Ruben Baraja has hardly enjoyed a meteoric rise to the top. It has taken the 27-year-old midfielder the best part of a decade to make the transition from promising youngster at unfashionable Valladolid to one of the hottest properties in Spanish football at champions Valencia.
Baraja, by nature powerful and direct, has evolved into a true all-rounder. He can play with both feet, is a neat passer, has a venomous shot and the uncanny knack of scoring when it matters.
Things started well enough for Baraja. He made his debut for local club Valladolid at 17, earning the attention of Atletico Madrid, who snapped him up three seasons later, though he had to wait a further three years before making the first team.
As luck would have it, Baraja’s breakthrough in 1999 coincided with Atletico’s worst season in 66 years, which ended with relegation. But he was one of the few players to emerge with any credit from a dire season.
Meanwhile, Valencia were on the lookout to fill the gap left by the departures of Javier Farinos and Gerard Lopez to Internazionale and Barcelona. Atletico were reluctant to let Baraja go, but had little choice when Valencia stumped up œ7million, a club record.
He immediately carved a niche in Hector Cuper’s workmanlike midfield, earning a call-up to the national team, where he has remained. His first season at the Mestalla ended in the by now customary disappointment – Valencia lost their second successive Champions League Final, this time on penalties to Bayern Munich.
Baraja’s bad luck continued when a knee injury ruled him out of the first four months of last season. He returned in mid-December, only to be sidelined again for nine games. The midfielder did not reappear until March, when Valencia were vying with Real Madrid for the title.
The timing was once again decisive. His presence freed Argentinian Pablo Aimar for more creative duties, while his fresh legs and determination brought him six goals in the last eight games of the season. He finished top scorer and the key player in the run-in to Valencia’s first title in 31 years.
This term, Baraja has been in potent form as Valencia have stormed to the second phase of the Champions League.
“I have learned to value the good times in football,” he says.
“I am stronger mentally and physically and I try to make the most of all games I play.”
It may have been a long and arduous route, but Baraja is determined to enjoy the view from the top while it lasts.
Born July 11, 1975, in Valladolid
Previous clubs Valladolid, Atletico Madrid
International debut October 2000, v Israel
International caps 17 (5 goals)
Honours Spanish League 2002 (Valencia)