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Monday, 13 May, 2002, 14:35 GMT 15:35 UK
The only way is up for Mendieta
Gaizka Mendieta starred for Spain in Euro 2000
Mendieta ran the show for Spain at Euro 2000

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Spain's Gaizka Mendieta goes to the World Cup in search of some happiness.

A year ago Mendieta was preparing to lead Valencia to their second consecutive Champions League final.

He was the captain and focal point of the side and adored by the club's fans.

But not much has gone his way since.

Open Quote
There is no doubt this has been a shocking year for me and I have to show the Spanish public I am still a good player
Close Quote
Mendieta

Agonising defeat by Bayern Munich on penalties in the final saw them fall at the last hurdle for a second straight year.

Valencia struggled in the Primera Liga, finishing in fifth place and out of the Champions League qualifying places, and manager Hector Cuper was on his way to Inter Milan.

Mendieta craved a move to one of Europe's big clubs after nine years with Valencia.

Real Madrid were interested and Mendieta was keen to stay in Spain.

But Valencia made it clear they were not going to allow their star attraction to move to a Spanish rival.

Real were quoted a price of 37m and there was no Madrid move for Mendieta.

Instead he was shipped off to Italy, with Lazio splashing out 29m for the midfield master.

Spanish coach Jose Antonio Camacho
Camacho has kept faith in Mendieta

The 2000 Serie A champions had sold Juan Sebastien Veron and Pavel Nedved and saw Mendieta as the man to rebuild their midfield around.

Things did not quite work out and the player struggled to adapt to the Italian game.

He was booed by the fans as Lazio were embarrassingly dumped out Europe in the opening stage of the Champions League.

Their domestic form was also alarming and Dino Zoff, the man who had brought Mendieta to Rome, was replaced by Alberto Zaccheroni.

One of his first moves was to drop the 28-year-old.

"I knew it was going to be difficult in Italy but to be honest I didn't think things would work out this way," he said in February.

"Things have been very difficult for me. When your team isn't playing well it reflects on the players and I have suffered."

Mendieta described his first year in Italian football as "shocking".

Spanish title

He made just 12 league starts as Lazio finished fifth in the table - 18 points behind Juventus.

His lack of first-team action even saw him lose his place in the Spanish squad.

While Mendieta's unhappiness reached an all-time low, Valencia prospered in his absence, winning the Spanish title by seven points.

Mendieta's whereabouts next season is still uncertain.

He has been linked with moves to Manchester United - in a swap deal with the equally out-of-sorts Veron - and Athletic Bilbao were said to be keen on taking him back to Spain on loan.

Rumours of a move to Barcelona and Real persist and the unsettled Mendieta appears keen for the comfort of a move back to Spain.

Gaizka Mendieta
Mendieta has found life hard in Italy

One thing is for sure, he will be in Korea and Japan this summer after being named in Jose Antonio Camacho's Spain squad.

Mendieta's run could have a happy ending.

While he is no longer the influence in the heart of the Spanish midfield during Euro 2000 - he was named to the team of the tournament - he could well have a major part to play.

The one thing that has kept him going is the prospect of going to the World Cup.

Camacho cited his "will to wear the national jersey" as a major reason for recalling him for their final two warm-up games.

If Spain are to shrug off the tags as the great underachievers then they will surely need the mercurial skills of Mendieta.

And the thought of feeling wanted again would leave Mendieta feeling on top of the word.

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GROUP B
  P GD PTS
SPAIN 3 +5 9
PARAGUAY 3 0 4
SOUTH AFRICA 3 0 4
SLOVENIA 3 -5 0

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