Even prior to the national team’s Euro 2008 triumph, Spain was always respected as a producer of fine footballers. One of the greatest set of players to fail to fulfil the country’s football potential was the 1990s and millennial generation: Pep Guardiola, Luis Enrique, Miguel Ángel Nadal, Fernando Hierro, Albert Ferrer, Fernando Morientes, Joseba Exteberría and perhaps most famous of all Raúl.
Of this generation one name is often forgotten, yet he was one of La Liga’s most underrated stars. He never played for either El Clásico giant yet would have walked into their teams at his peak. A man, whose shy and quiet personality perhaps didn’t fit the remit of Real Madrid chairman Florentino Pérez’s Galáticos project, yet he had the raw ability to match them. That man is Juan Carlos Valerón.
Juan Carlos Valerón Santana was born on 17 June 1975 in the small town of Arguineguín, located just south of Gran Canaria’s capital city of Las Palmas. In 1990, aged 15, he joined second tier UD Las Palmas, his childhood club, debuting for Las Palmas’s senior team in the third tier Segunda División B aged 20 in the 1995/96 campaign.
Valerón quickly established himself as a regular helping Las Palmas secure promotion to Segunda. In 1996/97, he helped them to a 7th placed finish, catching the eye of Real Mallorca who won promotion to La Liga that same campaign. Valerón’s contract expired at Las Palmas, and Mallorca swooped to sign him on a free transfer.
At Los Bermellones, Valerón gave glimpses of his future talent. His passing, skills, tricks and dribbling ability left a major impression. Mallorca finished 5th in La Liga under the guidance of a then talented young Argentine manager Héctor Cúper.
Valerón became a man in demand and 1995/1996 La Liga winners Atlético de Madrid, who finished two places below Mallorca in 7th, swooped to sign him at the campaign’s close
Personally pleasing performances despite dream move becoming a nightmare
Valerón’s transfer to Los Colchoneros in 1998 made perfect sense. Under controversial owner Jesús Gil, Atleti were one of La Liga’s wealthiest clubs and in theory gave the Canarian an opportunity to challenge for trophies. Furthermore, a vacancy had emerged in Atlético’s line-up.
José Luís Caminero was one of Spain and Atlético’s best players of the 1990s. With his dribbling, close control and first touch Caminero was a versatile player equally impressive on the flanks or in a central playmaking midfield role. He was a key player in Atleti’s 9th La Liga title triumph in 1995/96.
His famous dribble and dummy on Miguel Ángel Nadal led to an assist for midfielder Roberto in the opening goal of Atlético’s 3-1 win at Camp Nou in April 1996. It was a moment Nadal probably forbade his star tennis-playing nephew Rafael to watch on highlight reels.
Despite his status at Atleti, Caminero was approaching 31 and had declined since the title triumph of 1995/96. Atlético therefore sold the ex-Spain international to his former club Real Valladolid and Valerón, eight years his junior, was designated his successor. However, Atleti’s decline continued. In 1998/99, the Madrid outfit finished a disappointing 13th in La Liga, ironically one place below Caminero and Valladolid in 12th place.
They were a different beast in cups, reaching the 1998/99 Copa del Rey Final losing 3-0 to Valencia CF and the semi-finals of that season’s UEFA Cup, before bowing out to eventual winners Parma FC. Valerón weighed in with four goals in 30 appearances for the capital club.
Yet the feeling emerged that he was the right player at the wrong time for Atleti. Hardly helping was the aforementioned Gil, who fired both Arrigo Sacchi and Carlos Sánchez Aguiar as managers over the campaign’s course.
If Atleti’s 98/99 was bad, the following season was an ironic repost to the “What’s the worst that could happen?” question posed by past Dr Pepper advertisements. A disastrous campaign saw the club finish 19th in La Liga, suffer relegation and end an unbroken streak in Spain’s top flight dating back to 1934/35. Rubbing salt into the wounds, just weeks after, they then lost the Copa del Rey final 2-0 to RCD Espanyol.
Valerón once again never waivered, scoring four goals in 35 league appearances. However, his dream move had turned into a nightmare. A recurring theme of bad timing that was to plague his career. Adding insult to injury, his previous employers Mallorca flourished. In 1998/99, the Balearic Island team finished 3rd in La Liga and reached the 1999 UEFA Cup Winners Cup Final, losing narrowly 2-1 to Sven Goran Eriksson’s SS Lazio, who would go on to win Serie A the following season.
