Illustration: Sammy Moody

As Diego Maradona skipped past one England defender after another, Jorge Valdano was making a run, awaiting the pass that never came. “Then I realised I was just one more spectator,” Valdano said. A pass would have given him an easy finish, but he’s glad it didn’t—it would have ruined the greatest goal in history, and one that typified the kind of audacious football he has championed in his career as player, coach and director. As the beloved embodiment of that style, Maradona long remained a friend of his, even as El Diego fell into drug abuse and obesity. “There are two very distinct Maradonas: the public one and the private one, who can be absolutely delightful,” Valdano told Spiegel in 2006. “We spoke just recently, as a matter of fact. He had tried to call me several times. When he finally got through he said: ‘Jorge, you sure are hard to get hold of. Who do you think you are? Maradona?’”

What talent Valdano lacked to express good football, he has made up for with words. He once said he could almost certainly describe that goal better than Maradona, but he could never have scored it. “Almost nobody can talk football better than he does,” writes Simon Kuper, who interviewed him in 2011. Asked a question, Valdano will pause, then answer in complete sentences. Countless books cite his reflections, which invariably slam pragmatists and extol risk-takers who view football as art to be enjoyed. “Some dare to ask what the point is in playing well,” he once said. “I feel tempted to tell about the time they dared to ask Borges what poetry is for, to which he answered: ‘What is a sunrise for? What are caresses for? What is the smell of coffee for?’ Each question sounded like a sentence: they are for pleasure, for emotion, for living.”

The ‘good’ football Valdano talks about is adventure and self-expression. He values the process above the result (like Zdeněk Zeman and Marcelo Bielsa), and puts collective discipline below individual freedom. Not a letter of his manifesto has changed since he grew up in Las Parejas, Argentina, where he and his friends played improvised games, gobbling down their dinners to make it in time for when they picked teams. What games he followed, he first listened to on the radio, playing out the action in his imagination. Not before he was fifteen, in 1970, did he watch the World Cup on TV, and his jaw dropped when he saw Brazil display the artistry he had envisaged. Only later did he realise that this was the exception, not the norm.

An elegant striker, Valdano became good enough to join Newell’s, in Rosario. One person who lived there later told him that he always saw him with a book in his hand. Valdano had long started collecting issues of El Gráfico and reading books—the first was The Picture of Dorian Gray, which came free with a magazine. Now he began studying law and reading Jorge Luis Borges. He also read up on politics. The ideas he adopted leaned to the left, although not as much as those of César Luis Menotti, the ex-communist who coached Argentina, and who gave him his national debut. Argentina were losing 2-1 in a friendly against Uruguay when Valdano came off the bench. He struck twice to hand Argentina a first win at the Estadio Centenario in twenty-five years.

Just as Valdano was breaking through, Argentina descended into chaos. In 1974, president Juan Perón had died, triggering political fighting, financial crisis and widespread violence. In 1976, the civilian government fell in a coup led by General Jorge Videla, who set up a military dictatorship called the junta. Just two years before Argentina was to host the World Cup, the junta was kidnapping children, torturing activists and killing political opponents. “People lived in constant fear,” said Valdano. Not that he saw all of the terror. A year earlier, he had fled.

The Spanish second division was an odd career move for a young Argentine striker, but Valdano had to escape. He joined Alavés in 1975, the year Franco died. Tall and strong, Valdano had been tipped to do well. “Basically I was methodical—like a German,” he told Spiegel. “The Argentine game features agility and mobility. We all know the stock image: ultra-imaginative, ultra-creative. In a nutshell, just like Maradona. In those days, everyone was telling me I would make it big in Europe. That was the kind of praise I really didn’t want to hear. I’m from Argentina. I wanted to be successful in my home country, but I was no Maradona. The sad truth is that, as a fan, I too would rather have watched Maradona than Valdano.”

