THE GOALKEEPER who helped Spain to win two UEFA Euro titles consecutively and its first-ever World Cup in the middle has officially announced his retirement from play, 15 months after collapsing during training with a...
Spain's world number one sports stars
Spain's world number one sports stars
By thinkSPAIN Team Sun, Jul 26, 2020
A WEEK AGO today, Spain celebrated its latest sporting world number one after golfer Jon Rahm became only the second of his nationality in history, after the late, great Seve Ballesteros, to soar to the top of the international rankings.
Of course, plenty of Spaniards have earned this honour in their respective sports throughout the ages – albeit the 21st century does seem to have inflated the list of names who have officially been declared the best on earth at some point in their lives, and it could be that in decades to come, the first quarter of the 2000s will be considered in retrospect as Spain's 'golden age of sport'.
Tennis ace Rafa Nadal has been world number one across three decades and, at one time, both the male and female top slots were held by Spaniards, with Wimbledon winner Garbiñe Muguruza heading up the rankings at the same time as Nadal; probably the best female badminton player in history, Carolina Marín, has put both her sport and her country on the world map; endurance racing driver Carlos Sainz Senior, MotoGP whizz-kid Marc Márquez and his compatriot and fellow race-rider Jorge Lorenzo, and soon-to-be-back Formula 1 legend Fernando Alonso have shown Spaniards are pretty formidable when they get wheels underneath them, and 'ace on ice' figure-skater Javier Fernández proves you don't have to have vehicles, balls or racquets to rocket to the top of the global rankings in the sporting arena.
None of these needs any introduction, but they're only the start. Another 13 Spaniards are presently, or have been, world number ones in their fields, and some of them may not be at all familiar to you.
Here's a potted history of them all – because you never know when you might get picked to appear on a TV game show, or they could be useful for a pub quiz.
Javier Gómez Noya
The London 2020 silver medallist from Galicia, five times world champion and four times European champion is probably Spain's most-decorated triathlete – netting a fourth-place diploma in Peking 2008, the year after he hit world number one in the International Triathlon Union (ITU) rankings and his first Olympics, scooping up a total of 11 medals at world championship level, five in European championships, and four in Ironman world championships between 2014 and 2018.
As well as the Royal Order of Sporting Merit in 2013, and the National Felipe de Borbón Sports Prize for Sportsman of the Year in 2012, Javier (first picture) is one of the youngest Princess of Asturias Award winners, being 33 when he was granted Spain's answer to the Nobel Prizes in the Sports category in 2016.
He had already been a finalist in 2013, the last time these were known as the Prince of Asturias Awards – since, the following year, said Prince became King and, with just two daughters, there is now no longer a Prince of Asturias – and again in 2015.
Javier, 37, was ITU world number one for nine consecutive seasons, from 2007 to 2016 inclusive.
He was born in Basel, Switzerland, where his parents lived, but they returned to their native Ferrol (A Coruña province) when their son was just three months old, and he now lives in Pontevedra.
You could be forgiven for thinking Mallorca was a breeding ground for world tennis number ones. Now retired, six years on from when he was national team captain in the Davis Cup, Carlos, who will be 44 next month, has been Rafael Nadal's main trainer since 2016 (Rafa's uncle, Toni Nadal, was his coach until then). Not as decorated as his Manacor-born protégé, Carlos was only ATP world number one for a fortnight in March 1999, achieved one Roland Garros Paris Open title the previous year – not 12, like Nadal – and reached the final of one other Grand Slam, the Australian Open, in 1997.
Carlos (second picture), born in Palma, also made it to the finals at the ATP World Tour in 1998, won three ATP 500 and 13 ATP 250 titles, and three Masters Series – Montecarlo (1998), Cincinnati (2002), and Rome (2004).
The 6'3” (1.9-metre) player, who turned pro when he was 19, was the first Spaniard to reach the world number one slot in 26 years when he topped the ranking in 1999.
