Mumbai: The year 2008 was the last time the world saw Spanish midfielder Gaizka Mendieta dribbling around the football field. One of the greatest footballers from Spain to have graced the pitch, the Bilbao-born player hung up his boots after playing for Middlesbrough in the Premier League.
The midfield maestro won many accolades in a career which spanned 17 years. His football career took off when he played for Valencia from 1993 to 2001. The two-time European midfielder of the year-winner won the 1999 Copa del Rey and Spanish Super Cup. He was a part of Valencia side that reached the Champions League final two consecutive times (2000 and 2001).
After a disappointing spell with La Liga giants Barcelona, Mendieta moved to Premier League side Middlesbrough, where he lifted the Football League Cup, in 2004. His other individual honours include winning the UEFA award for the best midfielder in Europe for the years 2000 and 2001.
The 43-year-old is currently touring India and he exclusively spoke to this reporter about Barcelona’s current season and how football has changed over the years.
Here are the excerpts:
Q) Do you think that Barcelona made the right choice of signing Ernesto Valverde?
A) When Valverde was signed for Barca, a lot of people questioned him. He wasn’t a big profile signing like Luis Enrique or Guardiola but those who knew football knew that he had an amazing experience. Let's talk about teams like Valencia, Espanyol, Olympiakos wherever he has gone, he has done well. The whole team has rebounded thanks to him but if they don't win anything nobody will remember that they did very well. This team needs to win something to be rewarded for this season
Q) Has Valverde has managed to bring balance to the side after Neymar's departure, What do you think?
A) Yes, certainly Barca is a balanced side now. When Neymar left Barca he had big obstacle but he found a way to fill that gap. It is hard to do that since Neymar is a unique player,but I think everyone is loving the way Barca is playing.
Q) What are your thoughts on major summer signings Phillipe Coutinho and Ousmane Dembele?
A) Both are great signings, Dembele hopefully starts to perform and forget the injuries and with Coutinho, he can play with the system that Barca plays. I feel that both players are a good signing for the future.
Q) During your time at Barcelona you must have seen Messi's growth as a player so what are your thoughts about him?
A) When I was at Barcelona, Messi was young, but I feel he was talented when he was born that's why Barca signed him at an early age. Whatever he has achieved so far I don't think anyone could have imagined that or guessed that.
Q) Who would you pick between Messi and Ronaldo?
A) I would choose Messi as he and Ronaldo both are different players. One (Cristiano Ronaldo) is a goal scorer, while Messi is a striker, midfielder, creator.
Q) How could football be without both of them?
A) Messi is just unbelievable because he is one of a kind that Barca has managed to sign and the day he retires we won't be able to see another Messi for a long time. It's not only him but if Ronaldo is not there we will miss him.
Q) Clubs have been spending a huge amount of money on players after recent transfer. Do you think that this much spending is justified?
A) There's Fair Play Rule and every club is going to spend. Football is business, if it's not business you cannot spend on academies, you cannot invest in grassroots, you cannot buy players, the more money comes in the more you spend its the market rule.
Q) What are your thoughts on clubs not promoting the youngsters in the first team?
A) I will speak about La Liga, we are unique in that way. We have so many Spanish players coming through the academies to play in the first team. In La Liga, most numbers of players have come through the academy. In England, the structure and perspective are different, in La Liga we provide youngsters with the platform to perform throughout the career, but in Premier League things are different. You need to take care of future of young players, In Spain, if youngsters don't play in the first team they play in Segunda division which is competitive, but in England, it doesn't happen.
Q) How do you see the Madrid- Barcelona rivalry going ahead?
A) No doubt El Classico is the biggest event it has become an ambassador of La Liga and this rivalry is here to stay....