Gaizka Mendieta scored the best goal you haven’t seen in the 33rd minute of the 1999 Copa del Rey Cup Final between Valencia CF and Atletico Madrid.
View the clip on YouTube when you have a spare moment. The goal is something special – the execution of control, composure and awareness in 4 simple touches that redefine what can be achieved in a small space on a football field.
As good as the goal was Mendieta didn’t watch a video replay of the goal for years.
Why? Because Mendieta only watched replays to get better.
He knew when he scored that goal he had completed a perfect play. In his mind there was nothing to be learnt from watching his piece of brilliance a second time.
This insight explains how Mendieta was good enough to twice be voted the European Midfielder of the Year. He never stopped learning and seeking to improve as a footballer.
Who is Gaizka Mendieta?
Gaizka Mendieta played 40 times for Spain, appeared in 2 Champions League Finals for Valencia and, at the time, was the subject of a record transfer fee when he moved to Lazio of Rome.
However, he grew up in Bilbao as a runner rather than a footballer.
Yes, he played football but distance running was his focus and what it seemed he was best at given he was nationally ranked in his youth. But as he transitioned to football his running background was a benefit.
As a young man he played as a holding midfielder. His game was based around running, winning the ball and then passing it to a teammate. This simple philosophy was helped by his ability to read the game and close the passing angles of opponents.
Mendieta did not see himself as a technical footballer and neither did his teammates when he first started at Valencia. Senior players told him that he couldn’t control the ball.
But Mendieta had the desire to learn. Fortunate that he had an understanding coach (the current Chelsea manager Guus Hiddink) who recognised that players develop at different speeds, Gaizka would train with both the first team squad and academy players to get better.
This attitude set up Mendieta for long term success.
“There used to be guys who I would play with when I was fifteen or sixteen and Barca or Real Madrid would want them because they were brilliant……but none of them had made it because mentally….people don’t understand the sacrifices you make.”
When his friends were going out, the young Gaizka was either training, preparing for match day or resting.
His transition into a player recognised as being strong technically was complete when his Valencia teammates elected him to be the squad penalty taker.
But this acceptance was the outcome of a long process of watching players take penalties while practicing his own method to ensure spot kicks were converted.
He realised that inevitably the goalkeeper moves first on the basis that a well-hit shot with accuracy inside the post is not save-able if the keeper does not move.
With this understanding, Mendieta would not be watching the ball when he ran up to take the spot kick. Instead he would be watching the goalkeeper, waiting for him to make a move. Once the goalkeeper moved he would kick the ball in the opposite direction – the penalty would be scored.
A simple enough process but one that requires immense confidence complemented with the skill to kick the ball accurately while using peripheral vision.
If the goalkeeper did not move the Mendieta would go to Plan B; a well struck shot just inside the post.
By practicing constantly Mendieta only missed one penalty in his career. And that was when he hit the post.
Perhaps the person who best sums up the approach of Mendieta is Pep Guardiola, a common foe when Valencia and Barcelona clashed in La Liga.
“Praise”, says Pep, “makes you weak.”
For Gaizka Mendieta his mentality to constantly learn meant that he never regressed as he made his way through a 17-year career. He was too busy making the best of his talent and work ethic to be slowed by success.
The Big Interview with Graham Hunter podcast
“Gaizka Mendieta: Practice makes perfect”
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