Javi Pérez is a Valencian through and through.
A native of Valencia, Spain, Pérez spent 15 years with his local club Valencia CF. Joining the Valencia Academy at the age of five, the midfielder was shaped both as a player and person by the club affectionately called Los Che by its supporters. And like so many of his teammates, he was influenced by one player on the pitch as he climbed the ranks.
But Pérez never could have imagined as he sought a new test an ocean away from Valencia, that one player would play such a big role.
Every player that has donned the Valencia kit from 2005 onwards is following in his footsteps. From the academy to the first team, David Villa left an indelible mark on the Spanish club in just five seasons before moving to the likes of Barcelona, New York City FC, and now, Vissel Kobe of the Japanese first division.
“David meant a lot, especially to the fans of Valencia. He did great things, he scored a lot of goals. He did a lot of things for the team and the city,” Pérez said of Villa’s time at Valencia. “He was an idol for a lot of us.
“We all trained in the same facility. There was like six or seven fields. We saw him daily. For us, he’s an idol for all the young players. He was like a mirror, you could look at him and be like I want to be the top scorer for the national team that’s now playing for Valencia. Everything he brings to the table was just amazing.”
As idols go, Villa is the model player. He’s won everything for both club and country. He remains the fifth-leading scorer in Valencia history. So when he left Spain in 2014 for a new adventure in the U.S. with NYCFC, people took notice.
Little did Pérez know at the time, not only would he follow his idol stateside, but he’d do it with Villa’s help.
Coming To America
In 2016, Villa introduced the world to his DV7 Academy. In an effort to teach young players around the world the Spanish style of play while continuing their development as people, Villa’s new endeavor grew quickly. Today, there are eight DV7 academies worldwide with age groups starting as young as under-5 teams. But back when Pérez became aware of DV7, the academy was only starting to take shape.
The mission at the time was to develop players for teams in Spain or give them the chance to continue their studies in college. It was that opportunity to become a student-athlete that intrigued Pérez. He became the first player to earn a scholarship from the DV7 Academy and would later begin his U.S. adventure at the University of Pittsburgh.
Thousands of miles from Valencia, Pérez remained in contact with Villa.
“Once I came to the U.S., he was a guy that was in contact with me. When I had any doubts, he was always open to helping me out,” Pérez said.
On one occasion, Pérez and Villa were both in Washington, D.C., for matches. Pérez and his Pitt teammates faced Georgetown, while Villa was in town to play D.C. United. After sending Villa a message, Pérez and his entire team had tickets to the match waiting for them, and Villa even waited after the match to meet up.
“For players here in college meeting a guy like David Villa is just amazing,” Pérez said.
Throughout his two years with the University of Pittsburgh, Pérez and Villa would stay in contact, speaking or sending texts from time to time. When LAFC selected Pérez in the 2019 MLS SuperDraft, a message of congratulations arrived immediately from Villa.
“I’m very thankful, he could honestly choose from many players and he chose me,” Pérez said. “I am very thankful for that. The advice and all the support he’s been giving me throughout these years in college has been great. I am very thankful to him and his group.”
Friends To Opponents
Shortly after receiving Villa’s message, Pérez received another from his agent. He’d be playing against Villa in a friendly just weeks after joining LAFC’s preseason camp.
“I sent [Villa] a message saying I’m going to be right up on you and I’m going to be following you,” Pérez said with a laugh.
After taking part in LAFC’s first preseason match against Toronto FC on Sunday, Pérez is excited to build on what he’s learned in the team’s second match – no matter the opponent. That being said, he can’t hide his excitement in facing Villa, along with his teammates Andres Iniesta and Lukas Podolski, at Banc of California Stadium on Thursday.
“If I get in a tackle and I get stuck in, I’ll obviously say something to him and just put in a little laugh,” Pérez said of opposing his mentor and friend. “But I’m focused on playing, focused on doing a good job.
“We’ll probably have a big laugh after the game. And hopefully, I can get to meet Iniesta, too”