By Ben Hayward | Spanish Football Writer
When Victor Valdes watches Barcelona against Real Madrid from the sidelines on Wednesday night, the Catalan club's long-serving shot-stopper will get a sense of what he will be missing when he leaves all this behind.
Valdes, who steps aside for Jose Pinto in the Copa del Rey, stunned Barca earlier this month as his representatives informed the board that their client would not be renewing his current contract, which expires in 2014. And not only did the group of agents led by Gines Carvajal, Raul's representative, inform the club, but a statement was also sent to the Spanish media that same day. The goalkeeper is a complicated character and a tough talker, but this was no negotiation tactic. Unlike in 2009, when he held out for a huge payrise before ultimately signing a new deal, this time it is not about the money - he really is serious about leaving the Catalan club.
Barcelona were left in a state of shock by the goalkeeper's dramatic decision. Club officials had not seen this one coming and, although coach Tito Vilanova reacted by claiming the Catalans would bring in a top-class successor to Valdes, replacing their goalkeeper is easier said than done.
Even earlier on in the season when Valdes made one or two high-profile howlers, most notably against Madrid in the Spanish Supercopa, Vilanova claimed Victor was the best goalkeeper for Barcelona - the right man for the job at a club which encourages the keeper to be not only the last line of defence, but also the first form of attack.
Statistically, the Barca No.1 spends more time outside of his area than in it, making himself available to distribute the ball and start off his side's attacks from the deepest of positions. It's essentially a sweeper role and relieves the pressure on his defensive colleagues.
"The boss has always told me I should take part in the team's play," Valdes said of previous coach Pep Guardiola last year. "There are times when I have to play as a libero - that's my role. Guardiola has helped me interpret football."
|POSSIBLE DESTINATIONS FOR VALDES
|Perhaps the most likely destination, Valdes has admitted his affection for the country, while his Colombian wife would favour a move back to South America.|
|A winner at Wembley in 2011, Valdes has caught the attention of Liverpool, while Manchester United and Arsenal have also been linked with a move.|
|Many Barca fans see Victor with former boss Pep Guardiola at Bayern, but that seems unlikely as long as Manuel Neuer remains with the Munich giants.|
|AC Milan, a club admired by Valdes, have shown some interest in the goalkeeper in the past and could be back in for the Catalan next year.|
|Valdes shares an agent with Raul, now in Qatar, leading to some speculation the goalkeeper could seek a lucrative move to Asia.|
The keeper memorably set Dani Alves on his way with a wonderful curling pass under pressure in the Champions League semi-final second leg against Madrid in 2010-11, with the Brazilian in turn finding Pedro to net the all-important third goal in a 3-1 aggregate win.
In the final of the competition at Wembley, Valdes duly donned a replica of the jersey worn by Andoni Zubizarreta in the 1992 showpiece at the same stadium, and not since the brilliant Basque have Barca benefited from such a gifted goalkeeper. In fact, it became a problem position at Camp Nou for many, many years and privately, the club are concerned they will struggle to find a player with the same characteristics. In the current system, the first-choice keeper at Camp Nou must also be strong with the ball at his feet.
"It's very difficult to be a Pope in Rome, President of the United States or the goalkeeper at Barca," Sandro Rosell said recently. And that is why the Blaugrana president, although angry with the way this situation was handled, has left the door open for Valdes to change his mind and commit to the club.
However, Carvajal claims the choice is "irreversible" and the player himself has refused to come out and explain himself in a press conference this week, as he had been expected and asked to do.
Valdes was 31 earlier in January and, as he approaches the last few years of his playing career, is keen to experience a change of scenery. Much like Guardiola as a player, his love for the club cannot be questioned and he has proved an extraordinary servant to Barca, but believes this may be his last chance to embark on a fresh challenge.
And even though a transfer to one of Europe's top teams would seem the most logical next step, Valdes is seriously considering a move to Brazil, a country he visited in the summer after Euro 2012 to link up with his sponsor Penalty, a Sao Paulo-based brand which has worked with the goalkeeper since 2011.
Valdes was wowed by his time spent in the South American country in July. "It's football on a world level with incredible, passionate supporters," he told Lance. "It's very special to see that from the field and to play with [fans like that]." Quite a contrast from the often critical and sometimes subdued support he is used to at Barca, then. Although he enjoys a fantastic friendship with Andres Iniesta and is popular within the squad, Valdes' prickly personality and dour demeanour have made him a target in some sectors of the press and fanbase alike. "People have always doubted me," he said in early January.
Back in Brazil last summer, though, he added: "I wouldn't rule out playing here in future. I have to talk it over with my wife and as I have a Brazilian sponsor, it would be easier. Who knows? It would be very special."
Valdes' wife, Yolanda Cardona, hails from Colombia and is said to be very keen on a move back to her native continent. Partners often exert a significant influence on such decisions. Just ask Javier Mascherano. His wife was ready to return with the couple's children to Argentina after growing tired of life in Liverpool, until Barcelona was agreed as a suitable compromise in 2010.
There are other options for the Catalan, of course, and no definitive decision has yet been made. Brazil, however, looks like a real possibility for the goalkeeper. After winning 19 trophies and becoming a living legend at Camp Nou, the 31-year-old could be ready to swap the world's best club for what he considers football's finest fans.
Brazil 2014 is in Victor Valdes' mind - and it has nothing to do with the next World Cup.
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