Iago Aspas lets it all out as Celta Vigo fight back from the brink

Worshipped at the Balaídos, Aspas is as integral to Celta as Messi is to Barcelona

Iago Aspas curls in Celta Vigo’s first goal against Villarreal. Photograph: Quality Sport Images/Getty

Iago Aspas curls in Celta Vigo’s first goal against Villarreal. Photograph: Quality Sport Images/Getty

 

In the end, it all became too much and Iago Aspas broke down and wept, slumped into his seat sobbing. One by one, his team-mates came to him, putting an arm around his heaving shoulders, taking it in turns to hold him. All around, they sang: 22,315 of them, people just like him, chanting his name. He sat, eyes red, and half-watched the final minutes of a match he had won, lost in his thoughts. Through his tears, football was a better place, more meaningful. Balaídos certainly was, signs of life at last – and this was life. Here was a glimpse of feeling and of salvation, something for Celta de Vigo to hold on to. Him, basically. Hope had returned but it hurt.

Saturday was always going to be significant and so was Aspas, but few expected it to end quite like this. In Vigo, they were celebrating the reconquest, when the city rose against Napoleon’s troops in 1809 but it was another reconquest that occupied many of them, and if the old town filled with people in 19th-century costume, carrying swords, guns and axes, bagpipes and drums, the streets around Balaídos filled with light blue shirts, flags and flares, the team bus edging to the ground through the smoke, scarfs swirling. Celta were in the relegation zone, 18th, four points from safety, and were playing 17th-placed Villarreal: opportunity but also obligation.

“We have to finish the game dead,” the manager Fran Escribá said. Lose and they pretty much would be. Celta had to win, they knew, but they hadn’t won in six. They hadn’t even scored in four. They had only won once all year, 2019 a nightmare, and the situation was desperate. The fans responded, packing the place, sold-out days in advance and noisier than ever. There was unity, a shared mission. It was now or never and, with perfect timing, hope came in the scrawny, slightly runty figure with the tin chest. In one corner by the club’s offices, someone had placed a life-sized cardboard cut-out of Aspas – 1.75m, 67kg – turning it into a shrine, an altar, a place to plead for divine intervention.

The cardboard Aspas wore a Viking hat on his head, Celta scarfs around his neck, and at his feet were candles, garlic cloves, photos, lucky charms, fruit and rosary beads. Which might sound a bit over the top, as if he was their guide, the spiritual reserve of their nation, their God. But, then, he kind of is. It’s not that Iago Aspas is Celta de Vigo’s best player; it is that, as this weekend demonstrated once again, Iago Aspas is Celta de Vigo.

Iago Aspas after Celta Vigo’s defeat to Manchester United in the semi-finals of the 2016-17 Europa League. Photograph: Miguel Riopa/Getty/AFP
Iago Aspas after Celta Vigo’s defeat to Manchester United in the semi-finals of the 2016-17 Europa League. Photograph: Miguel Riopa/Getty/AFP

He joined them aged eight, lying about his age to get a trial. Hot headed, running up the red cards, he left in a huff as a kid, but was soon back again, suitably apologetic; he left for Liverpool and Sevilla because the club needed the money, but came back again that time too. He is a Celta supporter who plays like one; not so much a footballer as a fan pulled from the stands and stuck in the team.

His wildness didn’t always serve him well – he missed one derby through suspension and was sent off in another – and he has changed, calmed a little, but there’s a touch of that still and there’s something in the way that he plays, the desire and the desperation, that is contagious. Necessary, too; it’s not just that he plays well, it is that he makes everyone else play well. No one gets Celta like him, the scout who first spotted him claiming “he even knows where the seagulls shit at Balaídos”, and it is hard to do justice to just how important he is. There may be no single player in Spain as significant for his team.

What has happened this season – what happened on Saturday – underlines that, although it goes back even further. Of the 27 games that Celta have played without Aspas in primera while he has been at the club, they have won just five and lost 18; in that time, they have scored three times as many goals with him as without him. Going into the match against Barcelona just before Christmas this season, Celta were ninth, had 21 points and were three points off Europe. Oh, and seven points and nine places above the relegation zone.

