Is the Oft-maligned Barcelona Goalie Who Quit Scoring an Own Goal?

The goalkeeper of the best team in the world upped and quit. Maybe he got sick of the carping, or hopes to prove his hype. Either way, his club will yet miss him.

Uzi Dann
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Uzi Dann

One of the more intriguing questions in world soccer is why Viktor Valdes isn't renewing his contract in Barcelona after the summer of 2014.

What could be so bad about being the goalkeeper of the best team in the world, a team winning title after title? And why commit to leaving so long before it actually happens?

The Spanish don't understand Valdes' move either. Even if he's peeved by being considered the perennial No. 2 to Iker Casillas at the national team, leaving Barcelona won't solve that problem. The pundits suspect there's a different reason for his announcement – one that has to do only with Barcelona.

Valdes' value as a goalkeeper is debatable. He won the Zamora Trophy – for the best goalkeeper in Spain – five times, including four seasons under Pep Guardiola. Jose Luis Chilavert, one of the best goalkeepers ever, argues that Valdes was the best in the world: "When Barca needs calm, that's exactly what he transmits. He is a wonderful shot stopper and his positioning in the box is fantastic."

Diego Maradona differs: "Valdes is a poor keeper, he simply plays in a team that the players in front of him make him look good."

The truth is probably somewhere in the middle, leaning towards Chilabert's evaluation. Valdes isn't the best in the world, or even in Spain, but he justly gained his reputation as one of the best.

He's only 31, but for more than a decade – from the middle of 2002/03 – Valdes has been Barcelona's first choice goalkeeper. He even broke Andoni Zubizarreta's records, playing 488 games for Barcelona, winning five championships and three Champions League titles. He isn't as important as Messi or Iniesta, but still, he has an important role in the team.

Valdes' announcement was even more surprising given that players such as Lionel Messi, Xabi Alonso and Carlos Puyol – the last two local, veteran players like him – recently renewed their contracts.

Many Catalonian journalists described his move as disrespectful: Fine, don't renew your contract, but why announce you're leaving. "A form of betrayal," was the verdict of the local newspaper "Sport," especially since the club wanted him to stay.

Maybe he wants to prove the hype

But maybe Valdes just had enough. Not of the glory, titles or magic aura of Barca, but of other things. Maybe he needs to prove that he can succeed beyond the protected environment of the Camp Nuo, where he was raised. One the one hand, claiming the Zamora Trophy repeatedly, and excelling during the Guardiola period, is evidence of his abilities, but there might be other matters.

The fact that Barcelona often claims some 80 percent possession of the ball during games limits the scoring chances of the opponents. When these arrive, they are usually one-on-one situations – as evident in in Barca's losses to Chelsea in last season's Champions League semifinal, or this season to Celtic.

In the last three seasons, opponents have managed only an average of three shots at goal per game. This statistic reveals that not too much work is required from Valdes. Questions may arise as to how he might cope when faced with more work - but this might also be the key to Valdes' move: maybe he simply wants to demonstrate that he can succeed under tougher conditions.

Or maybe he's sick of the obsession with his mistakes.

All goalkeepers, even great ones, make mistakes. Its just one of the major shortcoming of the role. You can be excellent for 90 minutes, commit one mistake, and then everybody will remember why the team lost. (The following video shows some of these mistakes.)

"On the one hand, he's an excellent goalkeeper, but there can be no doubt that he's more prone to commit errors than other great keepers," says journalist Inna Cordola of "El Mundo Deportivo." "In the classico, two years ago he gifted a goal to Angel di Maria, and in 2006/07 he was to blame for an important goal Barcelona conceded against Liverpool. In the famous game against Atletico Madrid in 2009, he was to blame for Diego Forlan's 30-meter goal, which began the turnaround that led to that loss."

Still, a string of coaches, some of them the best in the trade, trusted Valdes in the Barcelona goal for more than a decade. It's petty to pick on one mistake or another during a run of almost 500 games, and Valdes shouldn't apologize for playing for a great team. Especially, since he was already there when Oleguer was playing as center-back and Gabri Garcia or Michael Reiziger were right backs.

Valdes once recalled that when he started playing soccer, he never really wanted to be a goalie.

"The fact that everybody celebrates a goal except the goalkeeper always bothered me," he said, but when his natural talent between the posts became evident, he progressed swiftly in the Barcelona academy, and around his 20th birthday, already became the number one goalkeeper of the Catalonian empire. He will continue his reign for another year and half before he moves on.

At present, the identity of his successor is yet unknown. There are rumors that Liverpool's Papa Reina will be brought in. But no one should be surprised if Viktor Valdes is sorely missed after he leaves.

Barcelona's goalkeeper Victor Valdes walks during a training session, February 13, 2013.Credit: Reuters

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