Football coaches, players, fans and writers have a habit of apotheosizing the player that did not quite make it, the young prodigy whose career was ended by injuries or derailed by bad decisions and influences.
Everyone who knew Victor Vazquez as a member of Barcelona’s famous 1987-born academy team that included Lionel Messi, Cesc Fabregas and Gerard Pique, however, says the same thing. “I remember Messi and Victor were by far the best players in our team,” Fabregas said. “Sometimes they would go in for head-to-head duels. If one scored four in one game, the other would hit five in the next.”
“I never saw a better duo on the pitch than Vazquez and Messi,” said Alex Garcia, their coach for the season in which they turned 16. Years later, even Vazquez himself would say: “They were talking about me more than Messi.”
Toronto FC’s new signing has certainly not thrown his career away but while Messi has been everything Barcelona ever could have dreamed of while he was growing up at La Masia, their famous youth facility, Vazquez’s time in the senior Barca team was much more brief.
It peaked on December 7, 2010, when he came off the bench in a Champions League match against Rubin Kazan and scored his first and only goal for the club, bending a low shot from distance past the goalkeeper after excellent work in midfield from Adriano. For a moment, it was like they were kids again; Vazquez had Messi free to his right but, recalling the friendly competition of their youth team days one last time, took the shot himself with aplomb.
That goal marked the end of a long comeback for Vazquez, however, and was more of a goodbye to his life in Catalonia than a sign of things to come. He had played in another Champions League match, against Shakhtar Donetsk, as a promising 21-year-old almost two years earlier to the day but less than two months later suffered a serious injury to his knee, ruling him out for the best part of a year.
The injury demanded significant rehabilitation work but while it may have ended his chances of carving out a career at Barcelona, that is not to say that Vazquez has made nothing of his talents since leaving the club at the end of the 2010-11 season. While his mobility has suffered as a result of the damage done, he retained his vision and class on the ball and capped a four-year spell at Club Brugge with the Belgian Footballer of the Year award in his final campaign.
He was the third Brugge player to claim the prize in five years, following in Ivan Perisic and Carlos Bacca’s footsteps, and played his best football under Michel Preud’homme that season to help his club reach the quarter-finals of the Europa League while losing just one match - the 1-0, second-leg defeat to eventual finalists Dnipro that saw them knocked out.
At the start of the following season, a few months before Vazquez left for Cruz Azul, Brugge took on Manchester United in the final qualifying round for the Champions League group stage. They were beaten comfortably, 7-1 on aggregate, but Vazquez proved that Louis van Gaal had been right to single him out as a potential threat by delivering a free-kick that Michael Carrick diverted in to his own net to give Brugge a short-lived lead in the first leg. “He is very good,” Van Gaal said. “He is one of the key players. He has very good vision. I like him when I have analyzed him. He is the player of the year - and I can imagine how he is the player of the year.”
Vazquez had already stated a desire to seek a new challenge by that point and ended up departing at the end of 2015 for Mexico, where he joined fellow Barcelona youth product Marc Crosas at Cruz Azul.
There followed the worst 12 months of his career since his injury seven years earlier. In an interview back in Belgium with HLN late in 2016, he cited his family’s personal life in Mexico City and the Liga MX style of play as the main reasons for his woes.
“I’m not unhappy, but certainly not satisfied with my decision to leave Bruges,” he admitted. “Life in Mexico City is not what we imagined. More than 25 million people can be a bit dangerous, especially if you have a family and children. It is not easy and we are looking for a solution.”
On his form, he added: “I like to play fast, but everything slows down due to the dry pitches and the different style of play. I am not at my best level right now.”
Both problems should be eased in Toronto, a much less densely populated city with a team that discovered how effective it can be when it plays at a high tempo and with intensity in last season’s MLS playoffs. The standard of opposition, while rapidly improving, also remains lesser than that which he faced with Cruz Azul.
Toronto have waited more than two years to finally land Vazquez, who they considered making a designated player in 2015. Now he arrives to complement Sebastian Giovinco, Jozy Altidore and Michael Bradley and with the chance to add another chapter to a unique career.