In his first year, Valdano floundered as Alavés staved off relegation. Back in Argentina, he said, the prospect of rain was reason enough to suspend a game. In Alavés, if it had not rained, they called in firemen to wet the pitch, as it suited teams from the rainy north. Unaccustomed to cold and mud, Valdano picked up ten muscle injuries in a year. He’d recall how the coach would name the team a day before the game, and how the line-up always ended with the same words: “… and up front, if it doesn’t rain, Valdano; if it rains, Aramburu.”

On a normal day, Valdano would train a few hours, then stay alone in a hotel. One day there he met an erudite compatriot who recommended him books. Valdano began relating to Spain through Spanish writers, particularly Manuel Vázquez Montalbán. A few years later, he was writing himself. He’d publish a short story in El País, and submit an essay called Stage Fright to the magazine Occidente. “No footballer had ever published in that magazine before,” he told FourFourTwo. “And so I became the bearded woman of the circus.”

After five years in the second tier, Valdano moved to Zaragoza, in La Liga. He began hitting the net and made the 1982 World Cup, only to get injured in the second game as Argentina crashed out. Back in Spain, he was facing Barcelona when a player went down injured, at which point Johan Cruyff picked up the ball and called in the medics as if he were the referee. Valdano walked up to him. “Why don’t you keep that ball and give us another one, so that the rest of us can play?” he said, according to These Football Times (TFT). In doing so, Valdano addressed him with the Spanish informal instead of the formal usted. Cruyff asked Valdano his name and age, then said: “When you’re twenty and speaking to Johan Cruyff, you use usted.”

In 1984, Valdano joined Real Madrid. The club had slumped, but things had been happening in the reserve team, Castilla. They had reached the second division in 1978 and, two years later, they had made the final of the Copa del Rey, where they lost 6-1 to their own senior team. Since Madrid would play in the European Cup, Castilla entered the Cup Winners’ Cup. The nucleus of that Castilla side soon made the first team, where they became known as La Quinta del Buitre—a sobriquet taken from elegant star striker Emilio Butragueño. At the same time, the capital was becoming home to a social movement called La Movida Madrileña, a reaction to the Franco dictatorship, which celebrated liberation, art and creativity. The same did the football played by La Quinta. “It is all about creation; enjoyment, fun,” said Butragueño, who read art books, according to Fear and Loathing in La Liga. “When that comes off, it is wonderful.”

Valdano relished playing in La Quinta, and adored Butragueño. “To defend Butragueño is to reinforce an attitude, to choose between fear and daring, boredom or happiness, talent or muscle…,” he said. “The grace, the invention, the fragility of Butragueño left our feelings, our sentiment, contended.” While playing good football, La Quinta won too. They coasted to five straight league titles from 1986 to 1990, and would have stood next to the greatest Madrid sides had they only won the European Cup. So symbolic was La Quinta that Valdano would label the team the sporting arm of Spain’s transition to democracy.

In 1986, Valdano got called up to another World Cup. Menotti had been replaced by Carlos Bilardo, a midfielder in the violent Estudiantes de La Plata team of the late 1960s, who favoured a cynical approach. While Valdano was never going to rebel over stylistic differences, Bilardo’s way did jar with him. Before one game, Bilardo found him with a book.

Bilardo: “What are you doing reading?”

Valdano: “I need it to relax.”

“You don’t need to relax.”

“But I get too nervous otherwise.”

“You have to be nervous.”

“But I’ll go mad.”

“You have to go mad.”

The way Valdano saw it, Argentina’s triumph did not validate Bilardo’s methods. Just as Valdano put the 1978 World Cup down to Menotti, he put Mexico ‘86 down to Maradona. Argentina had at once represented everything Valdano was for and against: vigilant tactics mixed with supreme individualism. The best bit had been Maradona’s solo goal, after which Valdano teased him for not having made the pass. To his surprise, Maradona apologised. “He could see me unmarked at the far post the whole way, but he couldn’t find a gap to get the ball to me,” Valdano said, according to FIFA.com. “The fact is I felt offended. It was an insult to my profession. I mean, even on a run like that, he still has the time to look up and see me.”

