from a pumpkin patch to the colossus of Celta Vigo

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In the land of Jago Aspas, Gabri Veiga may one day write his own story. At just 20 years old and a journalism student, it all started when he kicked a pumpkin around his uncle’s apartment in the Galician countryside. Who knows where it will go, but it’s going to be good somewhere: he was named La Liga’s best player in February, is likely to be called up for Spain this Friday and has scored eight (mostly absurd) goals so far this season. The one against Betis was bloody ridiculous and some have even dared to claim that the Celta de Vigo midfielder will end up like Aspas, his captain. Only, Veiga insists that there is no one like that him – and he knows it, he saw it.

Born in the town of O Porriño in the province of Pontevedra, Veiga was six years old when Aspas made his debut for Celta, the team they both supported a generation apart. He watched as he kept her from sliding into the third row. Aspas left the same year Veiga arrived aged 11 and saw the forward come back just happy to be back home. Veiga saw him score more La Liga goals than any other Spaniard in four different seasons. Now he sees it up close.

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Aspas scored twice when Veiga made his debut for Celta’s first-team team in the 2-1 win over Valencia in September 2020. The last time he saw Aspas score two more goals was in the 3-0 win over Rayo on Saturday night. Naturally. “Iago is the best player in the club’s history,” emphasizes Veiga.

After the game, it was suggested to the Celta captain that the pitch could one day be named after him. It’s not going to happen; Let’s face it – it’s far more likely to be a bookmaker or a bank – but it would be correct. Aspas has 200 goals for Celta, more than anyone ever, and is probably the most important player in Spain for his team, apart from Messi.

Aspas was, it seemed at times, her be-all and end-all, single-handedly saving her season after season. Not alone anymore, he was also asked about Veiga, the boy who emerged as his successor. “I hope he can be here with us for many more years so we can enjoy him,” Aspas said.

Here always goes the word of warning; the fine print, the part that reminds you that the value of your investment—emotionally, financially—can go down as well as up. So many players would grow up, build themselves up ahead of their time and beyond their means, or find circumstances conspiring against them. Too often, being the new guy means not being yourself and being weighed down by the expectations of others. As Bojan Krkic correctly puts it: be Career was not without its success, it just wasn’t Messi’s.

Iago Aspas (right) celebrates Celta’s opening goal against Rayo with Gabri Veiga (second right) and the rest of his teammates. Photo: Quality Sport Images/Getty Images

Before Barcelona made it mainstream, Real Madrid had their own Palanca. A lot of people were going insane over a boy named Miguel making his debut in Clásico only to have just two more games to play. Even Ansu Fati, touched by something intangible, now looks oddly mortal.

And yet, and yet. Ah, go on then. Previously unmoved by the ball, there was something about the pumpkin that drew him in, Veiga admits. That’s how it started. Though he wasn’t particularly noticeable teenager He was the player who stood out the most in a hugely talented Celta B team and after making his first-team debut in 2020 he only made a handful of appearances.

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This season, Veiga has become practically ubiquitous. He had to be: Brais Méndez was sold to Real Sociedad last summer, Santi Mina joined and Denis Suárez was frozen for refusing to fire his agent who had brought one of Celta’s youngsters to Madrid with Aspa’s warning even then, that the squad was tight.

Veiga was exceptional, the comparisons inevitable. His outburst, says the club’s academy director, was “even bigger than Jago’s”. His vocation is to replace Aspas,” says Hugo Mallo, who made his 300th appearance on Saturday and, as you may recall, is not just a teammate but a member of the Iago Aspas Supporters Club. Veiga has said that he would like to follow the path of these two men, but suitors have inevitably turned up. “He’s like me: he comes from here, he has family here,” says Aspas. “I left and it didn’t work. He has desire, enthusiasm, quality. He feels comfortable here and hopes to stay for a long time. If he has to go, he should leave many millions behind.”

