HARRISON, N.J. — For most players, almost three years away from the national team would have been enough to make them give up hope. Not David Villa, who hadn't been called up by Spain since 2014, but still spent the night before every Spanish national team roster announcement nervous like a kid before Christmas, hoping the present he was waiting for would be there for him in the morning.
For almost three years that dream gift never came, but Villa kept on hoping.
His patience paid off on Thursday night, when Spain manager Julen Lopetegui called to tell him he had been named to Spain's squad for its crucial World Cup qualifiers against Italy and Liechtenstein.
"It’s a dream for me. Right now I almost feel like it isn’t real," Villa said after New York City FC's 1-1 draw with the New York Red Bulls on Friday. "I’m very happy to return. Obviously I’m going to do what I can to play in the games, but above all it makes me proud to get the call and be back with the national team for two difficult games."
Villa has spent the past four seasons playing in MLS, and his arrival in the American league coincided with the end of his regular national team call-ups. Though there was a misperception that he had retired from La Roja, Villa made a point to clarify he had not retired whenever he was asked about the national team.
What the striker wouldn't admit was that he was still holding out hope for a return to the team he helped lead to the 2010 World Cup and 2008 European Championship.
"Whenever a national team roster would come out in the past three years, the night before I would have butterflies in my stomach, think about waking up the next day and being on the list," Villa admitted. "I never stopped thinking about it. I never thought about retiring, I always hoped for a call, but it did surprise me a lot. I know the manager had been coming to New York to see our games. I’m happy and grateful for the opportunity. I will try to do the best I can and not fail.”
While Villa's return to the Spain squad is due in part to Diego Costa's current ordeal at Chelsea, which has led to him being in Spain and not even training, Villa's revelation that Lopetegui has been to New York on multiple occasions to see him play makes it clear the Spanish coach had been considering bringing the veteran back in for some time.
As much as there might be a stigma about MLS not being a high enough level league for a member of Spain's squad to be playing in —he is the only player in Spain's squad not playing in Europe — there is no denying that Villa has continued to play at a high level since his arrival in MLS in 2014. He won league MVP honors in 2016, and currently stands as the league's leading scorer (19 goals) and the front-runner to win the MVP award again.
That was enough to convince Lopetegui to give Villa a call despite the league he plays in, and despite the fact he is 35 years old. Spain is facing Italy on Friday in a match that would likely mean automatic qualification for the 2018 World Cup for the winner, and Lopetegui saw enough in Villa to convince him it was time to bring the World Cup star back to the fold.
"It makes me proud," Villa said. "Just having the manager coming to see me play in New York, and believing that I can help the team, it’s a dream.
"The manager has noticed that I’m in good form, even though I’m playing outside Europe, and that’s important," Villa said. "It’s important for me, and for MLS, and for the recognition of a league that wants to grow. We’re on a path of growth. We’re a young league, but we’re growing."