Salomón Rondon – El Gladiador del Mundo

Most watchers of the world’s game will know Salomón Rondón for his time in the Premier League. During that time, Rondón has been a historic player and ambassador for Venezuela, as only one of two players from Venezuela to play in the PL. To truly understand the player and his journey, however, one must look beyond his recent stints at West Brom and Newcastle.

The path Salomón Rondón, often referred to as “El Gladiador” by his most passionate followers, took to mainstream PL fame is a curving one. Born in Caracas, Venezuela in 1989, none would know the child before them was set to become one of the most known Venezuelan players in the world.

The striker’s early life and family are largely unknown, something Rondón has revealed to The Guardian was done on purpose due to the growing violence and tensions in Venezuela.

“I lived in Caracas but as a player I never played there. I played in a city nearby. It allowed me chance to breathe. The city is chaos. It is worse now. When I lived there, it was not so bad. You cannot live there now,” Rondón said. “My family are there and I worry about them… I am always watching the news on Twitter, waiting to see what has happened… But I never mix my family with my work. Very few people know who my family are. I try, as much as possible, that they are not seen with me.”

Concerns of family and home have certainly not stopped Rondón from becoming an icon amongst Venezuelan football. In an era where Venezuela’s current U20 products and a few MLS stars seem to take up any and all room allowed to the nation in the football narrative, it is now-veterans like Rondón that have paved the path for la Vinotinto.

Beginning his professional career with Aragua in the Venezuelan first division, where he won his first trophy in the 2008 Copa Venezuela, Rondón would remain a minor part of the story for quite some time. His first three appearances for the national team, la Vinotinto, in 2008 would amount to 122 minutes of play and only one start. He would then be left out of the squad for thirteen matches, only for his new streak to be broken by one minute of play time against Guatemala in 2009. Needless to say, Rondón would not become a secure part of the la Vinotinto’s squad until 2011 when he became a common face amongst the nation’s Copa America lineup.

Rondón would find relevancy earlier via his club career upon a move from Las Palmas, playing in the Segunda División at the time, to Málaga. At the time an unmissable part of the La Liga framework, Málaga would be where Rondón developed into a first division-level striker. He would be the first Venezuelan to play for the Andalusian club.

Joined by the likes of Isco, Santi Cazorla, Nacho Monreal, and distinguished manager Manuel Pellegrini over the course of his two year stay from 2010 to 2012, Rondón would help Málaga to 11th and 4th place finishes over the course of his first and second seasons with the club respectively.

Eventually carried off to the Russia, Rondón’s time playing the best of the best in La Liga is an oft forgotten but deeply important segment of his now 13-year long career as a professional footballer.

One cannot of course judge a striker without looking into his record in the final third. Spending a portion of his early 20’s with Málaga, ranging from 21 to 22 years of age across the two seasons he played, Rondón showed an ability to score at the club level at an early age.

Earning most of his fame in Russia and England for his rough striker style, one steeped in the traditions of thumping strikes and blistering headers rather than tactical feet or magic tricks, Rondòn doesn’t fit into the expectations of Latino forwards, certainly not in Spain.

El Gladiador scored 16 goals and made three assists in all competitions in the 2010-2011 period, adding a further 11 goals and four assists in 2011-2012. His total of 27 goals and 7 assists, completed in 72 competitive appearances, would be come only slight short of his count at West Brom three years later, where he tallied 28 goals and 10 assists. That count was earned in 120 appearances.

In addition, his 14-league goal count in 2010-2011 would be his best single season goal count in his now 10 years of European football.

The 2010-2012 period also saw an improvement in the striker’s national team involvement. Making 22 appearances over the three-year period, Rondón scored eight of his eventual 22 senior international goals. This burst was helped by the presence of both a Copa America in 2011 and a World Cup qualifying period in from 2011 to 2013.

Rondón would also begin to earn his reputation as a kind soul while in Spain, earning only four yellow and zero red cards while with Málaga. Rondón had in fact only been shown a straight red card once in his career when he arrived at Newcastle for the 2018-2019 season, that being given in his first season with West Brom. In addition to a double yellow given while with Las Palmas, Rondón record of leaving only his best on the pitch would be cemented in Spain.

Rondón would leave the club in 2012 for Russian Premier League side Rubin Kazan, where he would spend two years before moving to powerhouse Zenit Saint Petersburg.

The club would publish the following on their website following the deal going public, “Malaga have reached agreement with Rubin Kazan for the transfer of Venezuelan forward Jose Salomon Rondón… The player has a bright future ahead in the Russian league.”