If Maradona’s highlight was the quarter-final, Valdano’s was the final, where he scored against West Germany. Argentina won 3-2. “Some of the players broke down and started sobbing in the dressing room,” Valdano told Spiegel. “And I thought to myself: this has been the highlight of my entire life. The culmination of everything I’ve ever worked for. So I thought it really might be a good time to cry. But try as I might, I couldn’t shed a single tear.

“Eight years later, after my career had ended, my brother in Argentina sent me a cassette. He often made tapes for me. I slipped it into my Walkman and went jogging. All of a sudden, between two songs, I heard the voice of a famous Argentine commentator—a voice that had been my constant companion during childhood. And as I ran, I heard him describing my goal that day. Argentina 2, West Germany 0! I slumped down on a bench and cried like a baby.”

Valdano wouldn’t play much longer. The next season he got hepatitis and, in 1988, he had to retire. He began working at the Madrid youth academy, wrote for El País and did radio for Cadena SER. “Having to quit football was so much harder than processing the fact that I was ill,” he wrote. He started considering a comeback. At the 1989 Copa América, according to TFT, Bilardo told him: “Give me six months of your life and I’ll give you another World Cup.” Valdano agreed and went into training, swimming hard and returning to action in 1990. But the illness returned, and an ankle injury struck him down a month before the tournament. Bilardo said he’d take him as a sub anyway, but changed his mind with two weeks to go. “I spent six months swimming,” Valdano told Clarín, “and I drowned just as I was about to reach the shore.”

In April 1992, Valdano took his first job as a coach, at Tenerife. They came fifth in his second season, but what everyone remembers is how they cost Madrid two league titles. In 1992 and 1993, Madrid flew to Tenerife on the final day knowing a win would do. They failed on both occasions, gifting La Liga to Cruyff and Barça. “One day I will give back what I have taken away,” Valdano promised.

And so when Madrid offered him the job as coach in 1994, Valdano said yes. The defeats had done damage. “The club was depressed as an institution: there was an organisational vacuum, a melancholy,” he said, according to Fear and Loathing. In the academy, he found that eighty players had been born in January and one in December, and concluded that the club had overvalued physique. He gave debuts to Guti and Raúl, the latter climbing up from the C team. Young and stylish, Madrid strolled to the title, hammering Barça 5-0 en route. “We didn’t just take the league off Barça,” said Valdano. “We took the ball off them.”

Valdano did one more season, at Valencia, before quitting management in 1997. Before taking charge at Tenerife, he had stated that football is too erratic for a coach to control with a tactics board. Nothing he had seen since had changed his mind. “When you are in a management position, you try to control all the variables, and that leads you straight to melancholy,” he told Jotdown magazine. “It’s absolutely impossible, because there are variables, often decisive, that come down to chance, and nobody pays attention to them. We think they depend merely on performance, or the referee, but there are other factors that are completely casual and that have a very big influence. Because in the end, a shot that hits the post—and goes either in or out—does not only represent a goal, but the entire shift in mood from one place to another. The chain of consequences that hinges on a shot against the post is far bigger than we think.”

In 2000, Valdano accepted a post as the sporting director at Madrid under newly elected president Florentino Pérez. They began building a giant commercial machine, increasing shirt sales and merchandise, and soon Madrid had become the richest club in the world. Central to the strategy was the galácticos policy that brought in Luís Figo (2000), Zinédine Zidane (2001), Ronaldo (2002) and David Beckham (2003). With talent and hard work, Madrid won two league titles and the Champions League in three years. “Restructuring the club was like running a revolution. It was draining,” Valdano told Spiegel. “Back then I was the club’s only spokesman. I was highly visible, only too visible.” In 2005, he resigned, exhausted.

