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What became of Gaizka Mendieta?

Gaizka Mendieta represented (l-r): Valencia, Lazio, Spain, Barcelona and Middlesbrough
Mendieta represented Valencia, Lazio, Spain, Barcelona and Middlesbrough

By Jonathan Stevenson

As the cream of Europe do battle once more this week, a man who twice inspired his team to the Champions League final will be nothing more than an interested spectator.

In 2000 and 2001, unfashionable Valencia - driven forward by their brilliant midfield general Gaizka Mendieta - reached the final of the world's premier club competition, only to suffer defeat both times.

Unfortunately for Mendieta, the defining moment of his career occurred 58 days after that second final - and it did not even take place on the football field.

That summer, aged 27, he was on top of the world - having shone on the European stage he had twice been named European midfielder of the season and was also a regular in the Spanish national side. He seemed destined for a career at the top of the game.

Then Mendieta's world turned upside down. On 19 July, free-spending Italian giants Lazio handed Valencia a cheque for £29m to make him the most expensive Spanish player and sixth costliest footballer of all time.

I have played in the greatest games you can play in football, I have some incredible memories

Gaizka Mendieta

In an instant, Mendieta had gone from being the quiet, unassuming, driving force behind Los Che's remarkable rise to one of the most recognisable faces in football.

But the move did not work out and his career never again reached the same heady heights of those stellar years at the Estadio Mestalla.

In 2003, Mendieta joined Middlesbrough and another three years down the line he was out of the game altogether after an acrimonious exit from the Riverside that resulted in him training with the reserves during his last season in the north-east.

"Italy was difficult for me," Mendieta, who has been out of the game since leaving Boro in May 2008, told BBC Sport. "I never felt I got any continuity there, any chance to settle into a routine.

"I just didn't play that many games, didn't get that many chances and it was hard, very hard, especially after where I had come from."

So, did the size of the transfer fee and the veritable array of riches thrown his way by Lazio and their financially extravagant owner Sergio Cragnotti prove too much for the boy from Bilbao?

"Honestly, I never thought too much about the transfer fee," he said without a moment's hesitation. "I just saw it as a challenge professionally - going to Italy and trying to succeed in their football.

"I never thought about how much I cost but now, when I look back, obviously, yes, there was an awful lot of money involved in the deal. Nowadays we see it quite often but not so much then.

"It's a shame that there were problems at Lazio - problems with the president, with the changing of managers, there was just a lot of stuff going on."

Born: 27 March, 1974, Bilbao
Clubs: Castellon (1991-92), Valencia (1992-2001), Lazio (2001-04), Barcelona (2002-03, loan), Middlesbrough (2003-04, loan, and 2004-08)
Spain: 40 caps, eight goals

It was the very opposite to the life Mendieta had enjoyed during his nine years as a Valencia player.

Managers came and went at the Spanish club, with Guus Hiddink, Luis Aragones, Carlos Alberto Parreira, Claudio Ranieri and Hector Cuper all having a spell in the hot seat, but the core playing staff remained largely intact and the group was allowed to flower and then flourish together.

It is an experience even now, a decade on, that Mendieta is most grateful for, providing him not only with the highlights of his career but also the opportunity to spread his wings and experience life away from La Liga.

"It took a while to build that team up," he recalled. "Getting the right players takes time and once they were there a lot of them stayed for quite a few seasons - even after I left they went and won the league and the Uefa Cup.

"For a lot of the players it was the best moment in their careers. We believed in something, believed we could create something, and when you have that belief in sport you feel you are capable of anything.

"I look back now and I am thrilled at how much I achieved. When I started to play football I never dreamed I could reach the level I got to."

When Mendieta got the chance to ply his trade in English football it caused quite a stir both at home and abroad.

Only two years after joining Lazio, the midfielder was swapping the high life in the Italian capital for the north-east of England, arriving at Middlesbrough on a season-long loan deal - a move that was to be made permanent in July 2004.

Danny Mills (left) and Gaizka Mendieta
Mendieta (right) joined Boro in 2003, at the same time as Danny Mills

Mendieta, who had spent the season before on loan at Barcelona, had the chance to move back to Spain but instead made the remarkable decision to join Steve McClaren's Riverside revolution.

For a while it was an inspired choice as Boro enjoyed the most successful period in their history, before things took a turn for the worse when McClaren left to become England boss in 2006 and Gareth Southgate, who had played alongside Mendieta for two years, became Boro manager.

"The first couple of seasons were fantastic," stated Mendieta. "We won the Carling Cup, played in a Uefa Cup final, were involved in European competition for two years - it was thoroughly enjoyable.

"I enjoyed English football and though I picked up some injuries I have great memories of those times with Middlesbrough.

"But somewhere down the line, something went wrong. In my last season I didn't play any games at all and they wanted me to leave, that was very clear.

"I feel I wasn't treated properly by the club or by the manager. It wasn't a nice situation to be in and unfortunately we could never get to a point where we sorted it out."

Having played for some of Europe's biggest clubs and illuminated the greatest stages in his sport, Mendieta's career was to end in an unsavoury manner.

He featured in only eight games under Southgate's stewardship and suffered the ignominy of being hauled off at half-time on his last appearance as a professional footballer - the 0-0 Boxing Day draw at Everton in 2006.

Gaizka Mendieta (right) tracks Real Madrid's Luis Figo
Mendieta (right) in action for Barca against Real Madrid in 2002

But, despite an unsatisfactory conclusion to his spell on Teesside and calling time on his career in his early 30s, Mendieta has no regrets.

"When I was younger I was involved in athletics, and I only started playing football properly when I was 14 or 15," he revealed.

"I never thought I'd make it. I guess you never do until you are actually there - even when I joined Valencia from Castellon as a kid I thought it would be very difficult.

"You know how much kids dream of just being a footballer, and I got to play in La Liga, Serie A, the Premier League, the Champions League and the World Cup, as well as winning titles.

"I have played in a Roma-Lazio derby, in a Barcelona-Real Madrid match and they are the greatest games you can play in football, they have given me some incredible memories.

"Because of this, I can't regret anything that's happened."

Even the last two years at Middlesbrough were not a total write-off - Mendieta fell in love with the area and still lives with his partner Helen in Yarm, less than 10 miles away from the Riverside.

"I love the people, I love living in the area and I'm not ready to go back to Spain yet," said the 35-year-old.

"I haven't thought about a return to football but it is one of those things where you can never say never.

"I love the game and everything to do with it and even if I can see how difficult it would be, a part of me can see the excitement and challenge of being a manager, definitely."

Football may not have seen the last of Gaizka Mendieta.

see also
Rochemback shown Boro exit door
13 May 08 |  Middlesbrough
Boro's Mendieta could be US bound
06 Feb 07 |  Middlesbrough
Everton 0-0 Middlesbrough
26 Dec 06 |  Premier League
Boro lift Carling Cup
29 Feb 04 |  League Cup
McClaren hails Mendieta
22 Aug 03 |  Middlesbrough
Boro sign Mendieta
21 Aug 03 |  Middlesbrough
Barca seal Mendieta loan deal
20 Jul 02 |  Europe
The only way is up for Mendieta
13 May 02 |  Spain
Mendieta agrees to Lazio move
19 Jul 01 |  Europe
Bayern crowned European champions
23 May 01 |  Champions League
Real storm to Cup glory
24 May 00 |  Football

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