Víctor Ruiz – Breaking the Spanish curse in Serie A

Napoli’s purchase of Spanish defender Víctor Ruiz from Espanyol is widely regarded as a smart piece of business, particularly at €6m (plus Jesus Dátolo).
He is young, very highly rated, and is clearly talented. Yet it represents something of a risk for the Partenopei – Spaniards and Italian football have not mixed all that well. So much so, in fact, that it is very difficult to name a Spaniard who has achieved even moderate levels of success in Italy’s top flight during the last 20 years. You have to go back to the 1960s with Luis del Sol, and La Grande Inter teammates Luis Suárez and Joaquín Peiró (although the latter was better at Roma), to find the last, and arguably the only, Spanish success stories in Italy.
Since then, we have been left with a trail of Spanish players, the majority of whom have been pretty disastrous for their Serie A clubs, none more so than Gaizka Mendieta, a player who at the time of his €48m transfer to Lazio in 2001 was one of the best midfielders in Europe and a two-time Champions League finalist. He was a huge name, and had a big reputation, but lasted one season at the club having performed so desperately below-par – a massive contrast to his displays for previous club Valencia.
Josep Guardiola was a player of a similar stature (albeit not quite as large as Mendieta) when, also in 2001, he transferred to Brescia. You would have thought the pace of the Italian game would have been perfect for a player like the Catalan maestro, who at 30-years-old was by no means past his best, but he was a shadow of the man who dictated games for Barcelona.
It is not just the established stars that have failed. Young Spaniards coming to Italy with supposed potential, like Víctor Ruiz, have flopped magnificently. Who can forget José Mari, bought by Milan at the age of 21 for €18m in 2000. He came with a reputation for scoring goals – even if his record at Atlético Madrid was modest for a player of that fee – but managed a stunning total of five goals during his three years at Milan, the last of which was spent on loan to his former club. Iván de la Peña was 22 when he became the latest addition to Lazio’s squad, and Javier Farinós was 21 when he joined Inter – both youngsters at the time who struggled to adapt to a different league, despite showing their obvious talent in Spain.
This apparent ‘Spanish curse’, although suggestive that it may be difficult, does not sound the death knell for Víctor Ruiz’s career in Italy before it has begun. There is something that separates him from the vast majority of Spanish flops in Serie A – his position. Most Italian clubs have bought midfielders and forwards when looking at Spaniards, two positions which accentuate the differences between leagues to a much greater extent than defence, where it is probably slightly easier for individuals of varying nationalities to adapt. Such is the focus on midfield and attack that Spanish defenders are something of a rarity in Italy, and the ones that do arrive generally get closer to acceptable standards of performance. Óscar López, who played for Lazio on loan from Barcelona during the 2004/05 season, could be held as an example of this, as could Chico, who has not disgraced his compatriots with his performances for Genoa so far this season.
That is not to say defensive failures have not occurred (Iván Helguera at Roma, before his time at Real Madrid, springs immediately to mind), but that it is merely less likely. With their latest buy, Napoli will be banking on that sort of probability.

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