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Waiting for Valdano

Adjutant of God

Previously published in the magazine Hard Gras

“For you,” whispered the balloon factory operator. “It’s been on hold for four minutes.”

I had indeed been calling for a long time. A container with water bombs for a customer in Dubai was “temporarily lost”, according to our transporter.

‘Yes?’ I said, still cranky at the drizzle of a moment ago.

‘ Mister Sander?’

Hardly anyone in Spain calls me Sander. Here I am called Alejandro, Alex or Tulipán.

“Who am I talking to?”

“Jorge Valdano. You recently sent me a fax. Someone at the address you provided gave me this number. “

I sat at a desk full of paperwork and balloon samples, with the boss’s son three meters away and the boss himself within earshot behind a glass wall. Not an ideal place to talk to a football celebrity carefree.

At the end of the last century, faxing and landline calls were mainly made in southern Spain. Mail and mobile phones were more for directors. I was not a director, but an export worker who liked to write in his spare time. Explain this inconspicuously from your workplace to someone who receives daily interview requests from half the world.

I am still grateful to Valdano for not asking further questions at the time. One question to check whether I was writing for a serious newspaper had made the alarm bells ring. With him, if I didn’t give a clear answer; with my boss and his son when I should have elaborated on my paid journalist hobby against Valdano.

But Jorge asked nothing, so I could keep it short. In my fax I had already indicated that I wanted to talk to him for de Volkskrant about football news and for a Latin American film festival in Rotterdam about the combination of sport and literature. Presumably the latter, plus the fact that I came from the cradle of total football, gave him a tack (more about that total football later). Valdano gave me his phone number and we agreed to call him a week later to meet in Madrid.

I met the operator on the way to the toilet. Had she really talked to him? But what did he want? Balloons with his name on them? I silenced her with a promise to arrange his signature for her.


Hotel Eurobuilding is located a long way from the Bernabeu Stadium, in one of the better areas of Madrid. The lobby is frequented by stylishly dressed men and women. The staff hardly seems to be subject to gravity, they move so silently. Spain may be the loudest country in the world after Japan, it is here that peace of affluent wealth reigns, of people who are calmly on their way to more.

In 1999, Jorge Valdano rents a suite at this hotel for his business activities. Although he is still called the Philosopher , after his career as a footballer / trainer he is mainly involved in consultancy. His technical directorship at Real Madrid, purchasing Galácticos such as David Beckham and Zidane – it’s all still in the real stars.

August 15 is a national holiday in Spain, but Valdano works today and will speak to me at 1:00 pm. Fifteen minutes before the agreed time I look for a discreet corner in the bar, from where I have a view of the lobby. While I let my espresso cool down, I go through the notes again. Valdano was born in the Argentine province of Santa Fe in 1955. He was barely four when his father died, so his upbringing was entirely due to his mother and older brother. At the age of 16, Jorge went to live on his own and three years later left his homeland, ravaged by political violence, for a sporting future in Spain. Via Deportivo Alavés and Real Zaragoza he ended up at Real Madrid, where he would win the UEFA Cup twice, among other things.

But nothing from his career can be beyond the shadow of June 29, 1986 at the Aztecastadio in Mexico City. There, in the final against the Mannschaft of Karl-Heinz Rummenigge and Lothar Matthäus, Valdano was in the 55th minute-passing the ball. He stormed towards the enemy goal, sent keeper Toni Schumacher out of the crowd with a feint and scored the second Argentinian goal. “Every young footballer dreams of scoring in a World Cup final,” he would say later. That day Jorge dreamed with open eyes, as a full member of Maradona’s team of gods.


The waiter has already made a silent trip along the tables twice, when I suddenly recognize my name on the sign in his hands. Perfectly spelled – unique. Usually it becomes “The Van” or just “Van” here.

I raise a hand, the waiter nods and floats closer.

‘ Lord of Wan?’


“A message from Jorge Valdano.”

An icicle melts in my stomach. It won’t be the first time that an interview with a VIP ricochets at the last minute.

” Señor Valdano is a little late . He will speak to you at least ten to two. “

If you do not threaten to arrive on time for an appointment, it is normal in the normal human world that you inform the waiting party. However, different laws apply to the tinsel wavelength where many sports stars are present. Deal or no deal, you can be happy that they speak to you at all, even if you have to come back several times for that.

That showed, for example, a Dutch footballer from FC Barcelona in the early nineties. We had an appointment for a fifteen minute conversation, but he only came after three days of running and tinkering. It never became a real interview, because he barely answered and always looked at the bar, where his teammates were already drinking beer.

There are also positive exceptions. The usually silent cyclist Miguel Indurain was unable to keep his interview promise after the second stage of the Tour of Murcia due to unforeseen circumstances. A day later he sat down at half past eleven in the evening. In fact, he talked a lot, although he had to cycle again the next morning. Indurain comes from Navarre, bordering the Basque Country. In those parts, someone’s word weighs at least as much as the giant stones that powerhouses have to lift there at special championships.


“A thousand apologies. I will fully respect your time. “

It is five past two and Jorge Valdano clearly feels embarrassed that an extra delay has occurred. With his neatly combed back hair, dark brown suit and navy blue shirt, he seems to have walked out of a fashion show.

He sits diagonally across from me, orders a bottle of mineral water and asks if life in Murcia is good. I tell about the short, cold winters and long, hot summers, but I am silent about my balloon job.

