Stamford Bridge is an unlikely venue to mark the beginning of your Middle Eastern odyssey.
Carlos Villanueva, however, harks back to Chelsea’s famous home turf when asked about the genesis of his remarkable 11-year attachment to the region.
Not even the exacting challenge posed by Frank Lampard and Michael Essien on that consequential day could halt persistent thoughts about an impending switch into the unknown. Dubai’s – now-defunct – Al Shabab had submitted enticing terms in the build-up towards May 2009’s creditable 2-0 defeat while at Blackburn Rovers.
This offer was meant to symbolise a lucrative sojourn. Especially when the majority of foreign additions attracted to the Gulf represent passing dhows in the night and 90 minutes against the star-studded Blues rounded out a 20-game loan spell from Audax Italiano which contained two goals and four assists.
The timeless ex-Chile playmaker can, now, reflect on a historic seven-year stay in the Arabian Gulf League and tumultuous stint at Jeddah giants Al Ittihad. Plus, eagerly anticipate next month’s recommencement of the Saudi Professional League after coronavirus’ disruption of a rejuvenating short-term deal with mid-table Al Fayha.
“It was very strange and I never expected it,” the amiable Villanueva, 34, tells Sport360 about how his career-defining transfer occurred. “I was at Blackburn Rovers, 10 days before the season ends.
“I knew already that I was not going to continue. They didn’t want to buy me as the Chilean club [Audax] wanted a lot of money.
“I knew I had to come back to the Chilean team. We then got the offer from Dubai and we saw the numbers with my agent – it was a very good contract.
“I remember I played the penultimate game of the season against Chelsea. It was in London, I knew I would play two days before and in this moment I was not sure 100 per cent about the decision I took.
“I was playing against Chelsea, 90 minutes against big stars. I was going to Dubai, where I didn’t know how things work.
“At the beginning it was a very difficult decision. But the numbers were very good – I had to take it.
“In Chile, the salaries were very low. Now, you see what happened later and I am still here.”
Villanueva’s artistry in possession and gregarious nature have left a permanent imprint on Khaleeji football. An indelible impression, in return, was etched on his life.
Marriage and the raising of two sons, aged four and two, have been experienced more than 14,000 kilometres from Vina del Mar on central Chile’s Pacific coast.
Only Sebastian Tagliabue at Al Wahda – now at Al Nasr – can match him in spending the most time at one club in the UAE as a foreign-born player. Villanueva cut an influential figure both on and off the pitch at Maktoum bin Rashid Al Maktoum Stadium, helping lift the 2010/11 Arabian Gulf Cup plus the GCC Club Cup in both 2011 and 2015.
This link was only, temporarily, interrupted by 2015’s recuperative four-month stint back home at Universidad Catolica after a serious knee injury.
July 2016’s cross-border move to Ittihad then generated lashings of adulation by an impassioned fan base. This was amplified by 2016/17’s triumph in the Crown Prince Cup and 2018’s King’s Cup joy, though a commensurate souring followed 2018/19’s dalliance with unprecedented relegation.
A natural juncture was presented by January’s market in the wake of this term’s continued failings at an anguished King Abdullah Sports City. The free transfer to ninth-placed Fayha has inspired an excellent four goals and three assists in eight SPL fixtures.
Villanueva’s period in Saudi Arabia’s second city, however, sparked the wildest memories. There he was the creative heartbeat of a vivid side that had ascendant Saudi Arabia superstar Fahad Al Muwallad and ebullient Egypt international Mahmoud Kahraba on the flanks, helping supply infuriatingly inconsistent Tunisia centre forward Ahmed Akaichi.
“My first two years at Ittihad were very successful,” Villanueva comments. “We won two cups and in that time when you are doing well, the fans are crazy.
“They used to love me a lot.
“When we won the Crown Prince Cup in the first year, in the training ground they let all the fans to come to watch training. Then they started to get crazy to get a picture with the players and say ‘hi’.
“We then had to stay locked in the changing room for one or two hours, we couldn’t go outside. We ran away from a back door, sprinting 200 metres to get a car home.
“I also remember when we arrived at the airport [the showpiece was played at Riyadh’s iconic 57,584-capacity King Fahd International Stadium], there was no special security. We had to go outside like normal.
“There were thousands of fans outside the airport.
“All the players were running to get a taxi. That was at, maybe, 8am and then I came back at 7pm to collect my car.
“But I couldn’t take it. I was running around to get a taxi and all the players were doing the same.
“Sometimes there are 20 people asking for a picture, fighting to take a picture with you. They are very, very nice memories.”
