Something happened to David Villa on Wednesday morning that had never happened to him before but probably should have: he appeared on the front cover of every single sports newspaper in Spain. Not just every sports newspaper, in fact. And not just in Spain, either. On Wednesday morning, David Villa was on the cover of every single paper in the country -- and countless more all over the world.
Most of them even went for the same headline, opting for the same slightly lame play on words. "MaraVILLA", they declared almost to a man. Villa was a marvel, a wonder. Italy's La Gazzetta dello Sport followed suit with "MeraVILLA", while the French paper L'Equipe led on "Viva Villa!"
Villa had scored the only goal to see Spain defeat Portugal and progress to the World Cup quarterfinals. It was his fourth of the tournament. Score against Paraguay and he will stand alone as the competition's top scorer, a position he currently shares with Gonzalo Higuain and Robert Vittek. Better still, those four include arguably the two best goals of the World Cup so far -- his wonderful run and finish against Honduras and the ludicrously cool 45-meter finish against Chile. And he had also become just the second Spaniard to score in three successive World Cup games (Telmo Zarra did the feat in 1950).
So, it was not surprising that the media should be discovering the striker from the tiny Asturian mining town of Tulilla. Only, in a sense, it was.
Surprising and wrong. Surprising and shortsighted. Perhaps even unjust.
Especially when you consider that it was not just the international media falling over itself to pay homage to Villa in a way that they had never really done before, it was parts of the Spanish media too.
Villa signed for FC Barcelona for $50 million at the end of the Spanish season. Before that he had played for Sporting de Gijón, Real Zaragoza and Valencia. Internationally, that meant that at club level he rarely played on the biggest stage -- Valencia have only competed in the Champions League twice since Villa has been there -- and so he did not have the exposure of players at Spain's biggest two clubs. Nationally, that meant something even more significant -- Villa did not have media cheerleaders. He was, in his own phrase, not very "mediático."
Despite laughable claims to objectivity, Spain's press is split right down the middle. There are four national sports dailies, which dominate the agenda beyond their own pages. The country's two biggest clubs utterly eclipse the rest, something that is reflected in the deals -- signed individually, club-by-club -- for TV rights. Deals in which Madrid and Barcelona make over $150 million a year while third placed Valencia make under $43 million.
The newspapers AS and Marca are rabidly pro-Madrid, Sport and Mundo Deportivo are screamingly pro-Barcelona. If you play for either of them and have two half-decent games, you are immediately lauded as the finest player on the planet, the greatest superstar that ever walked the earth, and your absence from the national team/shortlist for the Balon d'Or/FIFA World Player award is a wrong that absolutely must be righted. If you play for anyone else you can forget about recognition, still less a campaign. No matter what you do. Even if you do what Villa has done.
And Villa has done a hell of a lot. More than most of their proteges. Much, much more. By not being at Madrid or Barcelona, though, his achievements have always been met with less fanfare than those of players at the big two, even though they actually deserve more -- after all, scoring goals is easier at Madrid or Barcelona than Valencia or Zaragoza.
Friday morning, two days after the Portugal game, the Madrid-based Marca canvassed the opinion of Villa's teammates, who queued up to declare him a world-class striker. Meanwhile, the Barcelona-supporting Catalan sports daily El Mundo Deportivo splashed with him on their front cover. Momentarily forgetting Leo Messi and Xavi Hernandez, the men who had led the way at "Barcelona's World Cup" [sic.], it declared Villa the "King of The World Cup." The striker, El Mundo Deportivo said, was "already noticing the Barcelona effect."
Ah yes, the Barcelona effect. That'll be it. You'd think he had never scored a goal before. And glossing quickly over the fact that he hasn't even trained with Barcelona yet, since signing for at the end of the season, Villa has scored a goal before. Quite a lot of them, in fact.
Villa is genuinely two footed. His stronger foot is his right yet he scored that 45-meter goal with his left -- thanks, he says, to a broken femur at the age of four. A tiny tot in plaster from ankle to hip, Villa would spend two hours a day every day playing with his father Mel when his shift in the mine finished. Encased in plaster the length of his right leg, Villa had no choice but to kick it back to Villa senior with his unnatural but un-plastered left. He is also fast, skilful and clever, his movement is exceptional -- as his coach at Valencia puts it, "he is very intuitive and always finds space" -- and he is obsessive about scoring goals.
"I can't remember every goal I've ever scored," Villa said, "but if I sat down with a pen and a piece of paper and starting noting them down, I'm sure I'd remember most of them."
It would take quite a few sides of A4. Perhaps blinded by a kind of Premier League myopia, the former Aston Villa midfielder Andy Townsend, asked about a possible move to an English club for Villa, insisted that he is "not a 20-goal-a-season striker". But that is almost exactly what he is. In his entire career he has never gone below 15 league goals in a season and he has averaged 19.85 a year -- a figure that climbs up to 21.4 over the last five seasons. In 2009, he scored 43 goals in just 54 games across all competitions for Spain and Valencia -- that's more than Messi or Didier Drogba and 15 more than Fernando Torres. So far in 2010 he has scored more goals than anyone else in the world.
Nor has he suddenly burst onto the scene. Villa is 29. The recognition that some players get after two games has taken him seven years -- or four if we're going to count from when he made his World Cup bow. He scored 18 league goals in his first season for Second Division Sporting de Gijón as a teenager and twenty in 2002-03. At Zaragoza, in his first season in the top flight, he was the revelation of 2003-04. He got 39 in two years and then became Valencia's best-ever debutant with 25 in his first season. He later equalled the club's all-time record, held by Mario Kempes, with 28.
In total, Villa has scored 209 goals in 403 games at club level, better than a goal every other game. In seven first division seasons he has scored 139 league goals. That is more than anyone else in the country over that period, over the last five years he has got more than anyone else too. And, except Messi, over the last two. All that despite being at a disadvantage: Valencia have finished fifth, 10th, fourth and third (twice) in the seasons Villa spent there; Zaragoza were 12th twice. To put that in context, Barcelona have scored 168 goals more than his teams over that period.
But it was as if it didn't count because he didn't do it for Madrid or Barcelona. Or in the Premier League.
He did, though, do it for Spain. That's "did" not just "does." Which is surely significant. Yes, Villa may have been relatively hidden at club level, at least from international eyes, but his "discovery" now is baffling. He has virtually never failed to find the net. When he scored against Portugal, it made him the joint top scorer at South Africa 2010. He was top scorer at Euro2008. And in the 2006 World Cup in Germany he scored three times despite being withdrawn before the hour mark in all three starts, at a time when Raul still held sway.
Villa has now scored more World Cup goals than any other player in Spain's history and currently stands just three behind Raul in Spain's all-time top scorers' list -- despite having played 40 games fewer. His goals per game ration for la selección has not been matched by anyone in 50 years, not since Alfredo Di Stefano, the man many Spaniards consider the greatest player of all time. His goals per game ratio at the World Cup is better than the competition's all-time top scorer, Ronaldo.
Right now, some are suggesting that maybe, just maybe, David Villa is the best striker in the world.
Maybe, just maybe, he already was.