Salva Ballesta: The surprise winner of La Liga’s Pichichi in 1999/2000

The 1999/2000 La Liga season will go down as one of the most unpredictable of any European league campaign in history.

Sure, it wasn’t the all-conquering division we see in the modern day but back then, the Spanish top tier was not dominated by the duopoly Barcelona and Real Madrid. Deportivo La Coruna won the league, Real Zaragoza finished fourth – ahead of Los Blancos in fifth – and two of the countries big hitters, Sevilla and Atletico Madrid, were relegated. But, even more surprisingly, a man from 15th place Racing Santander lifted the Pichichi; Salva Ballesta.

The Spanish striker is certainly not a household name but in 1999/2000, his goal scoring prowess was memorable. La Liga at that time contained the likes of Raul, Patrick Kluivert and Roy Maakay, but none of them could get near the 27 goals scored by Ballesta.

Off the pitch, the Spaniard was a right-wing nationalist, a Francoist who regularly antagonised teams from the Basque region of the country. In fact, his political views were so strong and militant that they led to him being rejected by Celta Vigo to be their assistant manager in 2013.

Nevertheless, back in 1999/2000, Ballesta was a man possessed, scoring over 50% of Santander’s 52 goals for the season. Without him, they would have been doomed to relegation.  His finest match came in October of that season when he notched four goals in a 5-2 win over Real Sociedad. Naturally, the team from the Basque region were not best pleased that their arch nemesis produced his finest ever performance in their presence.

His other notable feats that season were a hat-trick in a 3-0 win against Celta Vigo and two match-winning braces in 2-1 victories over Real Oviedo and third-place Valencia. These were all achieved before the turn of the year but five days into the new millennium, Ballesta was back proving the doubters wrong away at the eventual champions, Deportivo.

Back then, the Estadio Riazor was a formidable fortress, but the Spanish striker and his spirited Santander comrades went there and won 3-0 with Ballesta adding yet another brace to his already wealthy collection. In the space of five games by January 5th, his goals had won 15 points, almost a third of their entire haul for the season.

Ballesta’s outrageous form summed up the unpredictable atmosphere of La Liga that season. No one was untouchable, with Zaragoza even beating Real Madrid 5-1 at the Bernabeu. The nation’s smaller outfits stepped up and delivered a campaign where the neutral viewer was left jaw-dropped every round of matches.

Santander’s talisman was one of the primary reasons for such an enthralling campaign, a striker with a great work ethic and copious amounts of flair who dragged his side to safety. Behind him in the Pichichi charts were Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink of Atletico and Catanha of Malaga, both finishing with 24 goals apiece.

Ironically, Ballesta would move down a division after his heroics in 1999/2000, signing for Atletico to replace Hasselbaink but even his 21 goals in the Segunda Division couldn’t bring the capital club back to the top flight. He would move to Valencia where he would lift the La Liga trophy in 2001/02 as a bit-part player; he even had a loan spell with Bolton Wanderers in 2003.

For one season though, Ballesta was La Liga’s ruthless goal-getter, a striker who’s political views were as equally terrifying as his talent.