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SURELY THERE IS SOME IRONY IN THIS: DAVID Villa was born in a mining town; he was raised by miners; he was destined to become a miner. In fact, when 33 Chilean laborers spent 69 days trapped 2,300 feet below ground after a copper mine collapsed in the Atacama Desert last year, Villa sent them good wishes and signed jerseys. But soccer had changed Villa's career trajectory years earlier, and besides, he was put off by the dangers of the family trade. So now here he stands, having jetted up La Liga's hierarchy (Real Zaragoza, Valencia, Barcelona) in a mere decade, at the Camp Nou, with a world-class collection of football miners.
To witness l'equip blaugrana deconstruct a foe, touch pass by touch pass, end line to end line, is to observe a patient, precise excavation. Every goal is the product of a seemingly endless chipping away. To have seen Barça take apart its Spanish rival, Real Madrid, 5--0 last Nov. 29 was to have seen a clinical dig: 609 completed passes versus Madrid's 225. Barcelona's second-leg Champions League tilt against Arsenal in March played out similarly: 738 completed passes to 199 in a 3--1 victory. Yet in the Real Madrid game Villa scored two quick-strike goals that were in stark contrast to Barça's tiki-taka style. One came off a slick 20-yard pass from Lionel Messi, the other off another Messi lead dished daringly from midfield, collected atop the goal box and quickly tucked past Real goalkeeper Iker Casillas.
Villa, it turns out, is no miner. What you find at his core is not patience. It's TNT. He's dynamite in soccer studs.
To the young Villa, kicking around the pitches of Tuilla, a minuscule coal-mining community in the province of Asturias in northwestern Spain, life must have seemed like a long, dark tunnel. His father, José Manuel (Mel) Villa, was a miner and the son of a miner. David witnessed the job's everyday grind: excruciatingly long shifts with the ever-present threat of shaft fires and collapses. "I have lived with uncertainty," Villa said recently of long nights spent waiting for his father to come home. For the youngster, who was then making good on the nickname El Guaje, which had a double meaning (The Kid, after his ability to outrun his elders, and Miner's Assistant, for his blue-collar heritage), the names of Spanish soccer stars such as Quini and Enrique were as familiar as the names of Tuilla's most productive mines: El Terrerón, Mosquitera and La Braña. David was short and slight, and a severe break he'd suffered in his right femur when he was four had caused concern about his durability as a player. Fortuitously, it was that childhood injury, combined with an accident at a mine where his father worked, that pushed David away from a life underground and toward a career on the pitch.
As far back as Villa can recall, his father was his training partner. "I can barely remember a single session when my dad wasn't there," he says. Following his leg injury, David endured grueling father-son training sessions. With the boy's dominant right leg in plaster, Mel worked the left, building the weaker foot into a strength. (Today Villa's ambidextrousness is almost unmatched in football: In a scoring outburst in February—four goals in four games over two weeks of La Liga and Champions League play—Villa netted, in succession, with his left, left, right and right.) Then, one night when David was 11, Mel's mine was raked by fire. Mel escaped unharmed, but the inferno was enough to end his nights as a miner.
Instead, Mel became not only his son's training partner but also his promoter. David tried out for and was deemed too short by the youth team of Real Oviedo, but the elder Villa persisted. At age 14, playing for UP Langreo, another team in Asturias, David had a falling-out with a coach who doubted his potential, but Mel pushed his son to stick it out even if he didn't see game action. "Being made to sit on the bench all season, I just wanted to get away and play with my friends," Villa recalls. But Mel wouldn't have it.
In 2000 Mel's persistence paid dividends as David debuted for the B team of second-division Sporting Gijón. The 17-year-old, fully grown but still undersized at 5' 9" and 152 pounds, matched his age in goals, got bumped to the A squad and scored 38 more times in two seasons, enough to be purchased for $3.5 million by top-tier Real Zaragoza.
In his first La Liga season, 2003--04, Villa scored 17 times, and Zaragoza, which had just been promoted from the second division, finished in the middle of the pack. As icing, Villa drilled a penalty kick in a 3--2 win over Real Madrid to claim the Copa del Rey, a sign of big-game glory to come. A year later he scored another 15, including a goal against each of the league's top two finishers, Barça and Madrid, making it no longer possible to ignore his talent.
By 2005 Villa's was a household name. He debuted for the national side in February, quickly nudging the country's alltime leading scorer, Raúl, out of the picture, and that summer he was sold to Valencia for $14.6 million. In his first season with Los Che he scored 25 goals to finish second in the league, one tally behind Barça's Samuel Eto'o. Over 166 league appearances with Valencia he would net 108 goals, for a stunning scoring rate of one every 1½ matches. For Spain, meanwhile, he scored three times in four matches at the '06 World Cup. Two years later, at Euro 2008, he won the Golden Boot with four goals in five games, and Spain won its first international trophy in more than four decades. In 2009 Villa's 43 goals in 54 games for Valencia and Spain were best in the world.
If that qualified as a breakout, then 2010 would be an explosion. Villa entered the World Cup in South Africa as a favorite to win the Golden Boot, and after a false start in a 1--0 loss to Switzerland, he delivered. Over the next four games, playing alongside a slew of teammates from Barcelona, with which he had signed in May for $50.3 million, Villa scored five of Spain's six goals. His scorching score against Honduras was most telling and most at odds with the calculated, risk-free style of his Spanish teammates. Villa wildly attacked a wall of three Honduran defenders at the top left of the box and then, as a fourth defender bore down, slid into a desperate right-footed blast that found the side netting. Villa's ruthless impatience would carry Spain to the World Cup final, which it won 1--0 over the Netherlands. He finished tied for the tournament lead with five goals, more than enough to push him to the top of his country's alltime World Cup scoring leader board.