x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Villa owes it all to his lucky break

It should have been over before it even began. When David Villa was four years old, he tumbled awkwardly off a wall and broke a thigh bone, just below the hip.

David Villa has scored 15 goals or more in each of the past eight seasons.
David Villa has scored 15 goals or more in each of the past eight seasons.

It should have been over before it even began. When David Villa was four years old, he tumbled awkwardly off a wall and broke a thigh bone, just below the hip. Children recover from fractures, the doctors told his father, a miner. He'll walk with a limp the rest of his life, but, beyond that, he'll be fine. Heck, maybe it is a blessing in disguise: this way he will study and get a desk job instead of following his dad down the mine.

Yet the human body is endowed with the amazing ability to heal itself. And sometimes it miraculously regrows and reforms, stronger than before. It worked for Wilma Rudolph, and it worked for Villa. Within 18 months he was back running and laughing the way a child his age should, confounding medical opinion in the wind-swept Asturias village where he grew up. And so by the time that, as a teenager, he fractured his right leg (this time a more conventional tibia break), Villa took it in stride.

What better opportunity to train with his weaker left leg? Within a year he became perfectly ambidextrous, a quality which changed the arc of his footballing career. When you become truly ambidextrous, everything changes on the pitch. There are no more bad angles, no weaker foot for defenders to jockey you towards, a whole world of possibility unfolds before you. Suddenly, the goalmouth does not seem so far away. And perhaps it is no coincidence that for Villa goals have always seemed to come easily. He has scored 15 or more league goals in each of the past eight seasons, since making his debut in the first team at Sporting Gijon back in 2001. How amazing a feat is that?

Well, nobody else in Europe has managed to score so much, so consistently. The closest you get is Luca Toni, Thierry Henry and Ruud van Nistelrooy, who have done it in six of the last eight campaigns. Even Alan Shearer only managed it nine times in his entire career: Villa, at 27, has plenty of time to pass that mark. Those numbers alone ought to place him among the world's elite strikers. Yet it really wasn't until Euro 2008 - where his four goals in four games made him the tournament's top goalscorer as Spain went on to become European champions - that he truly began to get his due.

Then again, he only made his debut for Spain at the age of 23 (which, in this age of cheap international caps, is rather remarkable). And he didn't really move to a legitimate Liga contender, Valencia, until a few months later, on the eve of his 24th birthday. "Villa doesn't stand out as a player in terms of flair or even technique," Spain boss Luis Aragones said last summer. "But then at the end of the game you'll noticed he scored two goals and ran your defence ragged for 90 minutes. He 'thinks' the game of football as well as any striker in the modern game."

With debt-laden Valencia, who face high-flying Barcelona today, teetering on the brink of financial oblivion, he is likely to move this summer, but probably not before he has added to his season's total of 25 goals. Given his CV, Villa won't be cheap. But if his track record is anything to go by, he's unlikely to disappoint. Maybe the pain and the tears of that broken femur 23 years ago were worth it after all.

gmarcotti@thenational.ae Valencia v Barcelona, Al Jazeera Sport +2, KO Midnight