Getting to know Mendieta
They say you can tell a lot about a person just by looking at their shoes – I think that was a line from Forrest Gump – but I would say you can tell a lot about a person just by looking at their Whatsapp profile pictures.
When I first texted Valencia and Spain legend Gaizka Mendieta to be our guest pundit, I was not sure if it really was him, as his profile picture was a photo of a waving bear.
The photo was one of the entries submitted for the National Geographic Traveller’s Photography Competition, titled Cub Scouts Honour by Kevin Dietrich. It was a photo of a brown bear cub waving to the camera while its mother is hunting for salmon in Alaska.
When I asked him the reason why he chose that picture for his profile, he said: “I love bears. They eat everything, like me.”
‘Mendi’ is witty like that – not very talkative, but can come up with funny one-liners all day. For instance, on the morning after Liverpool lost to Real Madrid in the UEFA Champions League, he offered to give tissue to his Uber driver, a big Reds fan.
In all fairness, the former Barcelona star did eat a lot during his trip. And he enjoyed everything (except maybe durian).
His trip started with a heavy lunch at the famous Hainanese Coffee Shop Yut Kee in Dang Wangi and ended with dim sum at 5am. And in between he had a round of banana leaf rice, satay, murtabak, nasi lemak, chicken rice and assam fish. If you follow him on social media, you will notice that he created the hashtag #malaysianseatallthetime just before flying back to the UK.
Food also played an official role on his trip as we started a new initiative that allows selected fans to have an intimate meal with visiting legends. Consider this as a small tribute by Astro SuperSport to football fans. Four lucky winners of a simple contest got to join him for lunch at a restaurant, and they can vouch that he is very warm and humble. He was genuinely interested in listening to the things they had to say, not like it was something he agreed to in a contract (it wasn’t actually in the contract, by the way).
Perhaps he could identify with the young fans seated on the same table with him because of his two kids (who love One Direction, in case you missed out on his interview with Hitz.FM or his Football Overload episode).
When we first secured Mendieta as a visiting guest, the SuperSport crew was worried about the lack of turnout for his meet-and-greet session. Based on our experience, only personalities linked with Premier League giants Manchester United and Liverpool will draw a crowd in Malaysia and Mendieta’s previous clubs – Valencia, Barcelona, Lazio, Middlesbrough – are not exactly your average crowd puller. Thankfully, Malaysian football fans were not that narrow-minded as the reception he received during the Meet & Greet at Berjaya Times Square gave me hope.
The Official Valencia Supporters Club of Malaysia turned up in full force alongside Lazio, Spain and Boro fans. We even had a few Athletic Bilbao fans in the crowd (Gaizka was born in Bilbao)! And the impressive thing was that the fan questions were not your average “who will win the Premier League this season” kind of questions but insightful questions about his career. So, Malaysian football fans, give yourself a pat on the back!
One of the questions posed to him was particularly interesting, at least to me. It was about his former managers. He played under so many different managers – Louis van Gaal, Roberto Mancini, Dino Zoff, Guus Hiddink, Hector Cuper, Claudio Ranieri, Jose Camacho, Steve McClaren, just to name a few – but he singled out one name in particular. He has always considered the late Luis Aragones, who was his coach at Valencia in the 1995/96 season, the best he ever worked with. Mendieta was visibly animated whenever he talked about Aragones, applauding his man management skills that can “bring someone up when they’re down, bring someone back down when they’re on a high”.
I might not have known Gaizka Mendieta the footballer, but during his short 10-day stay in Malaysia, I found Gaizka Mendieta the man to be very grounded and has a huge appetite to explore life – much like that Alaskan bear waving to the camera.