Thursday, 27 February 2014

The Velociraptor Impulse

Panting, he runs up the wing. On one side await the heavens of glory; on the other, ruin's abyss. The player, penned Eduardo Galeano, is the envy of the neighbourhood; the professional athlete who escaped the factory or the office and gets paid to have fun. He won the lottery. And even if he does have to sweat buckets, with no right to fatigue or failure, he gets into the papers and on TV, his name is on the radio, women swoon over him and children yearn to be like him. Nowhere is this more true than in Tumaco. An impoverished tropical port city on the Pacific coast of Colombia, close to the Ecuador border, it is proudly called the 'Semillero de Futbolistas' for the 1400 such players it has gifted to the world of football. From its streets, beaches and vacant lots have emerged the genius of Willington Ortiz, the deadly shot of Leider Preciado, the explosive stride of Jairo Castillo, the intuitive poaching of Eladio Vasquez and now, more recently, the 'horse lungs' of West Ham United's newest recruit, Pablo Armero. Because everybody plays football in Tumaco. No matter where: the front yard of a house, or the busy road where the main traffic signal stops cars with a flashing black silhouetted figure kicking a ball. On asphalt, sand, or grass, the young Tumaqueños attack and defend improvised goals of clothes baskets, oil drums and stones. There is little else to do in this town of less than two hundred thousand people, so it is said, where all they have is poverty and a passion for the game.

The main meeting place and the most famous pitch in Tumaco is El Bajito, located on a beach of the same name known for its sandy soil and goals of square wooden sticks. It is where, a few metres from the sea, a shirtless and barefoot 'Pablito' took his first faltering steps on the road to stardom. El Bajito, explains Armero, is an invitation to play football. All day, every day the games only stop when the vehement noon sun dehydrates and burns the feet: old timers running two miles per hour, fans who meet informally every Sunday morning or football schools as directed by Nery Estupiñán. A familiar figure in his faded Millonarios shirt, Nery discovered Jairo "El Tigre" Castillo when he was a kid living on the Avenida de los Estudiantes, just a couple of blocks away. The 'eyes of Nery' have witnessed thousands of children over the years and continue to see as many as a hundred on any given afternoon. It is estimated that less than 10% of these young players have or will ever become professional footballers because life in Tumaco is hard, they say, but getting out is even harder. Adapting to the cold, the vicissitudes of the big city and the excessive competitiveness are all recognized obstacles to those hopefuls looking for escape; not to mention coping with the logistics of having to be transported by bus and and/or canoe and a changing diet. It is an endemic problem for Colombians in general, thinks South American football expert Tim Vickery, where careers go astray from the moment when the youngster signs his first big contract. Lacking the maturity to cope with sudden wealth and fame, the journey from zero to hero is too quick for the player to assimilate the changes. Then there is the threat of a premature move to Europe where the youngster fails to get a regular game. Yet still the scouts come, perpetually seduced by the sight of these young hopefuls galloping effortlessly over the thick blanket of sand. "Learning to play with your feet buried in the sand is the secret of the players of Tumaco," confides Nery as if revealing it for the first time. "When these guys eventually get on the playing field they take flight," he smiles before recalling the high-stepping Willington Ortiz dribbling through the River Plate defence one famous night in 1981. It is also the reason, he suggests, for Armero's own rather distinctive gait; squat, explosive and rapaciously aggressive it has earned him the sobriquet of 'The Velociraptor'.