Stellar opponents have been faced throughout this time. Among a packed field that includes a former Ballon d’Or winner and scorer of Euro 2000’s clincher, a record-breaking Ghana striker emerges.
“I played against many big players here,” Villanueva states. “In the UAE, Luca Toni, Fabio Cannavaro and David Trezeguet played.
“They acquired players that I used to watch on TV. But the best player I played against was Asamoah Gyan.
“He was playing very well in Al Ain, scoring many goals, playing at a very high level.”
Villanueva’s, almost unbroken, Middle Eastern tenure is exceedingly rare among players who have not become naturalised.
Al Wehda’s diminutive Brazilian playmaker Elton has flitted between Brazil and the SPL or AGL since 2007, while Al Shabab’s Senegalese striker Makhete Diop’s spell at Beijing Renhe from 2018-20 interrupts a stay that began 11 years ago at Saudi Arabia’s Al Watani.
An undiminished desire to “do my best in every single day and every single match” is at the heart of Villanueva’s astounding longevity.
He says: “In the start of my career, I never thought I’d be over here for this long. First, I never thought to be in UAE or Saudi Arabia playing.
“Then I stayed 11 years. After time, I started feeling very comfortable.
“They really like my style of play and they make you feel great. Why not?
“I really enjoyed my 11 years of history out here.
“I always was very professional here. I always tried to do my best, be professional, take the games and training very seriously.
“This is why I stayed for such a long time. Because here, if the foreign players don’t play well for six months, they want to bring a new one and kick you out.
“My years in Al Shabab were great. I stayed there for seven years.
“When I left Al Shabab, I was the first player who stayed that long in one team only.
“I really feel proud of myself. I am still trying to do my best in every single day and every single match.”
Exposure to the international game, however, was fleeting.
Villanueva’s fine displays for Audax in the 2007 Copa Libertadores led to him being honoured as Chilean Footballer of the Year and earn a berth in La Roja’s Copa America squad. The subsequent resignation of Nelson Acosta would open the door to one of the game’s great thinkers – and personalities.
Marcelo Bielsa’s dogmatic and helter-skelter tactics would jar with Villanueva’s genteel approach. A handful of further caps were earned, before an expected snub for World Cup 2010 drew a line under a representative career which would only be fleetingly revived for a friendly versus the UAE later that year.
Such treatment should engender harsh feeling. But Villanueva holds ‘El Loco’ – currently steering Leeds United back to the Premier League for the first time since 2004 – in the highest regard.
He says: “This is his nickname [‘El Loco’/the Crazy One] and, I think, most of his players would think the same. He thinks about football 24/7, so sometimes you are in the training ground during the evening because you had to stay over and you see him walking around the field on his own, just thinking, thinking, thinking, thinking.
“He does not stop thinking about football and how to improve the players. His nickname fits him very good.
“He is a very special coach and totally different. He is 24/7 thinking about football, analysing the team, teaching you the way how to play.
“You need to be able to play in his way of playing. If you cannot do it, you won’t play anymore.
“He needs one kind of player. You have to be a runner.
“He is a very good coach, I learned much from him. Unfortunately, my style of playing does not fit with his way of play.
“I was lucky to train with him for one year.”
A premature free transfer sent a disillusioned Villanueva away from bustling Jeddah and towards provincial Al Majma’ah.
Portuguese coach Jorge Simao’s encouragement rekindled his competitive flame at Fayha, prior to March 14’s cessation because of COVID-19.
Villanueva will be back with his team-mates for August 4’s restart at Al Fateh. But a decision has already been made that this eight-game sprint to the finish shall be his last for Al Burtuqali (The Orange).
Links to the UAE’s Al Wahda were reported by Al Ittihad newspaper, while Chile’s clarion call can be heard.
Have we, finally, entered the last days of this enduring Gulf favourite? It doesn’t sound likely.
Villanueva says: “I will finish the season there and I want to do it in the best way. Al Fayha told me already that they want me to stay one more year, I am very grateful for this, but I will not stay here.
“This is for my family. I need to put my kids in an international school and this town is very, very small.
“I do not know what will happen next. My contract ends on September 15 and then we see what happens.
“We will look in the Middle East and Chile too, because I’ve spent 11 years in the Middle East and one year in England.
“For now, I have no options. Hopefully, I’ll get something in the Middle East.
“We are waiting and I’ve been talking with agents. There is nothing concrete, so we’ll see.
“I have eight games left, so I’m focused on doing my best and to really do good. I want the team to do well and this might help me to get a new option to continue in Arabian football.”
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