Tuesday, 26 April 2011
From Cabbage to Parakeet
Certain players have hidden pasts, hidden stories. Their pasts, for many fans, are murky or unknown. They end up at a club and therefore that is the club they will be forever linked with.
For many, Iván de la Peña will always be associated Espanyol. He was the man who ran the show for them, the man who inspired their Copa del Rey win of 2005 and nearly did the same in the 2007 UEFA Cup. It is where he excelled, where he came closest to fulfilling his potential, where we almost glimpsed the prodigy that was talked about in the early 1990s.
For me, de la Peña is a Barcelona man and I always viewed those golden performances for Los Periquitos as a man performing wonders in purgatory. Despite his Cantabrian routes, he was always a Culé - he, like many before and after him, embodied the soul of the club and what matters to the club.
The one that got away
If Spain are currently enjoying a remarkable 'Golden Generation' then de la Peña was part of its slightly less successful precursor with Mendieta, Raul, Morientes, Karanka and The Little Buddha himself. (NB: Of course, Golden Generations don't normally bring home the gold... so the name is probably more apt for the previous bunch). As a teenager as he began to come to prominence I thought he was an outstanding player, I hoped that he would become one of the great's of the game.
In many ways, de la Peña, as a youngster, was the most hyped of those glorious names. He was Xavi before Xavi existed. He was the man who destined to replace Guardiola, the man who successive Barcelona managers thought would be the man who ran the game. In many ways, he'd be much more than a footballer - he would be the representation of La Masia on the pitch, the personification of the club, the man who would be to Barcelona what Raul would become to Real Madrid.
The young player of the year, according to El Pais, in both 1996 and 1997, he is the missing part of Barcelona's DNA between Guardiola and Xavi. He had many of Guardiola and Xavi's attributes - a fine football brain, a sharp and slick passer, astonishing vision. He didn't quite cut the Dijon.
His finest hour at Barcelona was in the 1996/7 season and was stacked with talent (the team that started the 1997 Cup Winners' Cup Final was: Baia, Ferrer, Fernandez, Couto, Barjuan, Guardiola, Popescu, de la Peña, Luis Enrique, Figo, Ronaldo. That didn't include Stoichkov, Giovanni, Blanc et al). His linking with Figo and Ronaldo was, at points, beautiful.
However, unlike Xavi, who has become the beating heart of Barcelona and Spain's modern teams, de la Peña left Barcelona for a four years at Lazio. He did so after two fine seasons at Camp Nou and, tellingly, a change of manager. That move was the wrong one for The Little Buddha.
Due to injury, he barely played - 15 games in four years) his progress stalled. Those four years, including a year on loan at Marseilles and an inglorious loan return to Camp Nou, were those years when a prodigy turns into a genius but this was genius unfulfilled. After these years in the wilderness whilst he finally settled at Espanyol.
As de la Peña left in 1998, Xavi was just coming through as a youngster at Barcelona. Sadly, the two never played together in the colours of Barcelona in home colours - it would have been quite a midfield.
de la Peña has played out his career at Espanyol and became one of their star players for the best part of a decade. He became what he perhaps should have been at Barcelona and what Xavi did become - the Puppet Master. He directed the play with his range of passing, his astonishing football brain and a deep instinct for the game.
Barcelona had a wonderful team in the early 1990s and have a wonderful team now - My romantic heart thinks that we were robbed of a third great Barcelona team: the team built around The Little Buddha.
Ironically, and perhaps fittingly, he is perhaps best remembered for single-handedly defeating Barcelona in a derby game in early 2009 only a few months before that Barcelona side won the European Cup (the only time the 20th placed club had beaten the top-placed club in La Liga).
He came to embody everything that Espanyol were throughout the last decade. To me, he'll always be La Masia's Lost Boy.