This Sunday, FC Barcelona and Real Madrid meet in the latest iteration of El Clasico. This is probably the preeminent rivalry in world soccer, at least if you go by the amount of media attention it receives.
I had the chance to sit down with Spanish legend David Villa -- who played for FC Barcelona between 2010 and 2013 -- and ask him a few questions about life, La Liga, and just what made him tick. Villa is the all-time leading scorer for the Spanish national team, with 59 goals in 98 appearances, and the country’s top scorer in the World Cup, with nine goals.
He currently plays in MLS for New York City FC, but spent the majority of his career in Spain, playing for Sporting de Gijon, Real Zaragoza, Valencia, Barcelona, and Atletico Madrid. This interview was lightly edited for clarity.
1. Last night, you scored your 400th goal on a penalty. Can you describe the moment when you scored that goal?
As a soccer player, it is really amazing to arrive at this milestone. It is a lot of goals! But seriously, I was looking for one more goal, because the game is still going on. So that doesn’t change. Of course, I am proud to get there, but in my mind, I need to score one, two more goals.
2. Let’s go back to the beginning. You grew up in Langreo, Asturias. Now, I understand that you nearly gave up on football at age 14. How come? And what made you change your mind?
When I was a kid, I was always dreaming of being a soccer player -- so that was only a moment. My first memory that I have was of a soccer ball at my feet, and I was always thinking of being a soccer player. Of course, there are a lot of kids who have that dream, and do not make it, but I was always feeling in myself that I could do it.
3. If you hadn’t played football, is there another sport you would’ve played?
I really don’t know, because I’ve always wanted to be a soccer player! [smiles]
4. You tried out for Real Oviedo, but they said you were “too small”; how did that motivate you when you were playing for Sporting Gijon?
Not really; I was nine years old, so when Oviedo said that they didn’t want me to be part of the team, they were thinking that other guys were better than me -- in the moment, that was true. The change was that when I was 18, I was better than the guys who were better than me when I was nine old. But in soccer, when you are a kid, that is difficult. But it was really, really nice for me, because I could play Sporting de Gijon, and I love Sporting de Gijon
5. What would you say is the key to your game -- and has that changed as you’ve grown older?
I always try to do my best; I try to give everything that I have in training, day by day, and in the game - but it’s not just about that. It’s about how my parents raised me, and the help that everyone close me gives me, and the help that the coaches give me. You become more experienced, and you accommodate yourself better, but the key is to give 100%.
6. Most Americans associate you with Barcelona and Atletico Madrid, but your longest stint in La Liga was with Valencia, playing at the Mestalla, and your first La Liga team was Real Zaragoza. Where and when have you been most satisfied?
I really cannot say this; obviously, in my mind, I have my preferences, but it isn’t fair to say one is better than the other. I am so grateful to all of these teams for giving me the opportunity to play, to be a better person, a better soccer player, to give my family a better life, to be loved by them.
7. Who is your role model in football?
When I was a kid, I always focused on Luis Enrique. I think you need to be yourself, though; to be a good player, you cannot be thinking, “I want to be like Messi,” “I want to be like Cristiano Ronaldo,”, “I want to be like David Villa” -- you need to be yourself. I learned from a lot of players, and I focused more than anyone on Luis Enrique, because I loved the way he played. But I always focused most on being a good David Villa, and that was most important.
8. Looking back at your time in La Liga, is there a moment that changed your life playing there?
No -- the biggest moment was when I joined professional soccer, when I joined Sporting de Gijon, in the second division. When I crossed the line between playing amateur and playing professional. That was only a line, but that was a huge, big line -- it changes everything.
9. Can you describe what excited you the most about playing in La Liga?
Winning trophies -- that was the most exciting thing with all the teams.
La Liga will be hosting watch parties for El Clasico around the world, in places as diverse as Buenos Aires, Argentina; Jakarta, Indonesia; New Delhi; Bratislava, Slovakia; Copenhagen; and New York City. If you’re interested in attending the party in New York City, it’ll be held at Pier 26, starting at 12:30 p.m.