He returned to writing and commentating. He had long written pieces on the Euros and the World Cup for El País, and now the 2006 World Cup loomed. Twenty years after Mexico, he remembered Maradona and his troubles. “The history of Argentina in the past thirty years charts a decline that continues to this day: a military putsch, a coup d’état, hyperinflation, the impoverishment of millions of middle-class families, state bankruptcy,” Valdano told Spiegel. “And there was only one man who could save the day: Maradona… It is difficult for a single man to come to terms with the fact that he is expected to compensate for the harsh realities of an entire nation, even though he himself only ever came alive on the football pitch—as part of a game, a fictional world. That is the cause of a terrible misunderstanding.”

Valdano also turned his eye to the Argentina team, led by José Pékerman. A substitute caught his attention. “Argentina have bullets in reserve on the bench in [Carlos] Tévez and [Pablo] Aimar,” he wrote, “but there is a cannonball called Lionel Messi and that’s a whole other story. In the first match it may be that he starts as a substitute, because he is carrying that injury he picked up against Chelsea, but he will come on in the second half and nothing will stop him. He is too young to build one’s hopes up too much, but he has too much talent for us not to be reminded of Maradona. Amen.”

Messi, however, was a light in the dark for Valdano. Wherever he looked, his ideals seemed endangered. In 2004, Greece had won the Euros, Porto had won the Champions League and Valencia had won the UEFA Cup. In the Premier League, José Mourinho and Rafa Benítez were now swapping 4-4-2s with cautious 4-5-1 variations. Hatchet men were ousting playmakers, Claude Makélélé was in vogue and Pep Guardiola was stuck in Qatar. The sense of playfulness was vanishing. “Coaches have come to view games as a succession of threats, and thus fear has contaminated their ideas,” Valdano said, according to Inverting the Pyramid. “Every imaginary threat they try to nullify leads them to a repressive decision which corrodes aspects of football such as happiness, freedom and creativity.”

It eventually boiled over for Valdano in 2007, when he covered a Champions League tie between Chelsea and Liverpool. In a goalless draw, Mourinho and Benítez had done all they could to limit errors and destroy play. What particularly hurt Valdano was that this was Liverpool, whose slick style he had admired in the 80s. “Football is made up of subjective feeling, of suggestion—and, in that, Anfield is unbeatable,” he duly wrote in Marca. “Put a shit hanging from a stick in the middle of this passionate, crazy stadium and there are people who will tell you it’s a work of art. It’s not: it’s a shit hanging from a stick.

“Chelsea and Liverpool are the clearest, most exaggerated example of the way football is going: very intense, very collective, very tactical, very physical, and very direct. But a short pass? Noooo. A feint? Noooo. A change of pace? Noooo. A one-two? A nutmeg? A backheel? Don’t be ridiculous. None of that. The extreme control and seriousness with which both teams played the semi-final neutralised any creative licence, any moments of exquisite skill. If Didier Drogba was the best player in the first match, it was purely because he was the one who ran the fastest, jumped the highest and crashed into people the hardest. Such extreme intensity wipes away talent, even leaving a player of Joe Cole’s class disoriented. If football is going the way Chelsea and Liverpool are taking it, we had better be ready to wave goodbye to any expression of the cleverness and talent we have enjoyed for a century.”

The article created a storm, particularly in Spain, where Benítez attacked him. Valdano apologised. Two years on, however, he defended the essence of the piece, and reiterated that we overvalue coaches. “There is a deification of coaches, because the press has to individualise success and failure,” he told El Tiempo last year. “We have turned the coach into a kind of shaman who appears to have influence over all of football’s variables. I continue to believe that, despite the zealous science in football, which tries to control the game as if it were a game of chess, the player still has the improvisational ability to scupper any tactical plan.”

In 2009, Pérez returned as Madrid president and hired Valdano as his advisor. They appointed Manuel Pellegrini but won nothing, and so decided to get Mourinho. That was not the choice of Valdano, who had to apologise to Mourinho for his article. Mourinho took it well, but when he wanted a new striker, Valdano, who backed Karim Benzema, refused. Mourinho began bypassing Valdano to speak directly to Pérez. By 2011 their relationship had soured and Pérez, who had staked his money and reputation on Mourinho, decided to sack Valdano.