Then I turn on my recorder and ask him about his current activities. When Valdano stopped coaching in 1997, he started working as a consultant. He is doing well, he says now, and he has never missed a coaching session: ‘As a footballer I enjoyed every day, because I had the ball at my disposal. As a trainer you have people under you, but you have lost the ball. “

We talk about the temptations of the game and soon end up with the Brazilian ball artist Garrincha. Valdano smiles bare his Real-white teeth. Garrincha was a hymn to football: the only player who could completely disconnect from his surroundings to play football in a state of pure, innocent pleasure. He played for fun and the more he enjoyed the more chance his team had to win. His life was dramatic, he ended tragically, but no one blamed him for that. It is not without reason that hundreds of thousands of people accompanied him to his final resting place and people sang songs because they wanted to remember him in joy. “

Via Garrincha it is a small step to Valdano’s other passion, literature. Argentina had no hard grassneeded to bring readers and football together. A well-known author like Ernesto Sábato wrote about sport half a century ago. But the biggest of them all, Jorge Luis Borges, was not to like it. Valdano beams with pleasure when he remembers the perhaps most famous Nobel Prize loser. Borges said he thinks it is incomprehensible that a society that once started playing chess ended up playing football. During the Falklands War, he asked his countrymen almost surprised how it was possible that football crazy Argentina had declared war on Britain, the inventor of football. But they forgive Borges for that football hatred. When you can write verses like Death has been lived / life is approaching death , you are a winner. ‘


Although the Latin stomach starts to growl uncontrollably around half past three in the afternoon if no food has yet passed the uvula, Valdano continues to talk enthusiastically on that one bottle of water. I note a number of quotes for the newspaper, such as the usefulness of a boycott of the World Cup in Argentina in Argentina (‘You should separate sports and politics as much as possible. But this was a question of politicizing the sport through repressive rule. give something back to the sport ‘), Ajax (‘ When I trained Valencia, I got a call from Ajax once. It is the only time when I regretted that I did not speak English ‘), Dutch football (‘ That is close to me heart. With its offensive game, the Dutch football school is the only one in the world that does not necessarily have to win to reap admiration “) and its business activities,

Johan Cruijff is also discussed. When Valdano was a trainer of Tenerife and caused a sensation with attractive, offensive play, he received a call from Madrid. Whether he wanted to coach Real. “That was due to Johan,” says the Argentinian now. ‘In Spain, football is identified with La Furia , so with knots. But Cruijff stood for magic and beauty. That made a big impression on the audience. Now anti-football trainers can only survive if they win. Cruijff has saved Spanish football from Italian conditions. And thanks to him people finally realized in Madrid that you can only succeed with good football. “

‘Cruijff is a genius, a great man who always wants to win. I don’t know anyone who could control everything on and off the field. We once had a cup of coffee together in a hotel. When I wanted to leave, he walked with me to the exit. Johan wanted to open the door, but I was ahead of him. However, Cruijff never loses. Just when I grabbed the handle, he said, “The door opens outwards.” So he turned out to be the “brain” behind the opening of the door and at least dragged out a tie. “


News is hotin this media age. Suspects deflating to hidden cameras, a star soccer player arguing with a bunch of transvestites – who doesn’t dream of a scoop these days? I also have my aspirations in Madrid. A few years earlier I made a photo of Winston Bogarde in the Spanish La Manga, where he had settled for a training camp with Ajax and Louis van Gaal. Nothing wrong with Bogarde. He spontaneously interrupted his tennis game with Patrick Kluivert for a snapshot with my girlfriend… That evening, however, we saw on teletext that Winston had been put on the plane to the Netherlands. Van Gaal had caught Bogarde, who said he had been injured for a few days, on the tennis court shortly after our departure. With an action photo of the apparently top fit tennis player, I could certainly have scored and I resolved to be more alert in the future.

Valdano is the first person in the inner circlefrom Maradona I speak. Wouldn’t he have noticed anything about Diego’s dark side? After Cruijff’s door handle, I think the moment is ripe for that question. But then something curious happens: Valdano suddenly looks uncomfortable, focuses on a point next to my right ear and says, “Of course, the stories about Diego are correct. But why should he serve as an example in his life? The football player Maradona should be judged on his performance on the field. In fact, Diego is a victim of his time. Like Lady Di, he was made a consumer item. That started when he was not yet twenty and he suffered irreparable damage. When artists use drugs, nobody makes a fuss about it. After all, it is about their work. Maradona was a genius,

I realize how banal I am. Valdano was a witness to Maradona’s phenomenal game in Mexico and perhaps a few more things, but the latter is part of the secrets of the Argentine dressing room. How can he – one of Diego’s chief aides – ever speak an unabashed word about Him? Imagine: Jesus is walking on the water and a while later an apostle reports that the prophet was in Red Lebanon shortly before his deed. Even if it was, you still keep it to yourself. Miracles must remain miraculous.

After a short pause, Valdano looks at me again. The friendly twinkle in his eye is back: “Diego did something genius-only: he was lucky. He was a wizard with the ball at his feet and he must be judged on that. As a public character, as a footballer, he belongs to all of us; the personal drama he experiences outside the field is only his business. Incidentally, Maradona thought that the media didn’t really care about football. We had a discussion about this during a training camp. We were both on a ball on the field, when he suddenly jumped up and shot his ball to a group of journalists on the sidelines. One of them took the ball and threw it back. “See?” Diego said. “They write about football every day, but can’t even kick back a ball …” “


It is a quarter to four. Valdano has indeed respected my time generously. After some – mainly Dutch – cows and calves we walk out of the bar. Once in the lobby he asks what else I do in Murcia. I confess to him my balloon job and suddenly I remember the operator’s signature.

Without a murmur, Valdano writes a personal greeting for her in my notebook. Then he puts his adjutant’s hand on my shoulder and says, “Balloons, footballs: air in round packaging to make people happy. Is there anything more beautiful? “

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