The reminiscing Nery is typical of an Afro-Colombian people who remember their famous sons with a lucid memory that borders on religious fervour. They follow the exploits of the Tumaqueños playing abroad, like Armero in Europe, and congregate in any corner to follow América de Cali. Appropriately nicknamed 'La Pasión de un Pueblo', América are the pride of the most populous city in the region and are the second most successful team in Colombia. Naturally enough it is also the club from whose youthful quarry the raw Pablo Armero was hew and shaped. Having signed his first professional contract in 2004, Armero made his debut in the Categoría Primera A shortly after his eighteenth birthday. It was the natural progression for a player who had already played with distinction for the Colombian Under 17 team in the previous year's World Cup. He would go on to see success at the Bolivarian Games and a year later at the 2006 Central American and Caribbean Games. During the subsequent 108 matches over four years he would spend in the 'Diablos Rojos' shirt, Armero appeared in nearly every outfield position, scoring 6 goals in the process. By 2008, his final season at the Estadio Olímpico, he had developed into the raiding left-back for which he would become synonymous and scouts all across South America were beginning to take notice. "Although not excessively tall, Armero is a player who possesses enormous strength and very good physical condition as demonstrated by bestial power and great speed," wrote José Bonilla in El Triunfo del Futbol Elegante. As a wide player he exhibits a feisty character and is also thoughtful and expedient in defense. His greatest virtue though is his offensive ambition and counter attacking instincts. Without being a marvel of technical ability, he loves to join the attack with conviction, often surging forward with unusual speed, strength and power. Possessed of a dangerous shot from distance if the opportunity arises, Armero consistently gets to the byline and can usually be counted on to deliver good crosses." Now also a full international- he made his senior debut in a 2010 FIFA World Cup qualifying defeat in Chile that September- Armero played a pivotal role in helping America Cali win their 13th championship. Languishing in Colombia's second tier, it remains the last piece of silverware the club has won. By seasons end Armero's player registration had been bought by the Turbo Sports investment company, operating through the tiny (and now defunct) Poços de Caldas Futebol Clube, for the price of $2 million. Armero's departure would precipitate a downward spiral for Cali that has yet to be arrested.

Turbo Sports were most known in South American football circles at the time for their handling of former Corinthians, Arsenal and Brazil left-back/left winger André Santos. Now acting as Armero's agent, for three months Turbo scouted prospective clubs for their client's services before finally settling on Sociedade Esportiva Palmeiras, one of Brazil's most popular and successful teams. For their part, Palmeiras had already scouted the Colombian and having also watched a bank of videos agreed an initial six month loan of Armero in January 2009. Pablo was immediately installed as first choice left-back; a position the club had struggled to fill since losing Leandro two years previously. During the course of this season the 22-year-old would quickly learn what was required to perform consistently in a more competitive league. After winning recognition for both his speed and crossing abilities, Armero helped the Verdão reach the São Paulo State Championship semi-finals where they would eventually lose to Santos. In a 4–1 win against Náutico in July, with Palmeiras now sitting top of the Brazilian Série A, Armero scored his one and only goal. It was the moment he would gain notoriety throughout Brazil for his unusual dance celebrations; in this case his adaptation of the State of Bahia carnival hit 'Rebolation', that was named the 'Armeration' by the press. In what has become a pattern throughout his career, Armero's distinctive style of dancing spreads like a contagion through his teammates in every team he has played for. His love of movement, he explains, is a legacy of the legendary Luis Antonio Biohó. A teacher in Tumaco, he would only receive into his football school those boys who could dance the Currulao, an indigenous dance with its roots among the Afro-Colombian community. Biohó considered anyone unable to wiggle their hips to the beat of cununo, guasá and marimba to be incapable of evading his opponents on the football pitch. "If you dance well, you play well," Armero repeats Biohó's maxim, convinced that he is conferring an ancient and elemental truth. It is the reason, he insists, that there is a palpable musical sense to all Tumaqueños footballers; as readily identifiable as the samba beat to Brazil.

