David Villa’s career has been beyond his wildest dreams.
He’s Spain’s all-time leading goalscorer, a World Cup, European Championship and Champions League winner, while the list of individual and team accolades he’s accrued is endless.
“Football was much, much more than I hoped it would be,” the New York City FC striker told CNN ahead of his team’s opening day MLS defeat to Orlando. “If I dreamed as a kid, I could never have foreseen such amazing things.”
Born in Asturias, northern Spain, Villa credits his career to a foundation of dedication and graft, traits which, perhaps unsurprisingly, run in the blood given his father, Jose Manuel, was a coal miner.
“I’ve worked hard, I’ve fought to be where I am,” Villa added. “The people around me have made a lot of sacrifices to help me.”
Not that Villa, who has entered his 16th year as a professional footballer, has any desire to reminisce about his career just yet.
“Looking back and thinking about the past and what I’ve done makes no sense — I’d like to keep achieving things. Then, when I retire, I will appreciate everything that’s happened and everything I’ve achieved.”
At the age of 35, while most players would be feeling the physical toll of 15 years in professional sport, Villa says he has just completed the first injury-free season of his career.
With 23 goals and four assists in 2016, Villa was named in the MLS All-Star team for the second consecutive year and voted the league’s Most Valuable Player.
Although an established league in its 22nd year, MLS still attracts snide remarks about a perceived lack of quality.
The influx of big European names in the twilight of their careers — of which Villa was one — only fueled the notion it was a retirement home for the stars, but the arrival of Italy striker Sebastian Giovinco and Mexico forward Giovani dos Santos in the prime of their careers has caused its detractors to think again.
“I don’t think there is anyone that can come to the MLS for one, two, three months and talk badly about the league,” says Villa, defending the league’s standard.
“All these comments from people that talk badly about it, without a doubt it’s because they haven’t analyzed the league.
“I’ve been here, I’ve seen the league for a long time and it deserves respect from everybody for how good it is.”
When Villa was four, he thought a broken femur had scuppered any hopes of him becoming a professional footballer. Little did he know, that fractured leg would be his lucky break.
While he was still in a cast, which stretched from his ankle to his hip, Jose Manuel — a “football fanatic,” according to his son — would return home after an arduous day in the mine and spend hours rolling the ball to Villa’s left leg, his weaker foot.
Months of repetition allowed Villa to become ambipedal, something which undoubtedly helped him become one of the most feared strikers in the world.
“My dad has always said when he’s done interviews that he always had his doubts, even though he saw something special in me compared to other kids he saw training,” Villa recalls.
“Obviously he could have been confused in that moment as I was his son, and you always see more in your own son than other kids.
“But little by little, with his help and support every day, he helped me a lot to achieve the dream that we both had. So he was, and still is, a very important part in my career.”
Villa’s footballing dream has allowed him to travel the world and accumulate accolades, riches and life experiences, though the former Spain international will never forget his upbringing in the village of Tuilla, which has a population of just 1,500.
“I think everyone needs to remember where they came from,” Villa says. “Realistically, I’ve lived brilliant experiences thanks to football.
“But the first 21 years of my life I lived in Asturias, so David Villa, not just the footballer but also the person, was created there, was formed there.
“Obviously with all these experiences in different cities one goes on learning and becoming more mature, but everything that I am today has those roots — you can’t forget where you come from.”
Pep and Messi
Those experiences helped mold Villa into one of the best players in the world and, at the age of 28, he ended up playing for one of the best clubs under one of the best managers after leaving Valencia for Barcelona.
If he made his name at Valencia, Villa’s most successful years came during his time at Barca. Over three years, he amassed eight major trophies, including two La Ligas, one Champions League and a Copa del Rey.
His time in Catalonia coincided with Lionel Messi’s rise to global acclaim, while he was also an integral part of Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona that is considered by many one of the greatest teams of all time.
“I would like to praise all of my coaches,” Villa says. “From Pep to the first I had as a kid, because all of them have helped make me who I am.
“But yes, Pep was special in my career. I think he’s shown what he is like as a coach with everything he has achieved — with him I think I evolved my game.
“I learned a lot of things that made me be a better player and have more of a variety on the pitch.”
So having rubbed shoulders every day with Messi at Barcelona, is the Argentine better than Cristiano Ronaldo?
“We are very lucky to be born in an era in which they are both playing and I think we need to enjoy them,” says Villa, who concedes his opinion might be a touch biased.
“Obviously, if you ask for my opinion, it’s Leo. I think he has something different, not just to Cristiano, but to everyone else.
“Having him as a teammate and seeing him every day only increases that feeling.”
Now settled with his wife and three kids in New York, where he currently bemoans the bitter winter cold, Villa feels at home.
At his age, he admits the inevitability of retirement is slowly creeping up on him but, already in talks to extend his current contract beyond 2017, Villa isn’t ready to reminisce just yet.
The dream goes on.