Roberto Ayala was undoubtedly one of the world’s greatest central defenders during his era, although he’s also a case of a player arguably not achieving quite the reputation that he could have.
Yes, he won 115 caps for Argentina and captained them a record 63 times, but you can’t help but wonder exactly how highly the Argentinian would be regarded if he were around today: authoritative, solid, a real leader; Ayala is part of a lost breed.
It’s possibly a bit much to say that a defender who was named UEFA Club Defender of the Year in 2001, put in the ESM Team of the Year in 2004, and named in the 2006 World Cup Team of the Tournament is underrated, but his relatively few individual awards during his peak stands out in this age. There is a real lack of top-class defenders in this era, whereas Ayala’s was absolutely stacked with them – as his career proves.
His level of defending has been somewhat lost as football shifted towards more flowing, attacking football, with defenders being hailed for their ability on the ball – not their competence at stopping it. This is the post-Guardiola world, and it’s one that Ayala has spoken out on himself:
“In a way, it has damaged football.
“Now many defenders want to play the ball out as if they were in Barcelona, and they’re not able to. They’re not centre midfielders.
“First of all you have to defend, to give security. You can’t lose sight of the fact that they are defenders first.”
This is the world where teams are willing to spend a fortune on defenders like they’re going out of style – but that’s likely because it literally has.
Jerome Boateng is one of the best defenders in the world at the moment, but he just doesn’t command the same respect that the greats of the previous decade did; it’s difficult to say his name without conjuring images of Messi making him fall on his backside.
Messi smokes Boateng. Magic! pic.twitter.com/JChkQlI6Iq
— Soccer 1:1 (@soccertrainsf) July 30, 2017
But whereas you can’t walk through a team’s changing room these days without stumbling over a half decent playmaker, the first decade of the 21st Century has quality defenders at every major club; Roberto Ayala was firmly part of that elite.
Ayala started his career with Ferro Carril Oeste. No, it’s perfectly acceptable to not have heard of them outside of Argentina. The Buenos Aires side had enjoyed a golden age in the eighties, winning two national titles – the only national titles they’ve ever won. Ayala featured for them from 1991-93, however, the club had begun its decline by then (eventually falling to the third tier by 2003). His performances earned him a move to one of the biggest clubs in Argentina with River Plate. It was in his sole season at El Monumental that Ayala won his first trophy – the 1994 Apertura.
As an Argentinian footballer who was succeeding, Ayala naturally moved to Italian football. His move wasn’t exactly straightforward, however. He was taken to Serie A by Parma, but the club had already met their quota for foreign nationals and couldn’t play him. Napoli then bought 50% of his playing rights in a co-ownership deal with Parma, allowing Ayala to play for them. And that’s Italian football.
Ayala was a success at Napoli and earned himself a transfer to AC Milan in 1998, though, Ayala’s move to San Siro didn’t quite work out, unfortunately. Immediately that seems to ask questions: how was Ayala really that good if he failed to break into a side during what should have been his peak years? The answer to that is found simply by looking at Milan’s backline at the time. Ayala joined Milan and instantly found himself competing with two of the all-time greats in Alessandro Costacurta and Paolo Maldini; it’s quite difficult to hold his time there against him. When Costacurta started winding down, they replaced him with Alessandro Nesta – the standards at Milan were spectacularly high.
It’s easy to see why the standards were so high just by checking out the list of top scorers in the 1999/2000 season.
It’s been said a million times, but wasn’t 90s Serie A amazing?!
Two years of sporadic appearances followed at Milan before Valencia paid the money to take him to Spain. That Valencia side, led by fellow Argentine Hector Cuper, had just finished third in La Liga and reached the Champions League Final. It was the hottest up and coming side in Europe – a huge opportunity to Ayala to make his mark.
And make his mark he did. Valencia reached a second consecutive Champions League final, although lost on penalties to Bayern Munich. Ayala, playing alongside his compatriot Mauricio Pellegrino in a team that featured other Argentine’s in Kily Gonzalez and Pablo Aimar, was named as the best defender at the tournament. Valencia only managed 5th place in La Liga, however, missing out on Champions League qualification on head-to-head with Barcelona (that Rivaldo hat-trick sealing it).
Valencia changed managers, and to one who would make sure the team thrived on their defence: Rafa Benitez. Valencia’s 2001/02 season is pretty much the embodiment of the defensive philosophies that have been left behind. They won La Liga by seven points over Deportivo La Coruña, losing just five times – half the number of Depor, Barcelona, or Real Madrid. The team was built on their strong defence, primarily the goalkeeper Santiago Cañizares and the two centre-backs in Ayala and Pellegrino. But no need to take a word for it: the stats more than back that up. Valencia conceded just 27 goals that year, ten fewer than anyone else in the top four. But that’s only half the story.
When Ayala spoke about the attacking football of Barcelona leaving the art of defending in the dust somewhat, he spoke as a man who won La Liga in a side that scored just 51 goals. There are a thousand ways to offer perspective on that, but here’s one: in 2012 Lionel Messi scored 50 La Liga goals on his own.
Valencia’s top scorer list from that season is something to behold. The top six scored 7, 5, 5, 4, 4, 4. That seven? Defensive midfielder Rubén Baraja.
And that’s the big ‘what if?’ surrounding players like Ayala. He was outstanding in a side that defended like crazy, and the defenders of today simply wouldn’t have what it takes to achieve what his era did. You run through every top team in Europe from back then and every single one boasts strong centre-backs. Nowadays that isn’t the case – far from it in truth – but then defenders today aren’t asked to play that way. They’re a fundamental part of attacking machines who look to overwhelm teams, rather than stifle them.
It’s forever to be hypothetical, obviously, but what is for certain is that the likes of Roberto Ayala aren’t created anymore. That defensive generation has come and gone, eventually being moved aside for what we have today.
Ayala would go on to win a second La Liga title in 2003/04, although this time Benitez’s team had a far more comprehensible goal tally of 71. Not only that, but Los Che added the UEFA Cup in a historic season.
That would be the end of Ayala’s success, at club level at least. Benitez left for Liverpool in the summer, and Valencia never recaptured the heights again. Ayala remained with them until 2007, firmly establishing himself as a club legend and one of the world’s greatest centre backs of his time there.
Ayala was also part of the Argentina team who won gold at the 2004 Olympic games, while also performing so well at the 2006 World Cup that he was named as part of the 23-man team of the tournament. He retired from International football in 2007 after the Copa América (he scored an own goal in the final against Brazil, but was adamant that it had nothing to do with his decision). He remains the second highest capped player in his nation’s history, after Javier Zanetti.
His next move was a very strange one, however. He originally signed with local rivals Villarreal at the end of his contract, but shortly after agreeing on the deal, Real Zaragoza paid the €6m release fee to take him there. He remained there until 2010, before being released from his contract to join Racing Club Avellaneda back in Argentina. One final season there saw Ayala retire in 2011.
Roberto Ayala is a representative of a lost era of football, even if it is a recent one. An era where defenders reigned supreme, with their names striking fear into attackers and opposition fans. What we have now is very different, and the aura surrounding a world class centre back has faded quite substantially. Ayala would either be arguably the best in the world if he were around today, or would be seen as a fish out of water – we’ll never truly know, but what is for sure is that Roberto Ayala stood out among the very best, and there are few higher compliments than that.