He has been with his wife, TV presenter, actress and singer Carolina Cerezuela, for 13 years and they have three children – Carla, 10; Carlos, seven and Daniela, six.
Winner of five Tours de France and two Giri d'Italia – all consecutive – and an Olympic gold in Atlanta 1996, 'Big Mig' is widely held to be one of the best cyclists in history along with Eddy Merckx, Bernard Hinault, Jacques Anquetil and Fausto Coppi, was granted the Prince of Asturias Award for Sports in 1992, and graces the Cycling Hall of Fame.
Miguel, who turned 56 just 10 days ago, held the world hour record for two months in 1994, covering 53.040 kilometres (32.958 miles) in 60 minutes.
Although cycling does not have a 'world ranking' as such, he was legitimately considered the top rider on the planet in 1995 after snatching up the world time trial championship.
Navarra-born Miguel (third picture) stunned fans on New Year's Day 1997 when he announced his retirement, although he has remained closely linked to the sport at Olympic and international level in general, goes out cycling four times a week and is actively involved in his eponymous foundation, set up to promote sport in his region.
Miguel, along with wife Marisa and his three children, splits life between Pamplona and Palma de Mallorca.
Paquito Navarro and Juan Lebrón
Despite their successes in their own right, Francisco 'Paquito' Navarro, 31 and Juan Lebrón, 25, will always be thought of as one. In fact, when the pádel duo announced they would not be playing together this year – before the pandemic put paid to all sports anyway – fans were devastated. Even though they had only been a doubles team since the beginning of 2019.
Sevilla-born Paquito has almost never let a year go by without being champion of either Spain or the world, and in fact the partner in most of his successes was Argentina's Carlos Daniel 'Sanyo' Gutiérrez, currently world number four.
With Juan Lebrón in 2019, Paquito won the Alicante Open, the Jaén Open, the Valladolid Masters, the Swedish Open in Bastad and the São Paulo Open, an exceptional season that catapulted the twosome to world number one in November that year.
Paquito then took the Marbella Masters title alongside Brazil's Pablo Lima, considered his country's best pádel player, this year, before the world sporting circuit ground to a halt with the Covid-19 outbreak.
Juan, although he had been Spanish junior champion several times, made it to the top 30 in the World Padel Tour ranking in his first season – 2016 – and to 19th the following year, his major titles have all been alongside Paquito.
This year, his new game partner is world number three Alejandro Galán, with whom he won the Estrella Damm Open in Madrid.
More recently in the news due to her turbulent split from husband José Santacana Blanch, money problems and a family rift resulting from her 2012 autobiography, British tennis fans will be familiar with the Barcelona-born star's name as one half of the doubles team who won Wimbledon in 1995.
She and the Czech Republic's Jana Novotná beat the USA's Gigi Fernández and Belarus' Natasha Zvereva 5-7, 7-5 and 6-4 – the last woman to win at the famous London tournament until Garbiñe Muguruza did so in 2017, although the latter took the title in the women's singles, beating US legend Venus Williams and being the first to do so since her own trainer Conchita Martínez's 1994 victory against Martina Navrátilová.
In women's singles, Arantxa, 48, won the French Open at Paris' Roland Garros stadium three times, in 1989, 1994 and 1998, and the US Open in 1994, and in doubles, won the Australian Open three times – in 1992 with the Czech Republic's Helena Suková; in 1995 with Jana, and in 1996 with the USA's Chanda Rubin – and the US Open twice, with Helena in 1993 and Jana in 1994.
She also has four mixed doubles titles under her belt – Roland Garros twice, in 1990 with México's Jorge Lozano and in 1992 with Australia's Mark Woodforde; the Australian Open in 1993, with partner Todd Woodbridge playing on home turf; and the US Open, again with a 'native' partner, Jared Palmer, in 2000.
Competing in her home city, Arantxa won the singles bronze and the doubles silver, with Conchita Martínez, at the Barcelona 1992 Olympics, and the same pair took the doubles bronze in Atlanta 1996, where Arantxa netted the singles silver.
