Andy Mitten

Sleeping rough to King of the Camp Nou

Andy Mitten

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I spent a week earlier this year interviewing 17 players from various World Cup finalists.

Some, like Lionel Messi, Kaka and David Villa, were major world stars. Others, like Switzerland's Johan Vonlanthen, didn't even go to South Africa.

All the interviews were conducted face-to-face and most of the players were pleasant young men who are exceptionally good at their profession. There was a language difficulty with Shunsuke Nakamura of Japan which resulted in a farcical exchange, especially as he insisted on pausing for thought after every translated question. That would have been fine if we had all day and not 20 minutes.

Only one player was arrogant, as if doing an interview for a major magazine was beneath him. The other journalist present from UEFA felt exactly the same and we both smiled as his country imploded in South Africa - and his tournament went dreadfully.

The story of one interviewee stood out. Paraguay striker Nelson Valdez explained with great sincerity how he had gone from sleeping rough under the stands at his club in Paraguay to receiving text messages from the president after scoring a key goal in a World Cup qualifier against their neighbours and great rivals Argentina.

Valdez, then with Borussia Dortmund, was from a poor family and told of how he had dreamed of owning a football as a child. When he finally got one, he played with it until it was full of holes.

Aged 14, he watched as Laurent Blanc scored the first golden goal in the history of the World Cup to eliminate Paraguay from the competition. He saw his mother - a big football fan - crying and promised there and then that he would play for Paraguay in the World Cup, a promise he kept in 2006 against England; but only after some tough times.

Asked if it was dangerous to live rough in Paraguay, where crime rates are high, his answer was revealing.

"If you have nothing, what can they steal?" he said. "I had nothing to give. It was a really tough experience, but it helped me to make me stronger, to value everything I'm getting now.

""And if I needed to be born again, I'd do the exactly the same. I'm proud of what I've been through and where I am now. I'm proud to still call the people I slept rough with friends. The people who gave me what they could so that I could buy some water. I have a big place in my heart for these people because they had nothing and yet they still helped me through the bad times."

I told people in football about Valdez. One agent sneered: "He might have a great story, but he can't score goals." I put him in my World Cup fantasy team thinking that he was a bargain gem few knew about.

Despite Paraguay having a successful tournament, he failed to find the net in five matches... although he scored a goal against Spain which could have put Paraguay through to the semi-finals until it was taken off him.

Valdez would nevertheless have his moment of glory against many of those Spanish players after moving in the summer to join promoted Hercules of Alicante.

On Saturday night in the Camp Nou he scored their first goals in the top flight since they last played there in 1996. Hercules spent the first half of the Noughties playing in the regional third division, sharing a stadium which was too big for them with their city rivals Alicante.

With fellow new signings David Trezeguet and Royston Drenthe in the team, Hercules were always going to get goals. But nobody expected them to beat champions Barcelona away.

Valdez scored one in each half to stun the Catalans and Spanish football as Hercules managed to do what no other side in La Liga managed last season. Barca may have dominated possession, but it was no fluke. Valdez was the star - and boy does he deserve the accolades.

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