The start of the following season saw Armero as once again a first team regular. In a demonstration of his versatility he was now increasingly asked to adapt to a more orthodox attacking left-wing role; the position for which he had been voted the second best in the league months earlier by the Brazilian Football Federation. Despite not always convincing the discerning Palmeiras fans of his technical ability, the Velociraptor's combination of explosive power and searing pace rendered him so unplayable at times that covetous eyes from Europe were beginning to take notice. Perhaps aware of the burgeoning talent on their hands, Palmeiras bought 20% of Armero's economic and 'non-dividable' registration rights in June 2010 in a move to secure an equivalent percentage of any future transfer fee. The following month, after just 36 appearances, Armero signed a pre-contract with Italian Serie A side Parma only for the deal to collapse a few days later. Italy's ignominious exit from the World Cup finals in South Africa (as defending champions they finished bottom of their group) a fortnight earlier prompted the Italian Football Federation to ratify a new rule limiting the number of non-EU acquisitions to one player per season. Effective immediately, Parma suddenly found themselves in breach of the quota rules having also already agreed to sign the Brazilian youth international Zé Eduardo. Forced to choose between the two, the Gialloblù opted for the defensive midfielder and in terminating Armero's contract found themselves obliged to pay reparations. In hindsight Parma's loss would be Udinese's gain. At the end of August the Zebrette announced that the club had secured the player for a fee believed to be in the region of €5 million. As if to add insult to Parma's injury, while Zé Eduardo would go on make just 6 first team appearances before being loaned out to a series of ever more obscure teams, Armero was about to explode onto the European scene. "I left with a happy heart," smiles the Colombian, "because I’d made friends and I’d worked in a great country. I learned a lot in Brazil." For Kristian Bengtson, writing for Anything Palmeiras, the feeling was mutual even if the player did not always live up to the huge expectations. "Few players have shown so much heart, dedication and commitment as Armero did during his stay in the club," he noted. "Who can forget the tears streaming from his face after being substituted already in the first half in a game against Corinthians? Or his ecstatic joy while commemorating a pass that lead to a goal in Palmeiras’ 4-3 win against Santos? Men like these don’t grow on trees in this day and age."

Linking up with compatriots Christian Zapata and Juan Guillermo Cuadrado at the Stadio Friuli, the new arrival slotted seamlessly into the left wing-back position in Francesco Guidolin's 3–5–2/5-3-2 formation. "Early in my time at Udinese I had to gain the trust of the coach," explained Armero. "We made a poor start in the first weeks of the season and that persuaded him to take a gamble on me." Taking over from Giovanni Pasquale, the Colombian would feature in 31 Serie A games in his debut season; his contribution of two goals and three assists playing a pivotal role in helping the side return to Champions League football. Operating in tandem with Chilean Mauricio Isla, it was widely accepted that Udinese now had the best wing-back partnership in Serie A. As if to underscore that fact, Armero found himself voted into the 2010/11 Serie A Team of the Year in the company of the likes of Nesta, Ibrahimovic, Cavani and Hamsik. An unprecedented achievement for a young South American player getting his first taste of Italian football, the agent who helped broker the deal to bring Armero to Udine insists nobody should have been surprised at the player's success. "He was already a Colombian international which therefore meant that he was a valuable player," states Claudio Vagheggi. "Udinese took him from Palmeiras, which is one of the great Brazilian and South American teams. In short, his pedigree was already talking for him. The Friuli were convinced that the player had the ability and Pablo has proven to be able to adapt quickly to the Italian championship." One team certainly taking notice was Barcelona who reportedly tracked Armero's rapid progress for the entire second half of the season. Having been stymied by Tottenham's excessive valuation of Gareth Bale, the Catalan giants were in the market to replace the stricken Éric Abidal.

For their part Udinese have cultivated an enviable reputation in recent years for the assiduous accumulation of relatively unknown players; adroitly nurturing latent talent before selling to bigger clubs. As marriages go Udinese and Armero was a match made in heaven; not least because the player finally got to play in his strongest position. "I like attacking football, but I also like to defend," insists Armero. "It is why I feel most comfortable in the position of wing-back." Unfortunate then that he would find himself playing as a left-sided winger in a 4–4–1–1 formation by the time of the qualifying round for the Champions League the following August. With new signing Neuton playing behind him, Armero failed to shine as Udinese lost home and away to Arsenal. After missing the opening round of the 2011/12 season, Armero returned from international duty to score the winner against Rennes in his first ever UEFA Europa League match. Although the Bianconeri would ultimately get knocked out in the last sixteen against AZ Alkmaar, Armero was now back in his favoured wing-back role and embarking on what would be the defining season in his career to date. With a greater accent on counter-attack, Udinese boasted the best defensive record in Serie A through the first fifteen weeks of the season. Meanwhile, the sale of both Alexis Sánchez and Gökhan Inler had placed an even greater onus on Armero to also provide an attacking thrust. It was a challenge he would accept manfully. In March Gabriele Marcotti reported there was now strong interest from Liverpool, whose officials had already met with the player's Brazilian agent to discuss a possible end of season transfer. "For those who don't know", he wrote, "Armero is a left wing-back/winger. Very fast, very direct. Very good. The weakest part of his game is his end product." As scouting reports go it was nothing if not succinct. For the second consecutive season Udinese qualified for the Champions League- clinching third place on the final day of the season with a 2–0 away win against Catania- while Armero finished with ten assists. An astounding number for a defender, especially one with a supposedly suspect final ball, it was bettered only by Andrea Pirlo, Fabrizio Miccoli and Sebastian Giovinco.