The Federación de Peñas Malaguistas, an organization that interconnects the various supporters groups of Málaga Club de Fútbol, said that Rondón was a beloved part of the squad for, “his size and instinct for the goal… he was an easy person to like and reach out to.”

When he eventually left, Malaguistas noted that supporters saw both positives and negatives to the situation. “[We were] happy in the since that it improved our economic situation… although we would have preferred he not leave.”

Having helped Málaga to a special chance at the UEFA Champions League in his final season in Spain, Rondón would miss the club’s impressive run to the quarter finals of the tournament. He would go on to compete in both the Champions League and Europa League while in Russia.

With his international and club career taking form, Rondón’s brief time with Málaga shows us the early days of his time as a Venezuelan symbol. Facing off against the greats of Spain, it is clear that Rondón had begun making Venezuela proud long before he arrived in England.

Carlos Tarache, CEO of the widely popular Venezuelan football news site Solovenex, feels that, “The successful journey of José Salomón Rondón in the Spanish League has played an important role. Although it was short and failed to show the elasticity of a consecrated cast, Rondón opened the door that Juan Arango had left adjusted in Iberian lands.”

Tarache continued, “Today ours are more and more taken into account on Spanish soil, in part, due to the great reference that these bulwarks have left… [Venezuelans] are increasingly more in the most renowned leagues worldwide.”

To this day, Málaga Club de Fútbol remember El Gladiador well, with the striker even being rumored to return to the club after West Bromwich Albion’s relegation from the Premier League at the end of the 2017-2018 season.

Stories also arose both before and in the final weeks of the 2018-2019 Premier League season that West Ham, currently managed by Rondón’s former boss Manuel Pellegrini, have aimed to snap up the striker if Newcastle fail to cement a deal with West Brom.

The impact of the Venezuelan on Málaga was not short lived either, with the club holding four Venezuelans under contract in 2017-2018, with the likes of Juanpi and Roberto Rosales spending up to five years under the club as of the writing of this article.

With his duration at Newcastle under question despite positive results, where Rondón goes this summer will be the result of problems and actions from across the Premier League and may even come down to connections made ten years ago in Southern Spain.

Upon arriving in Russia, Rondón was the third Venezuelan to ever play in the nation’s first division. Both of his predecessors, Fernando Martínez at FC Uralan Elista and Leopoldo Jiménez at FC Alania Vladikavkaz, played a part for smaller sides on the peripheral of the Russian top tier, with both clubs falling into lower divisions and dissolving not long after both players had left.

That lack of high-level success makes Rondón’s move to a Rubin Kazan side that had established itself as a frequent face amongst the top of the Russian Premier League table and back-to-back champions in 2008 and 2009 all the more impactful. Having left Málaga in the summer of 2012 after leading them to UEFA Champions League group stage qualification, Rondón would still be headed for European football with Kazan, who had finished sixth the previous season.

Kazan would eventually finish sixth in Rondón’s singular full season in the Tatarstan capital, but his seven goals and one assist in 25 league appearances were only a slice of what would propel the Venezuelan upward in the winter of 2014.

The Caracas-born striker would score five goals and mark one assist in 12 Europa League appearances. Though ten of those games were as a starter, Rondón’s most impressive Europa League appearance was likely as a late substitution against Inter Milan. The Venezuelan scored twice in 31 minutes and helped his side to a vital 3-0 win. The brace complimented the single goal Rondón scored against Inter in a 2-2 draw earlier in the group stage.

Rondón started all but five of his 25 league appearances that season. Rondón did not feature in Rubin Kazan’s sole domestic cup match that season, which ended in a 2-1 loss to Enisey Krasnoyarsk.

Rondón would remain in Kazan for the remainder of 2013, playing five Europa League qualifiers, three Europa League group stage matches, and eleven league matches. The Venezuelan’s second season with Rubin Kazan would lack some of the excitement of the first, with a metatarsal fracture forcing the striker to miss eleven matches in all competitions.

Injury still didn’t stop Rondón from scoring four goals in Europa League qualifiers, two in the group stage, and six in the Russian Premier League, including his only hat trick at Kazan in a September matchup against Ural Yekaterinburg.

The Russian practice of a long-term winter break would see Rondón off the pitch for several months despite a recent recovery from injury. His December 7th appearance against Lokomotiv Moscow would prove his last competitive match for Rubin Kazan.

When the Russian Premier League returned in the March of 2013, Rondón would instead be dawning the blue of Zenit St. Petersburg. He would end his time with Rubin Kazan with 24 goals and three assists in all competitions and 56 appearances to his name.

