Long Reads

Fede Valverde: the shy prodigy who broke into Real Madrid’s first XI

Just like any child, he loved playing football. His mother, Doris, combed the whole city looking for football boots, but it was extremely complicated to get some in his size. Much to his delight, she finally found a second-hand pair from a bazaar.

His father, Julio, came up with another idea. He nailed a net on the wall that separated the living room with the kitchen and suddenly everything was in place. Their Pajarito – which means ‘little bird’ is Spanish – would strike the ball against the wall, score thousands of goals and celebrate them accordingly.

However, holes were shaped on the wall and the nails couldn’t hold the net anymore. Something had to be done. The kid had to join a team and the Montevideo-based Club Atlético Peñarol seemed like the best option.

Federico Santiago Valverde Dipetta was relatively timid as a kid. When his mother took him for a try-out at Peñarol, he laid against a tree and wouldn’t move. A member of the team staff approached him and urged him to join the rest of the kids. Fede turned red, hesitantly moved towards them and started passing the ball around.

It didn’t take long for Néstor Goncálves, who was in charge of picking out young prodigies, to identify his talent.

“This one looks like crack,” he exclaimed; the word crack meaning ‘very talented player’ in Spanish. Doris overheard Goncálves’ remarks and approached him to proudly introduce herself as the nine-year-old’s mother.

And that was it; Valverde joined Peñarol’s academy and never looked back. He rapidly progressed up through their ranks and European clubs were quick to spot his talent, as usually happens with talented kids from South America.

A few potential suitors, including Paris Saint-Germain, Manchester City, Chelsea and Barcelona lined up to express their interest for the kid, but it was Arsenal who made the first move.

The Gunners offered Valverde a one-week trial and the 16-year-old prodigy travelled to London, where he had the chance to meet Arsene Wenger.

Arsenal made an offer to Peñarol for Valverde, but another bidder emerged on the scene. Real Madrid met with the player´s family during the 2015 South American U-17 Championship, in which Valverde participated with Uruguay.

Los Blancos were quick to strike a deal that would see the prodigious midfielder join the club at the age of 18.

In May 2015, Valverde made the trip to Madrid to undergo the customary medical tests, but unpleasant news would come out from the report.

“He can’t sign, he’s almost malnourished, his body won’t be able to cope,” read the medical note.

Had it not been for the club’s international department boss, Juni Calafat, Valverde might have never joined Los Blancos.

Calafat, who had vouched for the player, insisted on acquiring his services and Real Madrid sealed the deal that would bring him to Spain one year later.

Everything was falling into place for Valverde, who was invited by Peñarol’s coach Pablo Bengoechea to participate in the team’s preseason preparations, straight after putting pen to paper with the La Liga giants.

It didn’t take him long to play his first game with the seniors and what a way it was to kick off his professional career. His idol Diego Forlan had just returned to Uruguay, after 18 years plying his trade overseas, and he was set to debut for Peñarol on the very same day.

The Uruguayan football legend instantly took note of Valverde’s talent. He took the youngster under his wings and Doris was the first to notice.

“[Valverde] was and is very shy. I think it was me who approached him [first],” Forlan told El Pais.

“I remember one day after the training.

“His mother was there, as she accompanied him everywhere.

“A discussion arose, and we started talking about Madrid and the life there and [I told her] that they were going to be in good hands.”

Valverde and Forlan would go on and win the Torneo Apertura with Peñarol, before the former bid farewell to his boyhood team and joined his new club.

The Uruguayan joined Real Madrid’s second team Castilla and trained under Santiago Solari, who was impressed by his player’s talent and considered him as an undisputed starter.

Valverde featured in 30 games for Real Madrid Castilla and scored three goals, but the most emotional moment of his first year in the Spanish capital would come in a training session with the first team.

His other idol Toni Kroos greeted the youngster, who would later run back to his house and express his pure excitement and emotions by telling his mother what happened.

After his first season drew to a close, Valverde was loaned out to Deportivo de La Coruña to gain playing time and experience in the Spanish top-flight.

Despite the Galician side’s below-par season, that saw them relegated, Valverde became a mainstay and registered 24 league appearances for the team.

“If Madrid decide to loan me again, out of respect for A Coruña, I won’t accept any offers in Spain,” he would tell Gol.

“If I can stay at Depor, in whatever division, I’d like to stay because I am a part of this.

“If the worst happens I will have played a role in us going down to Segunda and I’d like to come back and help Depor to get back into Primera again.”

Julen Lopetegui, however, had other plans for Valverde and called him up for Real Madrid’s preseason preparations.

Los Blancos were going through a rebuilding process and Valverde managed to convince the former Spain coach that he could be part of it.

The Uruguayan was handed his debut in Real Madrid’s 2-1 victory over Viktoria Plzen in the Champions League group stage.

Despite Real Madrid’s appalling season, he went on to play as many as 25 games in all competitions and win the Club World Cup – his first title with Los Blancos – under Solari, who succeeded Lopetegui as the first team’s coach.

Real Madrid would be eliminated from all three major competitions within the space of a week in March and their president Florentino Perez sought to bring back the man under whom the team won three successive Champions League trophies.

Zinedine Zidane promised a revolution in the squad ahead of next season and several midfielders had to make way for Paul Pogba, who was his compatriot’s primary and only target for the midfield.

However, Manchester United refused to enter into negotiations with Real Madrid and the 2018 World Cup winner stayed in England.

Although Zidane decided to offload Marcos Llorente, Dani Ceballos and Mateo Kovacic, he placed his confidence in Valverde.

At the time of writing, the 21-year-old has started five games and has come off the bench three times in all competitions so far this season.

He has featured in crucial away encounters at Atletico Madrid, Sevilla and Galatasaray and has helped his team secure three important clean sheets.

Zidane praised his player’s performance in a 4-2 win against Granada, while he also hailed his dedication and work-rate.

The shy little boy from Montevideo became a starter for Real Madrid at the age of 21, while he has already debuted with his national team.

His first game with Uruguay came against Paraguay away at the emblematic Estadio Defensores del Chaco on September 5, 2017.

Oscar Tabarez placed him in the midfield behind two of his heroes, Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani.

When Valverde received the ball outside the opposition area with 14 minutes to go, teams were level at 0-0.

Fede didn´t think about it twice. He unleashed a shot and the ball was deflected by a Paraguay player.

Suddenly everything went black.

“I lived it with a lot of love and a lot of emotion,” recalled Doris.

“When he kicked the ball and scored the goal, the TV signal was cut off, and we couldn’t see if it had been in or not.

“I said to my husband: ‘It’s a goal! I feel it here!’.

“I couldn’t describe it in words. It was something divine.

“We were hugging with my husband; we cried.

“As a mother, I tell you that it was the happiest day of his sports life.”

Valverde agreed. That goal brought him memories of his childhood.

When he was kicking that ball against the wall. When his mother was accompanying him to the training sessions. When he was closing his eyes and he was dreaming of playing alongside his idols. When he was trying to shake off his shyness and show off his skills on the pitch.

“When the ball touched the net, I jumped in excitement and tried to celebrate it to the fullest,” he said after the game.

“You imagine it, but it is very difficult to happen and when it happened I felt very happy, not only for myself, but also for my family, who fought with me.

“It has been a dream come true. I never imagined that it would happen and when I scored the goal was something incredible.”

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