Armero would spend the ensuing summer in the eye of a transfer storm as Juventus and Napoli waged a war for his affections that played out daily across the pages of Corriere della Sport and La Gazzetta. Yet even as Udinese were fighting off a cannonade of offers, there remained a degree of skepticism among the fans in both Turin and Naples concerning a defender described by Vickery as "beguiling, frustrating, surprising". The Italians, after all, have an obsession with the art of defending. Although not quite as prevalent as it once was, the mentality of 'prima, non prenderla' (our first priority is a clean sheet) still endures and manifests itself in a low tolerance for tactical injudiciousness. "You have to be prepared to have a left-back who is much better going forward than he is defending," posited Vickery when considering how to get the best out of Armero, before adding: "He's not going to do a lot of defending in the air at the far post." Implicit in the observation is the suggestion that Armero can ill be trusted in an orthodox back four. "Cafu without brains," quipped one Turin journalist as Armero's transfer appeared to loom near. "He can't play fullback, his 1-on-1 defending is sub-par, and worst of all he gives the ball away time and time again in dangerous positions," came the withering response from Naples, before adding, "he's sometimes a headless chicken albeit a very energetic and enthusiastic one." As so often with Armero, perception has not always matched reality. In the previous summer's Copa America, for example, the Colombian had performed admirably on the left side of a back four; including an assured performance in a high pressure goalless draw with the host nation Argentina. As for question marks over his final delivery, statistics revealed that of the 115 crosses Armero had delivered into the box during his time in Serie A, 35 (30.2%) had led to a goal scoring opportunity. "I have learned a lot from the Italian league, especially in the tactical, both on the defensive and offensive," thinks Armero, before adding: "I can still improve a lot."

It would be Napoli who eventually gave Armero the opportunity to further develop his career but not until the following January transfer window. In the meantime there was yet more Champions League heartache as Udinese failed to reach the group stage for the second consecutive season after losing on penalties to Portuguese club Braga. An ever present in the league and a regular in the Europa League, by the time Armero arrived at the Stadio San Paolo- initially on loan with the option to make a permanent switch in the summer- the defender had clocked up another 16 appearances. "Udine is a very pleasant town," Armero would say about his time with the Zebrette. "I had no problems in finding myself at ease and I adapted pretty well to the environment, managing to do my best. We were a fantastic group and the squad was young, yet very ambitious. That's why we able to achieve great things." In Walter Mazzarri's Napoli, Armero was joining a team seemingly tailor-made for his strengths. Renowned for their rapid incisive counter-attacking style- in a 3-4-3/3-5-2 formation in which Edinson Cavani was supported by Argentinian Ezequiel Lavezzi and Slovakian star Marek Hamšík- Armero was viewed as the perfect foil for his right-sided counterpart Christian Maggio. Nonetheless, with the Partenopei heading for a second place in Serie A, the club's best performance since winning the 1989–90 Scudetto, Armero was forced to bide his time behind compatriot Camilo Zuniga; mostly appearing off the bench for the remainder of the 2012-13 season.

