Talent Watch: Fran Villalba – The Wizard of Cabanyal
Suggested soundtrack (El Cabanyal - Valencian song)
Once upon a time, a little boy was ready for his official debut against mighty Liga leaders Barcelona…
Born in the Valencian neighborhood El Cabanyal, Francisco José Villalba Rodrigo is as pure as you can get a Valencianista. Villalba has been a leading figure and often captain on all youth-teams up until the successful under-16 Cadete A team. He was one of their topscorers thanks to a kicking-ability that secured several free-kick goals such at games against Don Bosco and Torre Levante. Early, the under-17 Juvenil A team promoted Villalba, peaking with an important goal in a 1-2 win at top-fight rivals Villarreal, eventually leading Baraja’s boys to another championship. Villalba also has been instrumental for the Juvenil-A team in UEFA Youth League, as he has assisted 4 times as we speak, securing the Valencian youngsters a playoff-spot against Celtic.
Villalba has also been noticed outside of Valencia. In Spring 2014, Villalba was the youngest talent among the 77 candidates in Spanish youth-award “Fútbol Draft”. Adidas then made a personal sponsorship with the 16 year old. The following summer was intense with rumors about a 4-year youth-contract offer from Liverpool, potentially raising Villalba’s release-clause beyond €20M. Yet, Villalba decided to stay by signing a 4 year contract renewal with his Valencia.
On January 29 last year, Fran Villalba was “finally” promoted to senior level alongside the one year older left-back teammate Antonio Latorre. A few days later, Villalba entered for his Valencia-B debut in the 73rd minute of the 2-1 loss against local rivals Xàtiva. Villalba finished the season by coming on in two more games for the seemingly always relegation-threatened Valencia reserves.
Last summer, Villalba began drawing more attention outside of Spain, at the sub-17 EURO. Sports-director Rufete attended the quarter-final between Spain and Germany, where Villalba was said to be “impressive”. After the very short summer-break, Villalba took another leap, as he was called up in the Valencia 1st squad for the Austria training camp, alongside 11 other youngsters such as current goalkeeper Jaume and midfielder Zahibo, who both have managed to stay with Villalba in 1st squad ever since. On July 8, Villalba unofficially debuted for Valencia in the 2nd half against Austrian club Wiener SK. Villalba, himself, on the debut: “Very happy, very satisfied, very grateful to Mister Nuno (ex-coach) and above all very happy to make my dream come true. This is elite football; if you are not careful, you are dead”. Big words from a little boy. His father José Carlos: “For a Valencianista father, seeing his son debut for Valencia is the maximum”. José Carlos is also an active follower on Twitter (@josecarlosvill3) in case you want to follow everything about the 17 year old magician.
2 weeks before this season with decisive UCL playoffs against Monaco, Villalba was the only academy talent alongside central-defender Ibrahim Diallo to still practice with the 1st squad. In this period, he entered for another pre-season game against PSV Eindhoven, but the real highlight came on August 8: Villalba was chosen as the only youngster to take part in the official 1st squad presentation “Trofeo Naranja” including a friendly game against Italian UCL team Roma. “The day I have dreamed about since childhood. Words can’t describe this emotion. Thanks for all support”, stated Villalba earlier on the day. Father to son: “Fran, son, enjoy this night so wonderful and quiet, because you are with the world’s best fans that can be on your side”.
Soon, Villalba was ready to make his official debut against no other team than Liga leaders Barcelona. Literally, as he was lined up as the late 3rd sub to turn around a 1-2 result. But then Santi Mina equalized to 2-2. Being told that a defensive player instead would come on to defend the draw result, Fran Villalba reacted as a mature grown-up by hugging his replacement Tropi.
Instead, the official debut came on December 16 as a half-time sub for another magician André Gomes in the 2-0 cup victory over Segunda B side Barakaldo. “I was nice and calm because the coach Gary Neville told me to just play my normal game, while I am grateful to the way the supporters got behind me and now I need to keep working hard and make sure I can help the reserve-team to stay alive in the Segunda B3”, Villalba said with his well-known humility upon the debut – where he gave away the shirt to his biggest fan, father José Carlos, “who has been by my side every step of the way”. Two weeks later, Villalba got his postponed Liga debut as an 84th-minute sub against regional rivals Villarreal.
Rising only 1.68m up in the air, Villalba is strongest with the ball on the ground. Incredibly fast and visionary play makes him dangerous from several midfield positions, although the winger was his primary position at youth-level. Like Silva and Mata, he is developing towards a central role, leading to several comparisons. The 17 year old tries to remain cool: “It’s great that I have been likened to Silva but I have a long way to go in the game, and I just need to keep on the right road. Silva is a wonderful player”. With Valencia not only being alive in the two cups, Copa del Rey and Europa League, but also having beneficial games there, Fran Villalba seems to face much more play-time already this season.