The familiar lament says technology is taking over, a generation choosing gaming ahead of the game. Football, they say, is losing players to the PlayStation. Not always. This time, it’s the opposite: on Saturday night, Valencia face Real Betis in the final of the Copa del Rey and had it not been for the Game Boy, the man wearing 10 running their midfield wouldn’t have been there. The way he tells it, he might not have been a footballer at all.
In the beginning there was a ball. Carlos Soler grew up watching Valencia from close quarters and English football on Canal+. He has been at the club since he was seven, a ballboy before he was a captain, carrying their flag on European nights at Mestalla. Ask him about a game, not just his, and there are details, enthusiastic analysis. He began a football journalism degree until it became too much, even for him. At one point, he says almost without meaning to and years before he has to, that he would like to coach. And yet he wouldn’t play until grandfather Rafael bribed him.
“I was very little and didn’t want to join a team,” he explains. “Kick a ball about, sure. Play with grandad, grandma, other kids, OK. But not play. Bonrepòs is a team in a little town near here my brother played for. At half-time I’d go on and take shots. I was only four, tiny, but I hit the ball very hard; I could lift it off the floor, and run fast. My brother’s coach said to my dad and grandad: ‘That’s not normal for his age. Why don’t you sign him up?’ But I didn’t want to.
“That’s when my grandad said he would get me a Game Boy if I went. It was the craze at the time; I’d seen it on the telly. And so I began.”
It worked out nicely. “Very nicely,” Soler says. There’s a glint in his eye, although there always seems to be a glint in his eye, a smile permanently about to break out. It’s a sunny morning at Valencia’s Paterna training ground, and he pokes his head through a tiny window, grinning. He’ll be out soon, he says. He has been coming here 18 years now. He watched Valencia win the cup 14 years ago; now he’s preparing for a second of his own. It has all got a bit serious.
Soler laughs. “And how. It’s not purely a question of enjoyment; it’s also a job, sacrifice. You have responsibility, a big club behind you, lots of fans. It’s not the same as when you’re eight and play for fun.” But this is what he always wanted – once he had been enticed in.
When Valencia reached the final, players crowded on to the balcony overlooking the street, thousands celebrating, and Soler speaks eloquently of the journey there: from Bonrepòs to Paterna, via a hat-trick against the club he would join; the transition from seven-a-side to 11; televised tournaments aged 12, suddenly exposed; the first-team discovery of space hidden in Segunda B, where “pitches are smaller and they kick you more”; the transition from quiet kid – “it’s not timidity, it’s intelligence, knowing your place, how to behave; if you stick your chest out when you’re no one …” – to the captaincy with José Luis Gayá.
There’s even a long, detailed dissection of the art and psychology of taking a penalty: Soler, after all, is only the third player in La Liga history to score a hat-trick of them. And against Thibaut Courtois too.
When Soler reached the first team, there were players such as Dani Parejo, Rodrigo Moreno, Ezequiel Garay. They have gone now; at 25, a Spain international, handed a No 10 initially denied him as the club projected Lee Kang-in as their most marketable star internationally, Soler has that responsibility now. Galones, he calls it: stripes. He has earned them.
“It’s the law of life,” he says, a natural process, but it hasn’t always been an easy one for him or his club. Those leaders left partly because Valencia needed them to, finances forcing their hand, a crisis opening. Of the starting XI that won the 2019 Copa del Rey, six have departed. Marcelino, the manager who had made them so successful went too. Ferran Torres also left. Fans fear Soler could be next.
Two successive Champions League qualifications, experiences he enjoyed, became ninth- and 13th-placed finishes. They’re currently 10th. “It’s frustrating,” Soler admits. “You watch Villarreal-Bayern, Madrid-Chelsea and think it would be lovely. Hopefully we can win the cup and get into the Europa League.”
This summer, Valencia need to raise €40m. Gonçalo Guedes, Gayá and Soler are their most saleable assets. Soler has one year left on his contract, negotiations continuing and rumours accompanying them. “It’s not comfortable,” he admits. “Sometimes people talk for the sake of it, or without checking, which can hurt. Sometimes things are said that I’m sure they don’t know.” So? “So, we’ve been talking for a few months. I’ve always said I’d like to stay: it’s where I’ve always been, where my family and friends are, the club I support.”
The question is inevitable: what about the Premier League? After all, Soler speaks English and the fondness for English football is revealed in recollections of Sundays at 5pm watching with his dad: Manchester United’s 8-2 over Arsenal, Cesc Fàbregas at Arsenal, Fernando Torres, Frank Lampard, Steve Gerrard, Wigan winning the FA Cup. There’s even a detailed description of an “amazing” Wayne Rooney free-kick routine. There’s an attraction at least, and his style might suit: it has worked before, a certain parallel with Santi Cazorla, David Silva and Juan Mata.
“There’s your headline!” he laughs, that journalism degree appearing. “You’re putting me alongside Cazorla or Juan and David? Nah. Look, it’s a compliment. They’re players with that ‘pause’ that maybe the Premier League didn’t have. It’s all so mad, so physical, that if you can adapt to the intensity and then make the right decision, find the right space, that gives you something. Football is ever more physical but the player that ‘arrives’, that filters the final pass can adapt well: like Pablo Fornals, say.”
Like Soler too, although it may be less immediately apparent at Valencia, the stylistic leap from club to country a significant one he has successfully made. That says something about him and he talks about the importance of flexibility, adapting to different coaches. A player who “likes to be in contact with the ball” but is irreplaceable in a team built to counterattack, who says “if you’re not hot-blooded, and the coach asks you to be tougher, you have to try: be more intense, more aggressive, fight.”
“Valencia has always had an identity: bronco y copero,” he says. Bronco y copero is an old, historical line, almost a slogan, revived this season: a cup team, all fight. Organised, strong, counterattacking. With José Bordalás, especially: a manager as hard as they come, ultra-demanding, as Soler found out on the very first day.
He was in Ibiza when he got an emergency call-up, holiday abandoned to join Spain’s parallel squad: an entire team in reserve in case of Covid outbreaks. From there to a “very strange” Olympics, “40 days literally enclosed”. He landed late, jet-lagged, and was back at Paterna before 8am the next morning. Four days later he was playing again. “That’s a good illustration of Bordalás’s intensity and demands,” he says. Oh, and Valencia were down to 10 men within 50 seconds.
It was worth it, Soler says. He returned with an Olympic medal, the Spain bubble led to a full cap in September and a debut goal, and now he has another cup final, whose significance he understands better than anyone. He watched when Mata score the opener in 2008, getting his picture with the trophy, and 11 years on sprinted past Jordi Alba to make Valencia’s decisive second in the 2019 final. There’s that smile again. “Actually, I was watching that this morning, as motivation,” he says.
“I’ll never forget it. Valencia have won the cup eight times, which isn’t bad, but it’s very hard to win. Everyone was out in the street after this year’s semi, celebrating. It doesn’t happen every year and it’s very special. I’m from here, nurtured by Valencia. It was special to win one; hopefully it can be two. There aren’t many of us who would have two here: you’d go down in history. When you’re little, you dream of playing for Valencia.”
Even if it is on the Game Boy.