JUST last summer, Gaizka Mendieta would have been in most experts’ projected squad of likely World Cup heroes. He had bossed Spain’s midfield at Euro 2000 and led Valencia to successive Champions League Finals, while Lazio and Real Madrid headed the queue of clubs seeking his services.

Now, after just over six months with the Serie A club, Mendieta’s footballing reputation has slid almost out of sight, and he holds his place in the Spain squad only on the strength of his record, not on current value.

Barcelona and Athletic Bilbao both enquired about taking him back to Spain on loan for the rest of the season. Bilbao had its particular attractions because Mendieta was born in the Basque capital.

As a boy, Mendieta had moved south with his family and thus his teenage talent went unnoticed by Athletic. Instead, the youngster built his footballing career on the strength of an outstanding 1991-92 season in the Spanish Second Division with Castellon when he was still barely 18.

Valencia signed him at the end of term and thus began a fruitful nine-year partnership. Mendieta was at his most effective under the coaching guidance of Argentinian Hector Cuper, who drilled Valencia into an aggressive, hard-working unit for which Mendieta, drifting wide down the wings, could provide the creative input.

Cuper’s well-previewed departure last summer for Internazionale was Mendieta’s cue to leave as well. At first, Real Madrid were favourites to sign him. But the club’s negotiators also had their eyes on the world record purchase of Zinedine Zidane and, while thus distracted, allowed Lazio to scoop them for Mendieta, paying œ27million.

Quitting Spain for Italy was a major gamble. Very few Spaniards had adjusted well to the tactically restrictive world of Serie A. Lazio coach Dino Zoff expected Mendieta to step into the gifted tracks left by Manchester United-bound Juan Sebastian Veron. But it didn’t work out that way.

Mendieta struggled, Lazio struggled – and Zoff was replaced as coach in mid-term by Alberto Zaccheroni. His first team change was to drop Mendieta.after which, significantly, results began to improve a little.

The future for Mendieta is uncertain. He may not even make Spain’s World Cup squad and his market value has plummeted. Lazio may recoup only half the œ20million they paid in transfer and signing-on fees.

Mendieta insists he has no regrets, saying: “Everything has changed since Zaccheroni took over at Lazio but I never look back. What’s the point? I have to look ahead.”

The view is not reassuring. The next three months offer the most expensive Spanish footballer of all time only the greatest challenge of his career.again.

Club Lazio (Ita)
Country Spain Born March 27, 1974, in Bilbao
Previous clubs Castellon, Valencia
International debut March 1999, v Austria
International caps 30 (7 goals)
Honours Spanish Cup 1999