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Borja Valero will always be the mayor

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Il Sindaco is why we care about this game.

SS Lazio v ACF Fiorentina - Serie A Photo by Giuseppe Bellini/Getty Images

On the first day of August in 2012, Fiorentina announced that they’d signed Borja Valero from Villarreal. I was fairly excited, as he’d been part of some fun teams for the Yellow Submarine and looked like he could slot into any role in the midfield. If I’m being honest, I was probably a bit more excited about Matías Fernández, who’d joined the day before from Sporting. When Alberto Aquilani signed on 3 August and David Pizarro 6 days after that, I wondered if the Spaniard was the odd man out under new manager Vincenzo Montella.

It didn’t take long for Borja to make it very clear that he would be central to everything the Viola did. In the opener against Udinese, it was Valero who assisted Stevan Jovetić’s second half equalizer en route to a comeback win. From then on, it was pretty clear that Montella’s three tenors had clearly defined roles: Pek was the team’s brain, touching the ball over a hundred times in some games and controlling the tempo; Aquaman was the soul, drifting in and out at times but also capable of the moments of genius that a team needs.

But Borja? Borja was always the team’s heart. Part of it was his appearance: bald, scruffily bearded, casually-dressed, he looked like any proud dad ready to embarrass his kids into oblivion when they’re a few years older rather than a world-class professional athlete. Part of it was how he presented himself online: a goodnatured family man who didn’t take himself too seriously, who posted pictures of his cat and his children and spouse instead of his expensive clothes and cars.

More of it, though, was how he played. He popped up all over the field but was always in space to receive the ball, take a touch, and pass it forward or into space to his side to bring someone else into play; it felt like he played with his brain more than his foot. This intrinsically unfussy style matched his appearance, but disguised how magnificent a footballer he was. He never took a bad touch. He never made the wrong decision. He never ran out of energy. His only weakness—shooting—endeared him to us because it showed his human shortcomings rather than limiting his ability.

It wasn’t just his (consistently marvelous) play that made me fall in love, though. Even though Manuel Pasqual and Gonzalo Rodríguez wore the armband, there was never any question that it was Valero who was the leader. He was the one who confronted referees and opponents with startling intensity but also kept everyone easy and loose on the sidelines. Just as he was inevitably involved in the buildup to every goal, he was involved with all his teammates.

These are all the qualities of a player who quickly becomes a fan favorite, and sure enough, the Viola faithful immediately took to Valero. What set him apart, though, was the way that he took to them too. As professional athletes increasingly distance themselves from the public, Borja and Rocío and the kids were common sights around Florence as they did their grocery shopping or went for jogs in the park or threw themselves into charitable causes or the nichest of niche local interests. That’s how he earned the nickname of il Sindaco: the Mayor.

When he was forced out in 2017 (the less said, the better), the outpouring of civic grief was unlike anything I’ve ever seen. There’s been rage when players were sold but never this sort of sadness, this realization that the fans had lost one of their own. Borja, as a professional, didn’t accuse the Della Valles or Pantaleo Corvino of pushing him out, opting to thank the supporters instead. But he also made it very clear that, even if he was joining Inter Milan, his heart would always be in Firenze.

When he returned in 2020, it felt like the Rocco Commisso regime had corrected one of its predecessor’s biggest mistakes. Nobody really cared if Borja had anything left in the tank, or if he had more than a year left in his legs. What mattered was that the mayor was back in purple and up to his usual tricks, such as featuring in my favorite photograph of the past season.

Now 36, Borja will finish his Fiorentina career with 233 appearances, good for 26th for the club ever and 4th among non-Italians, trailing just Kurt Hamrin, Gabriel Batistuta, and Rui Costa. That’s one hell of a legacy to leave behind, and also represents three paths Borja could take in his post-playing career: Costa dove right back into the game and now serves as the DS at Sporting, while Batistuta returned to Argentina but occasionally reappears to deserved adulation in Florence.

Hamrin, however, kept living in the city after he hung up his boots and, at 86, is still going strong. While there’s been plenty of clamor for Valero to join Vincenzo Italiano’s staff as a coach (and, with an incredibly quick mind, you can see why), he could just as easily apprentice under his wife and brother, who run a player agency.

It doesn’t really matter what his next step is, though, because Borja Valero is a Fiorentina legend. He may not have the numbers of Hamrin or Batisuta or Costa, but he’s as woven into the fabric of the team and the city as any player in history. For as long as he’s in Florence and even after that, he’ll always be a legend. He’ll always be the mayor.

Gracias por todo, Borja. Te queremos tantísimo.