Now freed from diplomatic duties, Valdano lambasted Mourinho, who battled Guardiola at Barça. In a new book, Los 11 poderes del líder, Valdano wrote that if Guardiola was Mozart—flamboyant and ingenious—Mourinho was Antonio Salieri, the merely good composer who grew jealous in Mozart’s shadow (as depicted in Amadeus). “He would have been a great musician if Mozart had never existed,” Valdano wrote. He added, correctly, that Mourinho was trying to swap the club’s values of señorío with his own aggressive stance. “He’s a figure who is perfectly suited to these bombastic, shallow times,” Valdano wrote. “I could never see eye to eye with him, because he represents the antithesis of my sensibilities. Intelligence and ego are enemies. And when they clash, the ego wins.”

Valdano also disliked how the rivalry turned violent, as a series of nasty clásicos deepened the conflict and caused division at the Spanish national team. Rejecting the black-and-white world in which praising the rival was a sin, he saluted Guardiola. “He believes in football as a territory where greatness is possible, because he never cheats, he is always brave, he takes away all the miseries of the game,” Valdano said. As expected, some pundits in Madrid labelled him a traitor. “I’m not a good fan,” he told Jotdown. “I’m capable of admiring the enemy.”

Speaking to Jotdown, Valdano recall one incident involving Guardiola. In 2011, Barça had met Athletic Club in a game had that it all: intense pressing, quick passing, four goals, artistry, drama and pouring rain. Athletic were winning in stoppage time when Barça got the equaliser. A draw frustrated Guardiola and Bielsa, the Athletic coach, but when they met later, with Valdano present, they were both happy to have been the protagonists in a great game. This was to Valdano a rare instance of two prolific coaches putting the process above the result. He pointed out that this had happened just five minutes after the final whistle, when the adrenaline was still pumping—both coaches had meant it. “It seemed to me that they were close to the truth,” Valdano concluded.

Since leaving Madrid, Valdano has stayed on the sidelines, commentating via columns, television and radio. He admits he lacks the obsession to coach, and enjoys taking a step back to regain perspective. He believes business and technology has distanced football from the innocent game he enjoyed as a kid, yet he remains on the lookout for any player or team who can help bring it back. “I have been a player, coach, director; I’m a supporter… All this has helped me understand what football is,” he told El País. “Sometimes it comes closer to my ideal, other times it goes further away, but I’m always in the same place.”

In 2014, Valdano co-wrote the script to a film that charts Messi’s rise from Rosario to Barça. It was not easy to write. “Everything has already been said about Messi,” Valdano noted, “and Messi himself doesn’t say anything.” (One of the better lines had come from Valdano himself, who once said that “Messi is the best; the second best is Messi injured”.) Yet Valdano and director Álex de la Iglesia made a stirring film that alternates between acts from Messi’s childhood, and chatter in a restaurant where they have gathered people with links to Messi: friends, family, journalists, team-mates and ex-coaches. At one table sit Andrés Iniesta and Gerard Piqué; at another, Menotti. One is reserved for Valdano and Cruyff. As they sip wine, eulogise Messi and discuss how football should be played, Valdano smiles and nods, accompanied as he is by a fellow soul who sees football not as war, but as a spectacle.

“People often say results are paramount,” Valdano once said, according to Inverting the Pyramid. “That ten years down the line, the only thing that will be remembered is the score. But that’s not true. What remains in people’s memories is the search for greatness and the feelings that engenders. We remember Sacchi’s AC Milan side more than we remember Fabio Capello’s AC Milan side, even though Capello’s Milan was more successful and more recent. Equally, the Dutch ‘Total Football’ teams of the 1970s are legendary, far more than West Germany, who beat them in the World Cup final in 1974, or Argentina, who defeated them in the 1978 final. It’s about the search for perfection. We know it doesn’t exist, but it’s our obligation towards football, and, maybe, towards humanity to strive towards it. That’s what we remember. That’s what’s special.”