Why Iago Aspas has been the best player in Spain this year


You might not have heard about this, but Iago Aspas took a bad corner once, six-and-a-half years ago. He is top scorer in La Liga: corner. He has been directly involved in more goals and earned more points than anyone else in Spain: corner. In the past five years, he has scored more goals than any Spaniard, anywhere. More assists, too. Corner. Celta de Vigo have never, ever had a better player. Corner, though.

In that time, no one — apart from Lionel Messi, that one-man footballing category, an outlier lying so far out he’s off the graph — has done what Aspas has done. Yeah, but no one has done a corner like him either.

He has just scored again, right now, as this is being written. Look it’s there on the screen, the ball in the net at the Coliseum, where players like him are usually eaten for breakfast. Ah, but it’s on this screen too. YouTube.com: Aspas corner.

You get the picture, and look, maybe it shouldn’t matter. Maybe no one should go on about it anymore, still less write things like this anymore. And surely everyone knows that Aspas is actually good by now. Especially if they have been reading these pages, which you would like to think they have. Maybe it’s not a thing.

Only … it is a thing. And people do go on about it.

Let it go, you say. You’re as bad. You protest too much. Ignore it. And you’d be right. But how do you let it go? How do you escape? How can you ever block or mute enough people? It really is relentless. It doesn’t matter what you say about Aspas — whether a lot or a little, it makes no difference. An essay or an ode or just a score update. There’s always one, or two, or three or four.

Every. Single. Time.

It doesn’t matter that Aspas has scored over 100 goals and provided more than 30 assists since that moment. No, what matters is one corner. Once. A long time ago. It’s kind of weird.

What does that say about us? About how we grasp at a solitary mistake as a defining feature — in all walks of life, by the way — how easily we make judgments no matter how flimsy the evidence or how heavy the evidence to the contrary, how final those judgments are, how easy it is to sneer, to dismiss, to denigrate, how hard it is to see.

What it says about Aspas is this: Nothing.

In his five seasons since returning to La Liga, Aspas has scored 114 and made 31 goals. No Celta player has ever scored more in the league. But it’s not just that; it is that Aspas is a brilliant footballer. They call him the “Messi of Moana,” the little town across the river from Vigo where he’s from and where he lives now, having come home, where his mum wades into the water for shellfish daily. And actually, it’s not a bad way of looking at him; like a Messi … only more.

Think of him as a kind of Galician Leo, only on fast forward: wilder, more feral, more open and a lot more loquacious. A wound-up version, thrusting that chest out, everywhere and in everyone’s face. The kind of man who can pass, run, score, assist and start a fight in an empty house.

Aspas could start a fiesta in one, too. There’s a great photo of him from last season, stripping off his shirt and running full pelt, bare-chested, screaming and skidding on his knees toward the stands. Which are empty. A solitary security man sits there looking a little bemused. And yet somehow, it felt right.

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Football mad — he watches everything and says he would like to be a sporting director one day — Aspas is a player you’d hate if he didn’t play for you, and a player you love even more because he does. In fact, Fran Escriba said almost exactly that when he took over at Celta. “I used to suffer him,” he shrugged, stopping short of admitting that he still did.

“He’s a footballer who wounds you up a lot; he’s a very good striker, but not a classic striker: he generates football, makes a lot happen. He’s pure talent.”

Messi apart, certainly, there might be no player who carries more such responsibility, no team more dependent on a footballer than Celta are on Aspas. For whom a player is everything, the head and heart. Look at Celta’s results without him and they are disastrous. For the past two years they have only just survived: both times it was pretty much a one-man rescue mission. He was left broken and sobbing, in tears.

Before the game against Getafe, their manager Pepe Bordalas insisted: “He’s a superstar. If he’s not playing at a bigger club, it’s because he doesn’t want to.” Before they signed Joao Felix, Atletico enquired about Aspas. Celta wanted to sell; Aspas was not so sure.

“I have my kids here, my parents just round the corner,” he said later. That can make it hard — “it takes years off you,” he said recently — but it is also what makes him.

Celta are his club. His older brother was there too, and as a young player coming through, he scored the goal that saved them from relegation to the third tier and perhaps from going out of business. He left, but he came back and he was better than ever, as though he now knew what he was missing, how much home meant. And it meant everything. How it’s not always great out there.

OK, so no, no, it’s not just the corner. At Liverpool, he wasn’t great. At Sevilla it didn’t work out either, not really. So maybe that corner is merely the symbol of something bigger — although that was the season of Daniel Sturridge and Luis Suarez at Anfield, chances were always likely to be limited. Aspas wasn’t the same without Celta.

As football fans, we complain that players don’t care, that they don’t feel the shirt, that they don’t give their all. Aspas cares, almost too much. And he does everything, even the postmatch interviews, with that oddly deep voice and the depth of analysis. He’s not just a striker; he is the driving force, doing it all.

Former manager Oscar Garcia said: “No player is above the club … except Aspas.” When Eduardo Coudet took over as Celta manager, he liberated Aspas. Not because that was the demand, but because that was the need. They’ve gone unbeaten in six games since.

“He’s best striker in Spain, let’s see if he gets 30 or 40 goals,” said teammate Nolito. “Everything he touches is a goal.”

Well, not everything. Against Granada on Nov. 29, Aspas created nine goal-scoring opportunities. Nine. It’s a new league record. They weren’t all taken, of course. He was untouchable, the kind of performance that leaves you gasping, feeling sorry for the opponents. Watching him, even just on telly, is a wild ride, the lunacy part of the enjoyment, the constant movement. With Coudet, even more so. He too is relentless. Fast, fluid and frantic: that’s both of them.

Fun, too. And isn’t that the point?

The goal Aspas just got against Getafe — one of only three opponents in Spain he’d not scored against — means it’s now eight games in a row in which he has scored or assisted for Celta. He usually does both. He has had a direct hand in 13 goals in 15 games.

Then again, it was a really, really bad corner, wasn’t it?

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