Ivan de la Peña

He looked as though he might be a key player for Barcelona, but now Lazio can't give him away. Paul Virgo profiles the man who is following him around Europe

In the summer of 1998 the Lazio president Sergio Cragnotti forked out £10 million for a promising Spanish lad called Ivan de la Peña. Not a modest sum by any stretch, but Cragnotti was satisfied it was money well spent. According to reliable sources he’d landed himself the next Maradona. Offer Cragnotti the price of a second-hand Fiat Panda for De la Peña today and he’ll take your arm off.

I spotted De la Peña long before Lazio. In 1994 I lived in Catalonia and when Barcelona played away I watched their B team. He cut an odd figure with his chubby chops and skinhead haircut. But his right foot was the stuff of a football fan’s wet dreams. A year later I watched him carve up Val­ladolid’s defence on his debut for the first team. The fans warmed to “the little Buddha” right away. De la Peña isn’t a Catalan – he’s from Cantabria in the north of Spain – so there isn’t any nationalist sentiment in the Barça fans’ affection for him. With his vision and elegant, effortless passing he had the Nou Camp buz­zing whenever he came on.

Frustratingly, though, Johan Cruyff didn’t share our enthusiasm. He served us tantalisingly tiny rations of the boy wonder. Ivan would barely have time to spray a few 60-yard diagonal passes before he’d be whipped off. The official explanation was that he had to develop his left foot and a greater sense of “team spirit”. The word on the terraces was that Cruyff didn’t want De la Peña outshining the mediocre efforts of his son Jordi.

But better times were coming. De la Peña was in­spirational for Spain’s Under-21 team that reached the 1996 European Championship final and Bobby Rob­son gave him a prominent role in the Barça side that won the Spanish Cup and Cup-Winners Cup the year after. In 1998 work took me to Italy. But Ivan and I weren’t destined to be apart for long. Louis van Gaal re­placed Robson at Barcelona and, not being Dutch, De la Peña was shown the door. Ivan obligingly fol­lowed me to Rome and it would have been rude not to return the favour and support his new club, Lazio.

In truth, that was more of a hard-nosed calculation than a gesture of affection for De la Peña. I didn’t actually like the bloke that much. He was a miserable looking git and seem­ed to think he was too good to soil his hands with def­ending. But with De la Peña I was sure Lazio would be Scudetto material. Lazio were indeed in the fight for the title. But it was in spite of De la Peña, not because of him. On the rare occasions Sven-Goran Eriksson asked him to earn his keep, he was a timid, clumsy shadow of his Barça self.

In May 1999 Lazio played at Fiorentina and I wit­nessed one of his few ventures into the fury of Serie A. He came on with 20 minutes to go, stumbled, floundered and passed to the invisible team-mate. It was embarrassing. Soon afterwards Lazio sent him off for loan stints at Marseille and Barcelona, but like a bad penny he kept coming back – they literally couldn’t give him away. Once back in Rome, Dino Zoff and Alberto Zaccheroni both gave him the thumbs down too. Now he’s lucky to make Lazio’s subs’ bench.

De la Peña fell from a great height. His failure was a surprise to many who know more about football than I do. It wasn’t lack of quality. He had enough skill even for the highly tactical Italian game. But he’d read too much of his own hype and when the going got tough, he sulked and faded away. At the moment he’s counting the days until his contract at Lazio runs out. In June he’ll be looking to rebuild his career far from Serie A and has even said he thinks the Premiership would suit him. Just how attractive a prospect a moody Bud­dah look-alike with a distaste for defending could be for an English club is difficult to say. But he’s only 25 and if an understanding manager can find it, he’s still got the sweetest right foot I’ve ever seen. And what the hell, he’ll be going free.

From WSC 183 May 2002. What was happening this month