A Super Depor Symbol, yet still some regrets
Valerón then transferred to Deportivo La Coruña, La Liga’s then champions after their shock triumph in 1999/00. Valeron eventually spent 13 seasons at the Galician outfit, playing the best football of his career during those early years.
Playing in a free attacking midfield role, Valerón became arguably the best Spanish midfielder in the early 2000s. He had the lot; the expected fine ball control & first touch atypical of a Spain international midfielder, an outrageously skilful passing range and graceful dribbling ability. Whilst not at the same level as Zinedine Zidane, his style of play drew strong comparisons to Zizou.
Valerón also showed his class in two memorable Depor victories. The first came on 6 March 2002 when Depor faced Real Madrid in the Copa del Rey final. For Los Blancos fans, this was the final they had to win, held at Real’s Santiago Bernabéu stadium. In addition, Real Madrid were founded exactly 100 years ago to the day of the cup final.
A triumph was expected and Real had made specific plans for post-match celebrations. However, Depor played the perfect party-pooping role by winning 2-1. For any Depor fans at the Bernabéu that night, never would it have been more appropriate to sing “2-1 on your big day out”.
In the 38th minute with Depor 1-0 up, the ball arrived at Valerón’s feet near the by-line on the edge of the penalty box. The Canarian played an inch perfect pass across the box to Diego Tristán who slotted home to make it 2-0. Los Blancos hit back courtesy of a Raúl strike on the hour mark, but it was not enough and Depor sealed the cup triumph.
The second great match in Valerón’s time at Depor was the second leg of the 2003/04 UEFA Champions League quarter final against then defending European champions AC Milan. In the first leg, Paolo Maldini, Gennaro Gattuso, Andrea Pirlo, Filippo Inzaghi, Andriy Shevchenko and company had dispatched Depor 4-1 at the San Siro.
Going into the second leg at Riazor stadium, no-one expected much from the Galicians. Even still, Milan should have been wary. After all, Depor had knocked Marcello Lippi’s Juventus out at the Round of 16 stage courtesy of home and away 1-0 victories. Right from the start of the second leg, the Riazor faithful sensed something special and it proved to be arguably Depor’s greatest night and the final hurrah of the “Super Depor” era.
The Galicians pulled off a famous 4-0 victory, sending them through to the semi-finals 5-4 on aggregate. Valerón’s main contribution was the second goal of the night, a fine header beyond Dida in the Milan goal after a pinpoint cross from Albert Luque
These two victories showed Valerón as a Depor symbol. Yet despite this, Frank Sinatra lyrics of “regrets, I’ve had a few” in “My Way” could be used to define his time at Riazor. In his first four seasons at the Galician outfit between 2000/01 and 2003/04, Deportivo recorded four consecutive top three La Liga finishes.
And yet, a La Liga title remained elusive. Valerón joined Depor after their La Liga triumph in 1999/00; once again, the right player but unfortunate timing. An additional rub of salt in the wound was Depor arguably had a stronger team post-title than in the title winning season.
The statistics can back this claim up. Depor’s 1999/00 triumph was achieved with a 69-point tally. They finished runners-up to Real Madrid in 2000/01 with 73 points, and finished 3rd with 72 points and 71 points in 2002/03 and 2003/04 respectively.
2002 FIFA World Cup: Spain and Valerón’s missed opportunity
Valerón’s brilliance for Mallorca and Atlético reaped its rewards on the international stage. The Canarian debuted for Spain against Italy aged 23 in a 2-2 draw against Italy in November 1998. He became a national team regular around the time of Euro 2000 where he started Spain’s first two games in the tournament against Norway and Slovenia and then was an unused substitute for the 4-3 group stage win against Yugoslavia and Spain’s exit in the quarter finals against France.
La Roja’s exit at Euro 2000 was disappointing, but expected; Les Bleus were of course defending World champions. However, the 2002 FIFA World Cup in Japan and South Korea became a real opportunity for Spain to finally end the pain in the international arena.
Valerón started all of Spain’s games at the tournament excluding the final group game against South Africa, with manager José Antonio Camacho opting to rest some players with Spain having already qualified. Despite a weakened side, Spain prevailed against Bafana Bafana and advanced as group winners with three wins from three games. Valerón even netted a goal in a 3-1 win against Slovenia.
However, events elsewhere further improved Spain’s chances of ending their World Cup drought. Favourites fell by the wayside in an upset-ridden tournament. Reigning world champions France, Argentina and Portugal all fell in the groups. Another pre-tournament favourite, Italy then suffered a controversial shock loss to co-hosts South Korea in the last 16.
