On Saturday evening he was applauded off the pitch at the Camp Nou, as he was at the Bernabeu and the San Mames. Wherever Juan Carlos Valeron goes, he commands great respect. "I got emotional because of the love the fans showed towards me," he admitted at the weekend. Valeron, more than most, is a footballer who thrives on emotion.
The Deportivo playmaker is one of Spain's most respected current footballers, which is remarkable given that this is -- by a distance -- the most talented and successful era the country has ever seen. Valeron hasn't been involved in the three consecutive international tournament triumphs, but having spent his entire career away from Spain's big two, no one has the slightest bit of resentment toward him.
Valeron's career has, sadly, been ruined by injuries: Between January 2006 and January 2009 he didn't start a single league game. He was never the strongest; never the most mobile, but continual knee problems affected his capabilities in an increasingly frenetic midfield zone. As it happens, Valeron says he was determined to succeed at the top level following the career-ending injury sustained by his brother Miguel Angel, a promising full back. When playing Barcelona in 1997, he suffered a horrific injury -- a broken tibia and fibula, and a fractured ankle. Coincidentally, he was only playing because Las Palmas' first choice right back, Manuel Pablo, was out injured. Sixteen years later, Valeron finds himself alongside Pablo as the only surviving relics of Depor's glory days.
Valeron is a link to the past in more ways than one. In this era of Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi dominance, only one other player active in Europe -- Kaka -- has officially been named the world's greatest footballer. Of other past winners, Ronaldinho is back in Brazil, while Fabio Cannavaro, Luis Figo, Zinedine Zidane and Ronaldo have long since retired.
But Valeron, perhaps, can claim to have been the world’s greatest footballer for a short period of time -- in 2001-02. This was just after Francesco Totti had led Roma to a memorable Scudetto in 2000-01, and just before Ronaldo completed his miraculous comeback to win the World Cup's Golden Boot. Valeron was consistently lighting up La Liga with some wonderful, pivotal displays from his classic No. 10 position -- at a time when Zidane was struggling to adjust to La Liga, and the Galacticos were starting to get in each other's way, despite their eventual European Cup triumph. Diego Tristan won the Pichichi that year in Deportivo's blue and white. Roy Makaay did the same the following season. The common theme, of course, was Valeron.
Valeron's closest challenger in 2001-02 was probably Arsenal's Thierry Henry -- who was leading Arsenal to the double. But Henry had yet to prove himself in European competition, and when Henry and Valeron met at Highbury, there was only one winner. Henry was extremely quiet, while Valeron ran the show.
"Valeron, an exquisite talent, scored the first and helped create the second with another swaggering run," wrote Henry Winter in The Telegraph. "His performance was a joy to behold. Playing off Tristan, Valeron's movement mesmerised Arsenal's defenders... it could have been Dennis Bergkamp arriving before the North Bank, such was the technique unfolding so effortlessly and devastatingly from Valeron." His goal in that match was fantastic -- a flowing move down the left side finished sublimely. From the position of the main television camera, you could barely see the ball -- now you know how defenders felt when facing Valeron. Arsene Wenger still remembers his display. "He had his career stolen," the Frenchman said a couple of years ago, referring to the constant injuries.
At his prime Valeron was almost unstoppable -- drifting between the lines slowly, but always in space to play quick one-twos and through-balls, encouraging Depor's wingers into attack. He belongs to that 'old school' generation of No. 10s like Juan Riquelme and Rui Costa who languidly created and allowed others to get the glory -- Valeron never scored more than four in a La Liga season. As far back as 1998, Atletico teammate Kiko described Valeron as an "endangered species," and Valeron was well aware of his perilous situation. "With my qualities, surviving in the modern game is complicated," he said 15 years ago. "The game is becoming a lot more physical and tactical." Especially, of course, when his manager was Arrigo Sacchi.
Whereas many predicted physicality would rule this era, there has instead been a shift toward technique, and Valeron has been overtaken by players he greatly admires. "You can always go on improving, growing and learning," he said. "That's what I try to do, mainly watching the Spanish players because we have the best in the world playing my position."
While Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta have been winning European Cups, Valeron has been battling against relegation. Interviews with the shy, retiring playmaker (who speaks with a nervous, high-pitched voice) are somewhat sad -- he admits that his body is too weak for the challenge, but cash-strapped Depor have no alternative.
When they were relegated two seasons ago, as tears streamed down the faces of supporters, Valeron wandered around the Riazor pitch looking heartbroken, begging for forgiveness. He had planned to retire that summer, but stayed on to help Depor back to the top division. Promotion meant so much to him. "It's the greatest thing that has ever happened in my life," he said. "The promotion is so satisfying; I could not go without returning the team to the Primera Division."
Unfortunately, it looks as if Depor will return to the Segunda. Currently bottom of the league, in the next few weeks they'll face 19th-place Celta, then 18th-place Mallorca and 17th-place Zaragoza, but even three consecutive wins might not be enough. Increasing financial worries means that Depor are unlikely to bounce back again, and Valeron won't move to another La Liga club. We're approaching the last 10 games of Valeron's top-level career, and Saturday was his final appearance at a major football ground.
"I know that I'm on the final straight of my career but I try to enjoy every moment," he said. His humility and shyness is reminiscent of Paul Scholes, another midfielder revered at Barcelona. "When I ask for a photo or an autograph I'm embarrassed because I'm shy. I am no more important than a bricklayer by being a footballer."
If you know anything about Valeron's personality, you can guess his dilemma once he's finished playing. He wants to return to his hometown, Arguineguín, a quiet fishing village on Gran Canaria. Ludicrously, for a settlement with a population of around 2,500, Valeron isn't even its most famous footballer, thanks to World Cup winner David Silva, 11 years younger. Valeron remembers Silva's father playing for the local side when he was starting out as a junior.
But he also wants to help Depor. In 2010 he signed a five-year contract, intending to stop playing within that period and take an administrative role. "The club is proud to convert the image of Valeron into the image of the club," said Deportivo president Augusto César Lendoiro.
How do you sum up Valeron's contribution to football? Ultimately, he'll retire with just one major trophy -- when Depor gatecrashed Real Madrid's Centenary party with a Copa Del Rey win in 2002 -- and three relegations. But Valeron was more than that. In his recent coaching stint at Nottingham Forest, ex-Atletico striker Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink was asked by colleagues about his most talented teammate. He didn't say Dennis Bergkamp, or Gianfranco Zola, or Juan Sebastian Veron. He said Valeron.
Adored by teammates and idolised by neutrals, Valeron will fade from view with a typical lack of fuss -- but he should be remembered as a fantastic professional who was, briefly, the greatest footballer around.