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DINKS TO DECKS

DJ sets, Champions League heartbreak, and throw-ins for Middlesbrough — the Gaizka Mendieta life

You'll be relieved to know the Valencia legend still boasts a full head of hair

I pass Edgar Davids on the stairs as I make my way up to the Mezzanine floor.

This weekend the hotel hosts a number of Barcelona legends, back in town for a charity match at the Camp Nou against some notable former Man United players.

I eavesdrop on a conversation between a German colleague and Patrick Kluivert — the pair discuss Justin’s future.

A club representative next to me tells me how Ronaldinho is predictably the most in-demand player out of those involved but he’s not one to leave a party, especially if speaking to a host of pasty journalists is the alternative.

It’s 2pm on a Tuesday, why wouldn’t Ronaldinho be at party?

Samba personified

AP:Associated Press
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Samba personified

Suddenly, a familiar face appears next to me.

He offers me his hand and I am relieved to see that Gaizka Mendieta still boasts a full head of hair elegantly swept away from his face.

Many of the other ex-players present are betrayed by protruding bellies and retreating hairlines but Mendieta looks as if he’s ready for a full 90 minutes.

The two-time European Midfielder of the Year is affable from the off.

We start by discussing the differences between domestic football in Spain, Italy and England.

Curtains have never looked better

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Curtains have never looked better

“Italy is more extreme, more physical” he says. “The football was more direct, not concerned about possession.

“It’s all about the end product. The fans are really passionate but it’s black and white. There’s no middle way with them.

“Which can be brilliant or miserable.”

Mendieta is a legend in Valencia and a cult hero in Middlesbrough.

His time in Rome remains the least enjoyable spell of his career, where Lazio fans expected more from their €48million midfielder in the wake of Pavel Nedved’s departure.

Mendieta became the sixth most expensive player in history when he signed for Lazio

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Mendieta became the sixth most expensive player in history when he signed for Lazio

Mendieta didn’t experience much brilliance in Italy.

After one season he was loaned to Barcelona, where he became team-mates with a pair of young upstarts with notable futures ahead of them.

“You could see they had talent,” he says of Xavi and Andres Iniesta. “They were brilliant but still quite young.

“You would say they were going to be successful, you would say they were going to be big in the history of the club.

“But to point them out as World champions, European champions, that’s something special that I don’t think anyone could have predicted.”

Other midfielders for Barca at the time included Cocu, Riquelme, Overmars, Enrique, Motta, Xavi and Iniesta…

AP:Associated Press
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Other midfielders for Barca at the time included Cocu, Riquelme, Overmars, Enrique, Motta, Xavi and Iniesta…

Mendieta shares Xavi and Iniesta’s philosophy.

“Spain is the most technical,” he explains. “They like to take care of the ball.

“The ball is the only way to win games. How can you play without the ball?”

He chooses his words carefully, not because his English is incompetent, it’s excellent, but because he wishes to say what he really means.

The effect is poetic and his answers unroll in a rhythmic staccato fashion.

Perhaps this is to be expected of a DJ.

He’s traded deft dinks for DJ decks

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He’s traded deft dinks for DJ decks

His eyes light up when I mention his music — it’s clear this is his preferred topic of conversation these days.

“I used to DJ with friends in Valencia,” he says, “but I never considered it would be something I wanted to actually do properly.”

“When I retired, the summer after, my friend called me and said ‘we want you for this festival’ and that was the first official gig.”

The festival in question was no budget get-together in a field.

It was Benicassim, one of Europe’s most famous music festivals that attracts over 150,000 revellers at a time..

That ball, that facial hair…

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That ball, that facial hair…

In 2015, Mendieta was invited to play guitar with Los Planetas at the same festival.

The Spanish indie band rose to prominence in the 1990s and are unashamed football fans.

In their song ‘A Good Day‘ they sing the lyrics, “I put on the TV and there was a game, and Mendieta has scored a goal, really amazing,” so what a moment it was when the man himself joined the band on stage to perform the song in question.

This epic performance aside, you’ll usually find Mendieta behind the decks when on stage.

Since retirement he’s toured as a DJ, though he admits his former life is impossible to disguise.

“It’s a hobby and a passion. The music is rock’n’roll, soul, 1950s, indie bands… depending on the venue.

“A lot of people who hire me think of Mendieta the footballer, not the music.

“A lot of fans come [to the gigs] who don’t like the music, they’re just big football fans.”

His sets are frequently interrupted by fans asking him to sign retro shirts or pose for photos.

There’s no annoyance in his voice though, he doesn’t begrudge his old life leaking into his new one.