Her distinctions include the Gold Medal of the Royal Order of Merit in the Sports category, and the National Sports Prize for Sportswoman of the Year, in 1994, plus a Prince of Asturias Award in 1998, and the Great Cross of the Royal Order of Merit for Sports in 2001.
She became world number one in the WTA rankings in both the singles and doubles category in 1995, making her, at the time, only the second woman in history to hold both at the same time – after Martina Navrátilová – and still only one of five, along with Martina Hingis, Lindsay Davenport and Kim Clijsters.
Arantxa totalled 111 weeks as doubles world number one between 1992 and 1997, and held onto her singles number one slot for 12 consecutive weeks, although she finished in the top 10 in singles for 11 seasons.
Five-times world champion and twice-world reserve champion karateka Damián, 36, first made it to world number one in 2015 and, in 2018, was awarded the Málaga Star for Merit in Sports.
Netting the silver medal at the 2017 World Games in Wroclaw, Poland in 2017 in the men's kata, a gold in the men's individual kata at the 2019 World Beach Games in Doha, Qatar and, the same year, at the European Games, Damián is due to represent Spain at the Tokyo Olympics which, it is hoped, will go ahead next year after being shelved for 2020 due to the pandemic.
He remains world number one in the men's kata individual category.
Born to Argentine parents in Buenos Aires, Damián and his family moved to Torremolinos (Málaga province) when he was five, and since 2002 he has been based at Madrid's High-Performance Sports Academy.
His is a sport which, even at top levels, is difficult to live off, meaning he combines his karate with his work as an aeronautical engineer, which he studied for at Madrid Polytechnic.
Luis Suárez Miramontes
Although two high-profile players for Spanish teams – Cristiano Ronaldo and Leo Messi – have been playing tug-of-war with the Ballon d'Or for years, the only Spaniard ever to have won it was Luis Suárez Miramontes, back in 1960.
It is easy to forget Ronaldo is Portuguese and Messi is Argentine, given that the former is ex-Real Madrid and the latter plays for FC Barcelona, premier league clubs where they have long been global icons; although Ronaldo has had less success with his current team, Juventus.
As yet, not even some of the top Spanish players like Xavi, Iniesta or Raúl have achieved this top award, 60 years on from when the former Barça and Deportivo A Coruña player took it home.
This was four years before Spain's first-ever UEFA Euro win, where Suárez was the star of the show and, although he retired from the game in 1974, he would remain on the circuit until 1992 as trainer – first with Inter Milan, then with Deportivo, and from 1980 to 1988 as manager for the national under-21 side.
Suárez then became Spain manager and, two years later, in 1990, got the national team through to the World Cup in Italy, although they failed to make it to the quarter-finals; he was then dropped after Spain lost out on qualifying for the 1992 UEFA Euro.
Now aged 85, the legendary midfielder nicknamed El Arquitecto ('The Architect') is frequently confused by younger fans with Uruguayan prodigy Luis Suárez – but, in fact, the 33-year-old centre-forward who left Liverpool FC for Barça in 2014 was named after the former Spain manager.
Juan Carlos Ferrero
Born in Ontinyent (Valencia province), Ferrero, 40, has now retired from the game, but held the ATP world number one slot for eight weeks after winning at Roland Garros in 2003 – before Rafa Nadal got there and more or less took over custody of the trophy.
Considered one of Spain's 'golden generation' in tennis – along with Nadal, Moyá, David Ferrer, Tommy Robredo, Fernando Verdasco, Nicolás Almagro, Feliciano López and Marcel Granollers, Ferrero has played in five Davis Cup finals and helped Spain to win it three times – in 2000, 2004 and 2009 – and his other major titles include the 2002 ATP World Tour Finals and four Masters 1000.