Rondón’s arrival at Zenit would prove a historic one, as his Afro-Latino heritage would make him the first black player signed to the club since their largest supporters group, Landscrona, forbid the club from bringing in any black players. An article written by Andrew Flint for These Football Times explained the situation, “an infamous open letter was sent to the management at the Petrovsky Stadium from the Landscrona group demanding that the club not sign any black or homosexual players.”

Zenit had previously established that they would continue to sign players regardless of race, making no changes to their contracts with Hulk or Axel Witsel, and signed Rondón with the same sense of certainty.

With a large section of the season over, Rondón would still make ten league appearance and two UEFA Champions League appearances for Zenit. The Venezuelan would mark a goal and assist in his two appearances against Dortmund in the Champions League Round of 16, though Zenit would lose the tie 4-5 on aggregate.

His first stint of league play in St. Petersburg would also start well, as the former Kazan man would go on to score seven goals and make three assists. Perhaps most notable were his three goals and single assist against Kazan in April, mere months after having left the club.

Zenit would end the season in second place, while Kazan would drop to ninth and end the year without European football for the first time in several seasons.

Rondón would mark his first and only full season with Zenit in 2014-2015. Having earned Champions League football through qualifiers, Rondón would join Zenit’s group stage squad, facing Benfica, Monaco, and Bayer Leverkusen in all six matches. Having already scored twice and assisted once in qualifiers, Rondón scored one goal in the group stage in a 1-2 loss to Leverkusen. Zenit would drop into the Europa League, where Rondón would score three more goals and help the club to the quarter finals, where they would lose 4-3 on aggregate to the eventual champions, Sevilla.

Rondón would start the league off well, scoring four goals in the first three games. Much of the remaining season would mark a lack of scoring from the Venezuelan, who played nine of his 23 remaining games as a substitute. The former-Kazan striker would still reach 13 goals by the end of the season, however, greatly helped by two hat tricks against Rostov and Ural. Rondón would score the only goal in Zenit’s 1-0 win against Lokomotiv Moscow in the final week of the season, marking the final note in Zenit’s 2014-2015 league title victory.

The Vinotinto front man would also mark his first appearences in the Russian domestic cup in 2014, scoring in Zenit’s 2-1 win over Anzhi and playing 54 minutes in their third-round loss to Arsenal Tula.

Rondón would add a Russian Super Cup to his collection that summer, coming on in the 64th minute in the tie against Lokomotiv Moscow. The match would eventually be decided by penalties, though Rondón did not take part in the shootout which ended 5-3 to Zenit.

With his role as a striker already under pressure from by Brazilian star Hulk, Rondón place at Zenit was all the more in question when the club acquired Russian star Artem Dzyuba in the summer of 2015. Dzyuba started ahead of Rondón in the Super Cup, foreshadowing his key role at the club in the 2015-2016 and 2016-2017 seasons.

It is here where the story may become more familiar to the average football watcher, as West Bromwich Albion would approach Zenit for the striker. The deal would prove a record signing for West Brom, who paid a reported amount of 12 million pounds according to BBC Sport.

While the English Premier League chapters of Rondón’s career have proven the best-known, the silverware adorned years the Venezuelan spent in Russia prior revealed a player capable of performing in Europe and indeed laid the foundations for his arrival as the second-ever Venezuelan to play in the Premier League.

Rondón would leave Zenit with 28 goals and 8 assists to his name via 58 appearances in all competitions. His league and super cup double remain his only club trophies since leaving Venezuela, where he won the 2008 Copa Venezuela with Aragua.

Rondón would feature for Venezuela 17 times while in Russia, his participation bolstered by World Cup qualifiers and the 2015 edition of the Copa América. He would go on to score five goals for la Vinotinto, though neither tournament would end in success.

Having earned a level of acceptance during the 2011 Copa America and his time with Málaga, success in Russia and a continued presence with Venezuela only helped to cement the Caracas-born striker as an irreplaceable face for the national team.

Rondón’s strong show of talent from 2012 to 2015 would set the stage for an increase of Venezuelans moving to the Russian Premier League. Jhon Chancellor, Wilker Ángel, and Andrés Ponce would all move to the Russian top tier from 2016 to 2018. With all three featuring for the Venezuelan National Team over that time, it is clear that the bar set by the Vinotinto front man changed the narrative both in Russia and his new home of England.

The story of Rondón in England, in West Brom, and in Newcastle is one that seems to develop new chapters every week. Whatever comes of the striker’s contact in the summer of 2019, the powers at hand will surely reference more than his time in the Midlands and Tyneside before deciding Rondón’s fate.

By Dominic Jose Bisogno

Photo: Action Images via Reuters