That day, Aspas got a calf injury. It was December 22nd and it was bad but no one expected it to be this bad. He returned for 24 minutes against Getafe, coming on with Celta losing, but wasn’t right. He started warming up to face Levante, but felt something in his calf and had to stop. He sought specialist treatment, white blood cells treated in Barcelona, physio carried out in Madrid. He was desperate to get back and they were desperate to get him back: sometimes for all the analysis, it’s simple; sometimes it’s about a single player. “I’ve suffered so much during all this time, not being able to help,” he said on Saturday. “My family know what I’ve been through.”

Celta Vigo’s Hugo Mallo during his side’s 3-2 win over Villarreal. Photograph: Salvador Sas/EPA
Celta Vigo’s Hugo Mallo during his side’s 3-2 win over Villarreal. Photograph: Salvador Sas/EPA

By then, everyone could see it in his face as he cried. On the pitch, they had seen what Celta had been through too, week by week, defeat by defeat. Coming into this weekend, they’d played 12 games since the day Aspas got injured, and lost 10, winning just once. Celta had picked up 24 points with Aspas and four without him, seeing them pass nine teams on their way down: from ninth, seven points from relegation, they went into Saturday’s meeting with Villarreal 18th, four from safety. Not that it was just numbers. “Aspas transcends the measurable,” insisted El Faro de Vigo, rightly.

Now, at last, he was back. Not fully fit, not really ready, but back. And there was belief again, hope that history might repeat itself: on Aspas’s debut in 2009, he scored twice including one in the 94th minute to rescue Celta from relegation to the Second Division B – and, €80m in debt, quite probably from going out of existence. “A kid from ‘home’ rescued the club,” says captain Hugo Mallo. In 2013, top scorer with twice as many goals as anyone else, he led Celta to another astonishing salvation, providing the decisive pass on the final day. “The 4 per cent,” they called it because that was the chance they had as the final weeks approached. Yet somehow they did it.

Six years on, it was time to save them all over again. “He’s as important for us as Messi is for Barcelona,” said midfielder Brais Mendez. “He’s not going to be at his best, but he can help,” Escribá said.

He couldn’t help much to start with. Celta were a goal down after 11 minutes, two down after quarter of an hour, Alfonso Pedraza turning all Maradona to score the second for Villarreal. By half-time, there was no response. Silence took Balaídos, resignation. Seven points adrift with eight games left, it was over. Only with Aspas it never is, and then it happened. He curled in a superb free-kick just after half-time, belief flooding back. There was no celebrating, just a call to arms, dashing back to the centre circle, game on. Maxi, who’d scored a single goal, none of them from open play without Aspas, headed an equaliser on 70 minutes. And the pitch tilted; Villarreal hung on, Celta kept coming and, with eight minutes left, they got a penalty.

Iago Aspas celebrates scoring against Barcelona at the Balaidos in 2018. Photograph: Octavio Passos/Getty
Iago Aspas celebrates scoring against Barcelona at the Balaidos in 2018. Photograph: Octavio Passos/Getty

The clock showed 82.15 when it was given; it showed 85.04 by the time Aspas put the ball on the spot, all on him. Three minutes to think, seeking his space away from the maddening crowd. Alone, he held the ball. He waited. He did a few kick-ups and waited some more. He watched what was going on around him, listened as Mallo came up and said something: club captain, best friend, member of the Iago Aspas supporters’ club. There was a smile at one point, but it didn’t last long. And then, after three minutes waiting and three months out, three months of pain and defeat, there was a shot at redemption. Ten metres away, Sergio Asenjo did star jumps. Aspas ran up and rolled the ball into the corner, pulling at the Celta badge over his heart as he roared.

“Aspas returned to save Celta from hell,” ran the headline in AS. “Aspas’s tears are Celta’s life,” said El Mundo. He was royalty, said Marca: “Aspas the VI of Vigo.” In El Mundo Deportivo, they insisted: “Anything is possible with Aspas on the pitch.” El Faro de Vigo insisted: “Aspas is the best player who ever wore Celta’s shirt and he will never leave: in the future, people will tell their grandchildren about him.”

With a minute to go he was withdrawn, his work done – for now. Applauding as he went, tears fighting their way through, in his eyes and theirs, he sat down on the bench and started to sob. Staring down at his feet, pushing his socks to his ankles, he tried to wipe the water from his eyes but it was pointless. One by one his team-mates came to him until the final whistle went. Then, at last, he stood and walked across the pitch, burying his head in his big, black coat, eyes stinging, body trembling beneath it.

When he reached the other side, Iago Aspas was asked what he was crying for. “For everything,” he said. - Guardian

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