Mendeita is immensely proud of his playing career, and rightly so.

Bringing some Spanish flair to Teeside

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Bringing some Spanish flair to Teeside

Mendieta hung up his boots in England’s rainy north-east with Middlesbrough.

“England is probably the wildest,” he says, again comparing the domestic games of those he frequented.

“The football was great, attacking football all the time. Not so much worried about tactical sorts of things.

“Always spaces, always chances. I really enjoyed my time there. The fans are 100% with you, even at throw-ins. I loved it.”

And this spiel isn’t just for my benefit.

A Riverside favourite

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A Riverside favourite

Mendieta settled in Middlesbrough after his retirement, living there for a while before returning to Spain, such was his affection for the charms of northern England.

In preparation for the interview I had stumbled across suggestions that Mendieta and Gareth Southgate, Boro manager from 2006-2009, didn’t see eye to eye.

When I ask him whether Southgate is the right man to lead England forward, his response is diplomatic but offers enough to suggest the rumours may have a hint of truth to them.

“His profile and who he is fits into the FA’s philosophy — working, training.

“Going forward there needs to be a change.”

Southgate frequently left Mendieta on the bench

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Southgate frequently left Mendieta on the bench

He quickly moves onto the England national team in general, specifically how the Three Lions’ past failures to convert successful youth sides into senior champions must be addressed.

“Under 17s, Under 18s, Under 19s… in that way, England has always been strong.

“When it comes to stepping up there is something missing. England should be looking at how to make that transition.”

I ask how Spain managed to translate talented crops of youth players into World Cup and European Championship triumph.

I also repeat the much-peddled belief that the English media heap too much pressure on their young players, something Mendieta refutes.

“Pressure is more or less the same everywhere,” he states flatly.

“Individually some may feel it more because of words like ‘next Rooney’ but it’s more the way they go from Under 21s to the first team and then don’t play many games.

“In Spain, all the kids play regular football week in, week out and that’s what helps the young players to improve.”

Grace and poise

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Grace and poise

For all his achievements and accolades, many see Mendieta as one of football’s great nearly-men.

This stems from his time as Valencia’s talisman when the club lost back-to-back Champions League finals at the turn of the century.

This pair of giant-killing European campaigns dovetailed, not coincidentally, with Mendieta’s best form.

His virtuoso performances in midfield inspired his beloved club to consecutive finals against Real Madrid and Bayern Munich in 2000 and 2001 respectively.

In the first they were comprehensively beaten 3-0 by Real Madrid and Mendieta does not express any significant hurt inflicted that night.

The first one, ask any fan and they will tell you we didn’t play well,” he says.

What could have been…

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What could have been…

But the second one, it was so close. We lost it in a way that had an effect.”

The way he says this confirms it’s true.

Valencia lost the 2001 final to Bayern Munich on penalties — eternal tormentor of top tier footballers throughout history.

Mendieta scored his spot-kick once extra time was up, just as he had converted from the spot three minutes into the game, but Oliver Kahn’s efforts later in the shootout denied him ultimate glory in the most dramatic fashion.

Mendieta’s penalty put Valencia 1-0 after just three minutes against Bayern Munich

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Mendieta’s penalty put Valencia 1-0 after just three minutes against Bayern Munich

Such disappoints could cripple weaker men but, despite the obvious pain, Mendieta is refreshingly philosophical about the whole thing.

“It is football; to the next challenge,” he states.

“Whether it’s training, playing in a final or playing a normal game, you have to try and be better.

“Teams like Valencia don’t have that many chances to reach a Champions League final. Not like Barca.

“Valencia was ready to stay. With the Champions League, we could have attracted more players, better players. You never know.”

Mendieta can be immensely proud of his legacy in Valencia

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Mendieta can be immensely proud of his legacy in Valencia

This alternate timeline, in which he is a Champions League-winning captain and Valencia have established themselves as regular title-challengers, does not torture Mendieta, but he is aware of its sting.

Not that this would have made him more popular among the fans, that would be impossible.

For taking Valencia to the brink twice, they are forever grateful, and while you can’t put admiration in a trophy cabinet, it’s something to cherish for a lifetime.

See you later, Ashley…

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See you later, Ashley…

A man wearing a Barcelona polo shirt, damp with stress-induced sweat, taps me on the shoulder — my time is up.

Mendieta offers me his hand once again, thanks me for asking him about his music, and tells me to enjoy the game later on.

A few hours he exchanges passes with Ronaldinho and Rivaldo before clipping a glorious cross-field pass into the path of Ludovic Giuly.

I watch on from just below the clouds in the Nou Camp’s press box.

Oh, for it to be the early 2000s…