There was one name on the lips of every Madrid fan as they departed from the Santiago Bernabeu last Saturday evening, Fede Valverde. The 21-year-old Uruguayan had won the hearts and minds of the Bernabeu crowd with his never-say-die attitude and relentless engine. It’s been three years since Fede first signed for the club, and for an outsider, it may be seen as a rapid rise. Though, for the club and those following him, it’s been a gradual emergence of a burgeoning young talent.
As an 18-year-old, Fede Valverde formed as part of Santiago Solari’s midfield fulcrum at Real Madrid Castilla, partnering with then captain, Aleix Febas. Even in a side boasting of talents like Achraf Hakimi, Mario Hermoso, Febas, and Mariano — Fede stood out. He used his impressive year with Castilla to provide momentum for his performances at the U20 World Cup with Uruguay where they finished 4th and Valverde won the “silver ball” (the award for the tournament’s 2nd- best player). Though, the time period where there seems to be a gap for most Madrid fans is his year away, at Deportivo La Coruna.
Galicia, a region in Spain where the weather is often foggy, damp, and grey – more of an ode to Great Britain than what most people think of sunny Spain — would be Fede’s stomping grounds for a year. A Coruña is a city bordering the coast, with beautiful beaches, much like the Uruguayan’s hometown city of Montevideo. Initially, Valverde was under the orders of head coach Pepe Mel, the same manager that gave a young Ceballos an important role whilst at Real Betis.
The early signs seemed to point to Depor and Fede seemingly being a match made in heaven. Pepe Mel thrusted the youngster into his midfield, as a starter, in the opening match of preseason and Valverde produced a bit of magic – a goal from inside his own half, announcing himself to his new club, new coach, and new teammates:
Despite a glowing review in preseason, Fede would not be able to start the first match of the La Liga campaign as Deportivo were playing against Real Madrid and the “fear clause” was intact. Though, once he got his first start under Pepe Mel, in the third match day, the 19-year-old became a mainstay. He wasn’t yet tried and trusted in the center of the park, so Pepe Mel used Valverde in a narrow midfield four, placing him on the left flank. Fede was solid during his time under Pepe Mel – conservative in his play, often able to exhibit his close control and impressive technique, but more often than not played it safe with his passing.
As time began to pass, it turned out that Deportivo was a difficult environment for a 19-year-old. Pepe Mel was fired by the end of October, a mere 9 games into the start of the season. There was unrest and turmoil within the club. Five losses and two draws, meant Deportivo were serious relegation candidates. Fede and the club would be fighting to stay alive. The B-team coach, Cristóbal Parralo, would take over as first-team manager. Valverde managed to keep his starting position, this time being deployed centrally in an attacking midfielder role. Fede started virtually all of Depor’s game from September – December; 12 games in total. Despite a change in coach, despite being a loanee, and despite being just 19-years-old, both Pepe Mel and Cristóbal Parralo, trusted the Uruguayan with the club’s future on the line.
Judging just the first half of the season, on a personal level, things went well for Fede. Though, at club level it would go from bad to worse. By the time January arrived, the club only had five total wins. Fede was starting to battle what would become a season long injury to his knee. He began to fade out of the lineup as injuries got the better of him. After a 5-0 loss to Real Sociedad in February, a loss where Fede only played the last ten minutes, Cristóbal Parralo, was sacked. Deportivo would be on the lookout for a third manager — a third manager in one season for the young Real Madrid loanee, hardly the stable environment that allows talent to flourish.
The third managerial choice, and in all reality the “Hail Mary” for Deportivo, was ex-Real Madrid player, Clarence Seedorf. The Dutchman’s first match in charge was at home to Real Betis. Fede Valverde was given the start as a center midfielder, but only lasted 18 minutes before injury forced him off the pitch. For the next three months, Fede was sidelined with a knee injury forcing him to miss out on 8 matches – only one of those games Seedorf managed to win. By the time Valverde returned, there were only seven matches left in the whole La Liga season. Depor would ultimately be relegated and Fede saw most of his minutes off the bench.
Near the season’s end, Valverde felt indebted to the Riazor faithful and wanted to remain another year. “If Madrid decide to loan me again, out of respect for A Coruña, I won’t accept any offers in Spain. If unfortunately we do go down I won’t play for another club in Spain out of respect. If I can stay at Depor, in whatever division, I’d like to stay because I am a part of this,” Valverde told Gol. “If the worst happens I will have played a role in us going down to Segunda and I’d like to come back and help Depor to get back into Primera again.” Those words showed a maturity beyond his young 19 years, and the first signs of a mental fortitude which today, serves him well playing for the biggest club on earth.
Without the knee injury and the constant chop and change under a club in duress, Fede’s loan spell likely would have been far more successful. At 19, he still managed to amass more than 1,200 minutes at the top level and gained enough experience for Lopetegui to feel him worthy of a first team spot at Real Madrid the following season. In all likelihood, the season at Depor prepared him for the turmoil that would ensue while at Real Madrid the next season. Nearly every manager that has worked with Valverde at club level: Pepe Mel, Cristóbal Parralo, Clarence Seedorf, Julen Lopetegui, Santiago Solari, and now Zinedine Zidane have all believed in his talent. In a squad that once had Mateo Kovacic, Dani Ceballos, and Marcos Llorente all above the Uruguayan in the pecking order, the timing has seemed to align with the Uruguayan’s development rather than the three former names. With Modric’s clear decline, there is an opportunity for Fede to take the bull by the horns and cement a place within Real Madrid’s squad. He can call on the foundation provided by his loan spell at Deportivo to help guide him through the tough times: injuries, managerial changes, and poor results. The Uruguayan had 1200 minutes at the top level as 19-year-old which will be referenced, reviewed, and learned from as he continues his rise with Real Madrid.