Sarthak Kumar talks more about the striker with controversial political views off the pitch and a knack for goals on it.
In light of Barcelona B’s promotion playoff game against Racing Santander, this is the story of a player who won the Pichichi with the club.
Politics plays a huge role in football. Sometimes it’s subtle, hidden, almost innate. Other times, it’s laid bare, in the open, for everyone to see.
It was Celta Vigo’s president, with some bad news.
Celta’s notoriously left-wing base, who greeted him with threats and insults upon his arrival at the Balaídos stadium three years before, had pressured the club to not go forward with the deal.
“I’ve never spoken about politics, I’ve always said that I feel Spanish.”
Salva Ballesta once said that he was apolitical. And maybe he is right – maybe it isn’t political to be nationalistic. Maybe it isn’t political to be Spanish.
Maybe it is Spanish of Salva, born to a military family, to say that he would be the first to serve in the Iraq War if conscripted by then prime minister José María Aznar. Or to be a patron of his hometown’s military helicopter school. Or even to have your idols be Francoist fighter pilot Joaquín García Morato, Luftwaffe aviator Hans-Ulrich Rudel and Antonio Tejero, leader of the failed “23-F” right-wing coup. Or to say that he wouldn’t even consider playing for an autonomous community team.
But is it really Spanish to suggest sending the armed forces into the Basque Country to deal with the ETA? Or, when sent off for Málaga, to shout “¡Que viva España, hijos de puta!” (Long live Spain, sons of bitches!), to Osasuna fans who support Basque independence – something which prompted fans of even bitter rivals Real Sociedad to support Osasuna and display a banner reading “Salva, muérete” (Salva, die) when he visited their Anoeta Stadium? Or to say that “to be anti-madridista makes you a less intelligent person”? Or to say that he had more respect for “dog crap” than for outspoken left-winger and Barcelona defender Oleguer Presas?
Maybe it is – maybe it isn’t. Nevetheless, Salva made very few friends for what many, contrary to his claims, perceived to be far-right politics.
But one thing was abundantly clear – whatever his politics, his controversy off the pitch was in stark contrast to his performances on the pitch. For 90 minutes each week, media frenzy was replaced by media appreciation.
To put it simply – he was unstoppable.
It was the 1999-00 season, and Real Madrid were under pressure. Michel Salgado and Iván Helguera arrived to supposedly bolster an embarrassingly leaky defense, and the signings of Steve McManaman and Geremi were overshadowed by that of Nicolas Anelka, the hottest young striker in Europe, who looked set to provide genuine competition for Raúl and Fernando Morientes up front. But a horrific start to the season meant that Real Madrid were at one point relegation contenders. On the 14th matchday, Real Zaragoza had come to the Bernabéu and demolished Real Madrid 5-1 – the biggest away win all season – leaving Real Madrid in 17th place in the league.
Towards the end of the season, Real Madrid appeared to have sorted their defensive problems out at last and had been on an 11-match unbeaten run in the league while progressing to the Champions League semi-finals with victory over holders Manchester United.
Salva finished the season with 27 goals – winning the Pichichi.
Salva was born in Zaragoza, but rose through Sevilla’s youth ranks. His first full season with the club was the 1996-97 season, in which he scored 12 goals but the club was relegated – he stayed on for another season before moving to Racing Santander.
That historic season prompted rumors – big moves to the Premier League or the Serie A were widely touted. However, he resigned an almost certain big-money move for a move to second division Atlético Madrid. Recently relegated, the club desperately wanted – and needed – a return to the elite. And while Atlético marginally failed to reach the promotion places, Salva won his second consecutive Pichichi, scoring 21 goals in the 2000-01 season.
His story thereafter is short of Pichichi’s but isn’t short of success – a La Liga title with Valencia in the 2001-02 season, 18 goals with Málaga in the 2003-04 season – including a hat-trick in a 5-1 league home crushing of Barcelona, and helping Málaga return to La Liga in 2008.
They are linked to the ultra-right movement of Málaga 1487 – an anti-immigrant group whose name commemorates the year in which the Catholic Kings expelled the Muslims from the city. They have repeatedly physically attacked many members of left-wing ultra groups, especially Sevilla’s Biris Norte. They celebrated their 20th anniversary with a Nazi rock concert. They are, unsurprisingly, right-wing ultras.
And they, the Frente Bokerón, chanted his name. He was their unofficial representative – and they made him feel at home.
In the summer of 2007, when Málaga were going through bankruptcy and his high salary was proving to be a deterrent, Salva was faced with a choice – either leave, or stay and reduce his wages. The previous six months, he had chosen to leave by playing for Levante on loan. And he had to choose again.
This time, he chose to stay. His salary of €1.2 million was slashed to almost half (€650,000), and Málaga were promoted that year. After Salva retired in 2010 with Segunda outfit Albacete, it was Málaga – who hadn’t forgotten his service and what he’d done for the club – who offered him a position as a youth coach, alongside former teammate Francesc Arnau.
And in the summer of 2013, when he was refused the Celta job, he was appointed as the new manager of Málaga’s reserves Atlético Malagueño in the Tercera División. His dream is to manage Málaga one day – the club that made the Zaragoza native feel at home.
This article is reproduced from a series on the faces of Spanish football. You can read it here.