Expectation grew in Spain. Could this finally be their year? A nervy penalty shoot-out win against the Republic of Ireland in the last 16 ensured Camacho and his troops faced South Korea in the quarter finals.
Alas, Spain’s hopes were dashed in controversial fashion. After 90 goalless minutes, extra time was required. In extra time’s first half, Joaquín Sánchez sent in a cross from the flank, headed in by Fernando Morientes for what appeared to be a game-winning Golden Goal.
However, the linesman’s flag was raised. In his belief, the ball had gone out of play prior to Joaquín’s cross entering the penalty box. After the incident though, TV replays showed the ball had not gone out of play and the goal should have stood. Spain subsequently lost on penalties.
For Valerón and La Roja, 2002 was a missed opportunity. Favourites had fallen by the wayside, Spain had a talented squad, while a certain 22-year-old Xavi Hernández was back-up to Valerón at the tournament in addition to a group that already included Raúl, Morientes, Ruben Baraja, Luis Enrique, Gaizka Mendieta, Carles Puyol, Fernando Hierro and Iker Casillas.
Victory over the hosts would have landed Spain a semi-final clash with an average Germany side – with the exceptions of Oliver Khan, Michael Ballack and Miroslav Klose – who were fortunate in their quarter final victory against the United States.
Injuries & Decline, but a fitting career finish
4 February 2006 proved to be a dark day for Valerón. Depor suffered a 1-0 home loss against Valencia, but more concerningly news broke beforehand that he had suffered a cruciate ligament rupture. Depor’s creative genius was out for the season, losing any chance to force his way back into Spain’s squad for the 2006 FIFA World Cup.
At the time of his injury, the Galicians were lying in 5th place in La Liga, eventually going on to finish 7th. However, both their and Valerón’s problems had only just begun.
His cruciate ligament rupture led to meniscus damage which caused him to miss all but two games of the 2006/07 campaign. Only five league appearances followed in 2007/08 and it was only in 2008/09 with 22 appearances that Valerón became a regular starter once more.
He still remained one of Depor’s best players. However, that additional x-factor was missing from his past displays. This was understandable after two seasons of injury hell which began when he was aged 30 and at his peak.
His absence affected Depor massively. Title challenges and runs in Europe were replaced by lower-mid table mediocrity and eventual relegation to Segunda at the end of the 2010/11 campaign. Valerón remained at Depor and led them back to the big time with a Segunda title in 2011/12. However, Depor were relegated once again in 2012/13 and at the conclusion of that campaign, Valerón announced he was leaving Riazor after 13 memorable seasons.
Rather than ride off into the sunset aged 38, Valeron, in a heart-warming move, promptly signed with boyhood team Las Palmas, then in Segunda with a desire to get them promoted to La Liga. After suffering a tragic late loss in the 2013/14 playoff final against Córdoba, they succeeded at the second attempt in 2014/15.
Valerón then signed a year’s contract extension aged 40 to go again one more time in the top flight. He only made 11 appearances in his final campaign, yet at every away ground he visited, which included Camp Nou and his old stomping ground, Riazor, the Canarian received standing ovations from spectators.
His final game saw him named captain as Las Palmas drew 1-1 with Athletic Club. A final finish of 11th place and comfortable La Liga survival achieved, it was a deserving end to a fine career.
Juan Carlos Valerón’s attacking midfield star shone as brightly as anyone’s. The humble Canarian remains firmly entrenched as one of La Liga’s most underrated players. One can only wonder had he not suffered that injury at his peak in 2005 aged 30 how much more he could have given.
Through no fault of his own, Valerón was the victim of bad timing and luck when moving to different clubs. Joining Atlético when they were on a downward spiral, joining the greatest ever Depor side post-La Liga success and running into competition in the shape of Real Madrid’s Galáticos & Rafael Benítez’s great Valencia side between 2001 and 2004.
Internationally too, Valerón can only wonder what might have been after his cruciate ligament rupture in January 2006 ended any hopes of a fourth consecutive international tournament with La Roja. By the time he returned to Depor’s first team as a regular in August 2008, Spain had won Euro 2008, ending 44 years of underachievement and starting a new era of dominance.
The emergence of the likes of Francesc Fàbregas, David Silva and especially Andrés Iniesta ended any hope of Valerón adding to his 47 international caps and five international goals. Many can be excused for forgetting about Valerón when mentioning such talented players. However, as his story shows, the quiet midfield maestro from the Canary Islands was a true unsung hero.