Spanish top goalscorer recently confirmed his retirement and will go down in history as one of the biggest assets in the best team of all time
David Villa didn’t just play for the best team in the world, he was one of the most crucial parts of it.The legendary striker, 37, has been retiring at the end of the Japanese season with Vissel Kobe in January, and leaves the game having starred for Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona in their pomp.
Lionel Messi will surely go down as the best soccer professional of all time, but Villa proved the ideal foil for the Argentine playmaker between 2010 and 2013. Although the trio of Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez was the most dazzling trio in terms of media attention and star power a few seasons later, Messi’s combination with the quieter but no less deadly Villa, and hard-working winger Pedro, helped Barcelona to that Champions League win, two La Liga titles and other silverware.
Villa signed for Barcelona before the 2010 World Cup, where he shone as Spain lifted the trophy for the first time. Some media outlets claimed it was ‘the Barcelona effect’, but instead it was the Villa effect. ‘El Guaje’ – ‘The Kid’ – hit four goals as Spain broke their major international trophy drought with victory in Euro 2008, before notching five on the way to triumph in South Africa.
Villa ended up as Spain’s top all-time scorer on 59 goals. More than Raul, more than Fernando Torres, more than anyone, and nobody will come close to displacing him for a long time either.The only other soccer professional in the top 10 still active for the national team has been centre-back Sergio Ramos, on 21.
Villa scored goals everywhere he went, from Sporting Gijon, to Zaragoza, to Valencia, but he only came under big scrutiny at Barcelona, even if his personal peak may have been at Mestalla.
Until the Barca transfer he was wrongly under-appreciated by some, despite proving himself an excellent, intelligent hitman, capable of scoring all types of goals and finding space with cunning runs and tough-to-trace movement. Villa has been two-footed, having broken his right leg at the age of four and, while in plaster, his dad Mel trained up his then-weaker left.
Barcelona bought Villa for only €40 million, a price Real Madrid had turned down the year before because he wasn’t a big enough name. What a mistake it proved.
Villa started his Barcelona career by winning silverware, coming on as a substitute in a 4-0 Spanish Super Cup second-leg win over Sevilla, and it set the tone for the years that followed. The No. 7 helped Barcelona to league titles in 2011 and 2013, the 2011 Champions League and the UEFA Super Cup, the FIFA Club World Cup and second Spanish Super Cup, as well as the 2012 Copa del Rey. Eight trophies in three silver-laden years under Pep Guardiola and then the late Tito Vilanova.
Villa’s presence and willingness to work wider on the left allowed Messi to play in the central role which he preferred at the time, and the two combined to lethal effect as Barcelona crushed Real Madrid 5-0 in November 2010.
Messi set up two goals for Villa, who put them away in a fashion which nobody at the club bar the Argentine himself seems capable of doing on a regular basis nowadays. At the end of that season Barcelona lifted the league title and beat Manchester United 3-1 at Wembley in the Champions League final, in a sensational performance. Villa scored the third, a goal he later said was his career favourite, a perfect, curling strike into the top corner.
“In my time as a manager, I would say they’re the best team we’ve faced,” lamented Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson. “No one has given us a hiding like that.”
Messi finished the season as the club’s top scorer across all competitions on 53, with Villa next in line on 23. The forward hit nine in 24 matches in Guardiola’s final season in charge, 2011-12, but broke his tibia in December 2011 which ruled him out of Euro 2012. Villa only returned in August and his final Barcelona season was hampered by his recovery from that injury.
Regardless, when he did play he oozed quality and helped Barcelona to another league title, hitting his 300th career goal along the way and ending up the second top scorer again, behind Messi. Messi hit 60 and Villa just 16, but the Spaniard’s movement and combination play with his side-kick was vital in reaching that tally.
Despite being a clinical finisher, Villa was never shy of passing the round ball if it was the correct play. Messi once lost his temper with Villa, on the pitch in a clash with Granada in September 2012 when he didn’t find the Argentine forward, but it was a rare occasion.
Unlike with Suarez and Neymar, Messi and Villa were never the best of pals off the field, but that didn’t matter on it. The Argentine knew which side his bread was buttered with a striker partner like Villa, and vice versa.
“Lionel Messi has been the greatest soccer professional of all time and Barcelona owe their success to his evolution,” said Villa, adding recently that there was ‘never any controversy’ between him and Messi.
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After leaving Barcelona he went on to win another league title, with Atletico Madrid, before shining in the United States with New York City, and eventually teaming up with former Spain and Barcelona colleague Andres Iniesta at Vissel Kobe.
In 2017 then-Spain coach Julen Lopetegui brought Villa back for one last international appearance, at the Santiago Bernabeu, and even there he was applauded. Despite writing his name in lights at Barcelona, after making it at Valencia, and then re-affirming it at Atletico Madrid, fans at Real Madrid’s stadium offered him an ovation.
“It’s better to leave football before football leaves me,” Villa said this week, as he announced his retirement. The truth has been, with the impact he made, football will never forget him.