Aged 13, Ferrero became national and also world junior champion, but he very nearly gave up altogether at 16 when his mother's death from cancer knocked him for six. However, the family convinced Ferrero to carry on with his tennis career in his mum's memory – and for the next 16 years, he certainly did her proud.
Considered the best female karateka in history in women's individual kata, Sandra, 39, held onto the number one slot for three consecutive years after she netted it in 2015 and, in November 2018, won the world championships.
Born in Talavera de la Reina, Toledo province – a town where Hollywood actress Gwyneth Paltrow lived for some years and where she now has a street dedicated to her – Sandra has been European champion five times on the trot since 2015 and, in 2017, was awarded the National Sports Prize as Sportswoman of the Year.
She was due to represent Spain at the Tokyo Olympics, and it is hoped she will do so when they finally take place, provisionally in summer 2021.
Acknowledged to be among the best of his generation, Àlex, now 50, was active throughout the 1990s – from his début at the Spanish Grand Prix in 1987, his first victory at the 1989 Australian Grand Prix, one of five that season which sent him soaring up the ranks to world champion in 125cc, his disappointing two years in 250cc and his shift to 500cc in 1992, right through to his end-of-the-Millennium world championship in the latter category, Crivillé road alongside legends such as Mick Doohan, Wayne Rainey and Kevin Schwantz, netted 20 race wins, 66 podium positions and 12 poles.
He was riding for Repsol Honda – Marc Márquez's team, although 14 years before history's youngest rookie champion joined it – when he ended the 1999 season at the top of the standings, but the start of the new century would bring about the end of his career: Àlex's last victory was at the 2000 French Grand Prix, his last race was the Rio de Janeiro Grand Prix in 2001, and in 2002 he announced his retirement due to being diagnosed as epileptic.
Switching to TV sports commentary, and still dipping into the world of motorcycle racing now and again, Àlex briefly swapped two wheels for four legs: Last year, he took part in the European Endurance Riding Championships with the Spanish national equestrian team.
Current world number one in judo, Niko was only 22 when he won the world championship in 2018 and a bronze medal in the European championship in the under-90kg category.
He is the first Spaniard ever to win the men's world title in judo, and he started collecting medals practically as soon as, in fact, he became Spanish, taking silvers at the under-21s world championships in 2014 and 2015.
Niko is originally Georgian, born in Tiflis, but when he was 14, his entire family decided to emigrate to Spain.
They settled in Madrid, where they have all lived ever since, and Niko obtained Spanish citizenship six years ago.
He had already been practising judo and water-polo in Georgia, but after the move to Madrid, he opted to focus on the former, training at the academy run by former Olympic judoka Joaquín Ruiz Llorente.
Currently riding for Team Movístar and having previously been with Kelme-Costa Blanca and Illes Balears/Caisse d'Epargne/Movístar, Alejandro, 40, has a whopping 127 victories to his name, including the 2009 Vuelta a España, the UCI ProTour 2006 and 2008 and the UCI WorldTour 2014 and 2015, plus 12 Vuelta stage wins, and four Tour de France and one Giro d'Italia stage wins, and he took the gold at the UCI Road World Championships in 2018.
Even though Valverde only has one Grand Tour title, he has come close on several occasions – he finished second in the Vuelta three times (2006, 2012 and 2019), third three times (2003, 2013 and 2014), fourth once, fifth twice and seventh once; came third in the 2015 Tour de France and earned another six top-10 places between 2007 and 2019; and came third in his one and only Giro d'Italia, in 2016.
Alejandro, born in Las Lumbreras, Murcia, comes from a keen cycling family and won around 50 consecutive races between the ages of 11 and 13, earning him at this young age the nickname of El Imbatido ('The Unbeaten').
Photograph 1: Javier Gómez Noya in 2011 (Martin Putz/Wikimedia Commons)
Photograph 3: Miguel 'Big Mig' Induráin in 1996 (Darz Mol/Wikimedia Commons)
Photograph 5: Sandra Sánchez in 2018 (Montserrat Boix/Wikimedia Commons)
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