On the evening of July 12, David Villa, the captain and striker for the New York City Football Club (NYCFC), faced a stellar gathering of sports icons and Hollywood stars plus a global television audience while accepting the ESPY Award for Best Major League Soccer (MLS) Player.
It was the latest honor in a career that has included victories in the World Cup and European Championship and the 2016 MLS Most Valuable Player Award.
Two days after the ESPY ceremony, Villa — who spends time in Greenwich — faced a considerably smaller and somewhat less famous audience of youthful soccer camp participants gathered at New Jersey’s Ramapo College. But this was hardly a comedown for the Spanish-born athlete, and the next day he took to Twitter with the sincere exclamation, “It was great spending some quality time with these campers yesterday!”
That was not noblesse oblige by any stretch of the imagination. The son of a coal miner, Villa still retains a sense of awe at the appreciation that fans bestow on his athleticism, even after 16 years as a professional athlete.
“For me, I want to use soccer to help others,” he tells WAG. “I love winning, but I also love using soccer to bring joy to people’s lives. It is special that I have been able to do that all around the world and now right here in New York, which is my new home.”
Villa’s attitude is one of gratitude. “Football was much, much more than I hoped it would be,” he told CNN in a May interview. “If I dreamed as a kid, I could never have foreseen such amazing things … The people around me have made a lot of sacrifices to help me.”
(Don’t forget, we Americans insist on calling it “soccer” while our global neighbors prefer to call the game “football.” Villa’s Americanization has yet to take over that aspect of wordplay.)
Throughout his life, Villa has always strived to be the best at his game. His childhood nickname, El Guaje (The Kid), was tagged on him, because he sought to play soccer with children who were much older than he. He never dropped the moniker, and the 35-year-old Villa uses “@Guaje7Villa” as his Twitter handle. “I’ve worked hard, I’ve fought to be where I am,” he reminded CNN.
Indeed, he did. Villa began his professional career in 2000 with Sporting de Gijón in the Segundo Division of the Spanish football league system. He transferred to Real Zaragoza after two seasons, winning the Copa del Rey and Supercopa de España. Moving again in 2005, he became part of Valencia CF for a transfer fee of roughly $13.7 million — and five years later, he moved to FC Barcelona for $45 million.
Villa was a key member of the Spanish teams that won the UEFA Euro 2008 and the 2010 FIFA World Cup. After a final season in 2013-14 with Atlético Madrid, he closed his Spanish soccer career as his nation’s all-time top goal scorer with 59 goals in 97 international matches.
But what could Villa possibly do for an encore but conquer New York? Villa’s arrival at the NYCFC in 2014 helped to reinvigorate a sports league that was coasting below the proverbial radar for much too long.
Calvin Daniel, a soccer writer with the online SB Nation, summed up Villa’s effect on the U.S. soccer scene with his June 22 analysis “David Villa Might Play Forever.” As Daniel noted: “Ever since David Villa first donned the New York City FC blue, he has been nothing short of spectacular for the club, both on and off the pitch. He’s been even better than advertised as a captain, an ambassador and everything else you might expect from a Designated Player blazing his trail stateside. And in his third season in Major League Soccer, he might just be putting in his best performance yet.”
Daniel even dared to go into potentially dangerous territory by proclaiming Villa’s legend while he is still an active player. “We are reaching territory where Villa is more and more likely to go down as the best Designated Player ever in MLS, at least relative to his time in the league,” he continued. “He may as well be getting better with age … and his work rate has not slowed down in the slightest.”
But don’t think that Villa is going to become a legend in his own mind. Upon winning the ESPY, he remarked, “I’m very happy and proud to receive this award on behalf of all of my teammates and coaches who help me every day to score goals and to win games for NYCFC.”
Villa also avoids the postgame spotlight, happily keeping a low profile with his wife of 14 years Patricia who was also his childhood sweetheart — and their three children. The Villa family can be found enjoying New York’s eclectic attractions. His Twitter channel includes photos of Villa popping up at Chelsea Market, SoHo’s La Esquina and even on a Times Square billboard.
“New York City life is exciting,” he says. “I really enjoy it and so does my family. We spend time in Central Park and enjoy many restaurants. New York is always buzzing.
“But I also like to relax. That’s why it’s important for me to spend time outside of the city in Greenwich with my family in the summer. We enjoy nature and the swimming pool.”
Of course, there will be a time when the game must come to an end. But Villa is not interested in waiting for that hour to occur.
“Looking back and thinking about the past and what I’ve done makes no sense. I’d like to keep achieving things,” he told CNN. “Then, when I retire, I will appreciate everything that’s happened and everything I’ve achieved.”
Cheer on David Villa and the NYCFC squad in the Hudson River Derby when they take on the Red Bulls on Aug. 6. Kickoff is at 6 p.m. at Yankee Stadium. For more, visit NYCFC.com.