. They signed him and he was away. He worked compulsively on his technique, built up his physique with weight training and went on cross country runs. Wages were meagre; he had to take summer jobs, once as a porter in a mental hospital and began to despair of ever making a solid career in football. Till in May 1971 his true mentor appeared; that volatile little Scot Bill Shankly discerned his promise, signed him for Liverpool and at last Keegan was away.

First as a right winger, in due course as an all-round striker, well capable, despite his diminutive size, of operating through the middle. He emphatically made the most of what he had got; his game was based on sheer energy and activity. Flicks, taps, deflections, sudden bustling forays. He relied, to beat his opponents, on the swiftness of his reflexes, the suddenness of his turns, and his quick anticipation. He was the inspiration of Liverpool's first victory in the final of the European Cup, when he led their attack to success against Borussia Munchengladbach in Rome in 1977.

A recent book by the television writer, Colin Shindler, tells the tale of the Summerbee Succession; from George, a journeyman footballer whose obscure career spanned the last World War, a Preston reserve for years, through Mike, who became a star right winger and striker with Manchester City, to the current Nicky, a right winger now with Bolton after himself playing for Manchester City and Bolton. Not even his own father saw Mike as a future star; his older brother John was preferred, but never "trained on." Mike was another little fellow who took time to grow, was lucky to find a patron in a wealthy Swindon businessman who got him a contract with the 3rd division Swindon Town.

Even there, it took a while for Mike to assert himself and force his way into the League team. He, like Mendieta and Keegan, worked endlessly on his skills and his physique till, by the time he moved to Manchester City, the shrimp had become a powerful, even an abrasive, athlete.

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