7th of April 2004, Estadio Riazor (Champions League Quarterfinals Second Leg) – Deportivo La Coruna headed out into their pitch proverbially on the ropes against mighty Milan, trailing 4-1 on aggregate. But what transpired in Galicia was a magical comeback as Depor overturned the deficit and proceeded to the semifinals with one of the biggest scalping ever. The scorer of the second goal in the 35th minute was a certain Juan Carlos Valeron who headed off an Albert Luque cross.
Technically above most his peers and gifted with finesse, with a first touch on par (or even superior) compared to the more celebrated legends of the game; Valeron is one of Spain’s greatest footballing talents ever produced. Period.
But his fame does not resonate on a worldwide scale in the same way as La Liga compatriots at the time like Zinedine Zidane (with whom he was closely compared with at one point), Luis Figo, The Brazilian Ronaldo and David Beckham.
So let’s delve briefly more into the personality of a footballer worthy of mythical status, and yet why he was not as recognisable as he should have been. Lastly let’s look as to why this skinny Canarian is a near perfect example of an athlete that future footballers should emulate.
From promising beginnings to the highest level
Starting his career with hometown club UD Las Palmas the young and lanky attacking midfielder made waves in the Spanish football with his class and technical prowess with the ball.
His immense talent and potential eventually led him to be snapped up to an inter-island move by RCD Mallorca which was then playing in the Spanish top-flight.
After his first season with Mallorca he received a call-up to the Spanish U-21 team led to a 1998 UEFA U-21 title.
A much bigger move was merited two years later, joining capital club Atletico Madrid where he became one of the key players. But the club’s relegation in 1999-2000 season prompted his exit from Los Colchoneros where he made his way northwards in Galicia to defending champions Deportivo La Coruna managed by the legendary manager, Javier Irrureta.
In this club was where he spent the most fruitful phase of his career. A Copa Del Rey (2001-2002 when they beat mighty Real Madrid), Spanish Supercup (2002 beating Primera Liga Champions Valencia) and the semifinals of the aforementioned UEFA Champions League campaign (in which they were eliminated by Jose Mourinho’s “Cinderella Men” Porto) it truly was building up to be a career that that was poised to win much more.
Reality bit… really HARD
But along with the most rewarding phase he had it was also with Deportivo where he faced his most challenging of times from an individual career standpoint.
From early 2006 to 2008, the elegant midfielder became blighted with a serious knee injury. It was a setback he suffered right at the prime of his career. With what transpired, one can only wonder “what if” he was fully healthy in those years?
It could be possible that Deportivo might have maintained their lofty standings in La Liga or Valeron might have moved to a much bigger and internationally renowned club (whether in Spain or overseas), but all of that went out of the window.
His injury also contributed to his abrupt end in participating with the Spanish national team. A swan-song with La Roja for the 2006 World Cup could have been a possibility.
Valeron eventually recovered and returned to playing at a high level with the Galician club, but although class is permanent, his lengthy absence contributed to his age catching up with him and he has never been the same in terms of youthful exuberance.
In the final phase of his tenure with Depor, he became more of an inspiration and a leader for the younger members of the squad before going full circle back to where it all began as a professional with UD Las Palmas to see out his playing career.
Juan Carlos’ lasting legacy
The footballing world might not have seen the most of Valeron’s playing career due to his knee injuries, the fact that he has no resounding nickname other than the obvious el flaco (the skinny one) is a testament to this. But his personality off the pitch, his modesty and overall likability, has earned him the respect of almost all his peers, even the superstars.
La Liga icon Juan Carlos Valeron has retired, bringing an end to his 22-year playing career.
Gracias, Juan Carlos! pic.twitter.com/Qi03aFP8il
— B/R Football (@brfootball) May 15, 2016
Simple in personal life, unassuming and almost fully devoid of that ‘superstar complex’, his demeanour as a person belies his abilities once he steps onto the playing field (whether in Riazor or Gran Canaria).
And being the star of un-fancied sides (A cult status icon for the clubs he served and a highly respected footballer even by rival fans), he truly is a “Legend of the Underdogs”.