Coach Carlos Carvalhal admits: “He was a surprise. I’ve seen very few players like him in my career.” And he was in Sheffield on Wednesday.

Celta have improved dramatically under Carvalhal: from three wins and eight losses in 13 games to five wins and just two losses in the 12 since taking charge. In the relegation zone when he took over, they are now in 11th place, five points and seven places clear. They’ve lost just one in seven – 1-0 to Atlético – and in that time have scored four goals against Betis, three against Valladolid and now three against Rayo. They have tightened up defensively, haven’t conceded a goal for 334 minutes, the structure has improved and so has the attitude. “We have to squeeze one nonsense next to the other,” Aspas said, which they did, at least figuratively.

Carlos Carvalhal encourages his players against Real Valladolid last month.

Carlos Carvalhal encourages his players against Real Valladolid last month. Photo: Octavio Passos/Getty Images

It was collective but Veiga was at the heart of the improvement, scoring twice against Betis and Valladolid, giving him eight goals in total. Nobody in the squad has more than two, except Aspas. Among the Spaniards in La Liga, only Joselu, Borja Iglesias, Aspas and Álvaro Morata have more. Four of those five were in Celta’s youth system. The only one of the five who isn’t a striker is Veiga.

He’s not your typical Spanish midfielder. Strong and athletic, technically impressive, better defining his position under Carvalhal, Veiga plays a little deeper than him from where he can leap at opponents. Also from where he can deliver: There are three assists for the goals.

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“He doesn’t have that touch or precision profile, but he knows how to play. He’s intelligent, very strong and can get into the box,” Rayo manager Andoni Iraola warned ahead of Saturday’s game. “He carries the ball, clears players and does a lot of damage.”

Within 34 seconds of starting the game, Veiga had done just that. He was named the league’s best player in February and had barely dropped the award when he launched from the halfway line and veered away from Rayo’s players, an air of Gazza all around him. Reaching the area, he delivered the perfect pass for Aspas.

There was something of the importance of timing in that. The timing on the pitch, but also the moment when he has become an important part of the team and accompanies Aspas. It might be a shame that they’ll likely only get together for a few years, but it might have been more difficult at other stages of Aspas’ career. Now, at 35 and 20 respectively, it feels perfect, the transition smoothed, some of the burden shared. Aspas came on after not scoring for five weeks and missed that chance when he should have scored. Veiga then almost scored another himself with a clean flick that was pushed off the near post. Just four minutes had passed and the 20-year-old strode through the game like a Celtic colossus.

Iago Aspas has long been Celta's talisman.

Iago Aspas has long been Celta’s talisman. Photo: Quality Sport Images/Getty Images

But when it came down to it, Aspas was the giant this time, as so often. He swept Celta in goal, scoring again in the 51st minute and then completing the goal with a glorious third right at the end when he lobbed the ball over Rayo’s stole Dimitrievski from a tight angle.

In the week that the Spain squad is being named, it felt like a timely reminder, a reaffirmation of Aspas’ status. It propelled him to double digits for the eighth consecutive season. It also gave Celta apparent reassurance, and that’s no small matter: they’ve been a top-flight side for a decade, their decade only eight other clubs can claim. “Aspas leads the ship ashore,” wrote Faro de Vigo. “Celta scored solid ground after months of torturous sailing.”

Aspas is, said El Faro, “magical,” a man whose “talent is inversely proportional to the recognition he receives beyond Piornedo [on the Galician border].” AS declared: “Aspas is Captain Lightning.” “A genius,” Marca called him, insisting: “The fact that Aspas is a genius, one of the best players in the league seems obvious, but it needs to be said more , because we wronged the man from Moaña.”

“He’s the best player I’ve ever had to coach,” added Carvalhal. “When you have a player like Aspas, it makes everything easier.”

Veiga, 15 years his junior, said that one day he would tell his children that he was playing with Aspas. Aspas doesn’t have to do that, his children can see for themselves.

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