Despite making just four competitive starts during his loan spell, Armero made the permanent move to Napoli for a reported €4 million last summer. By now, though, Rafa Benitez was at the helm and, as Mina Rzouki observed, "a team that had played a three-man back-line since 2004 suddenly altered the formation and was turned into a proactive team capable of adapting to each situation." Deployed in a more suitable 'European' formation of 4-2-3-1, she noted, "the Partenopei took the foundation laid by Edy Reja and Walter Mazzarri and combined it with more intelligent ideas" to create a team capable of winning nine of their opening eleven fixtures of the current campaign. With Napoli sitting third by early November- the one defeat had been a painful loss to Champions League rivals Roma- Armero featured mostly as an orthodox left-back; albeit one whose unwillingness to curb his natural attacking instincts was eliciting ever more vocal criticism. By the time Juventus and Parma inflicted back-to-back defeats, followed by more dropped points against both Udinese and Cagliari before Christmas, the finger-pointing at Benitez's scapegoated wing-backs was becoming impossible to ignore. Not helped by systemic limitations that meant the likes of José Callejón, Dries Mertens and Lorenzo Insigne offered too little protection to those playing behind them, things came to a head in the 3-1 Champions League defeat to Borussia Dortmund. Writing in The Offside, Napoli’s fullbacks, Armero and Maggio, were described as "more like wing-backs as they were constantly moving up the pitch, and often getting caught out of position. Zuniga was sorely missed this game, as Armero simply doesn’t have the attributes of a fullback – his strengths, which are numerous, would better fit a midfielder/winger. The result of Napoli’s fullbacks playing like wing-backs, which they used to be in the 3-5-2 system for a few years, left Dortmund all kinds of space on counter attacks. Napoli’s wingers were getting caught high up the pitch, and it left way too much room for Armero and Maggio to cover, and by the end of the game they must have been exhausted running up and down all game like midfielders instead of defenders."

Facing an early Champions League exit and a yawning gap behind Juventus and Roma in the race for the Scudetto, volatile Napoli president Aurelio De Laurentiis pronounced himself so "broken" that by this January sweeping defensive changes were inevitable. As Miguel Britos returned from injury and versatile Frenchman Anthony Reveillere and Saint-Etenne's promising Faouzi Ghoulam arrived, the writing was on the wall for Armero. Throughout the transfer window there was rife speculation that a loan swap deal involving Milan's versatile Guinean international Kévin Constant was on the cards only for the latter to scupper the deal. It was then that West Ham and Sam Allardyce made their move. "I was very thankful for the opportunity," says Armero. "It felt very good to come over here and see a group that wants to improve and wants to win every game. For me this will be a great experience as English football is very attractive and I will give my best to improve the quality of the team." Armero can already claim experience of playing against top flight English opposition, having faced Arsenal (again) home and away in this season's Champions League group stages. "It was good to play against Arsenal because I like English football," he says before stating his belief that his game is well suited to the demands of British football. "It's attacking and defending, it's quick football - quicker than Italy - and I've always wanted to be here in the Premier League," he told the club website. "I am a left full-back, who likes to work in defence. I am a good defender, strong and quick, but I also like attacking. I like to go to the front and make good crosses. I will give good defending to the team, and good attacking too and hopefully I will help my team mates to win games."

Armero is one of three players to swap Serie A for the Boleyn Ground this winter following the arrival of Italy internationals Antonio Nocerino and Marco Borriello, and he says having those familiar faces around has eased the settling in process. "All the team mates are good for me, they are trying to help me integrate in the team," he says. "I knew Marco and Antonio before and they are helping me, by translating, and helping me to understand what they say. They are helping in my integration at the club and I hope that this is going to be a quick process so I can be in the starting eleven as soon as possible." Crucially, one of Armero's colleagues at Napoli was also well-placed to explain what a move to the Boleyn Ground would entail. Valon Behrami spent two-and-a-half years in E13 and spoke fondly of his time at the Hammers to Armero. "Behrami told me that West Ham is a good club in the Premier League," smiles Armero. "It's a good institution, and a very good opportunity for me. He said that all the staff, all the players and the people who work for the team are good and they will help me. That's happening at the moment and he also told me about the Premier League, which is a league where everybody wants to play some day. He gave me compliments and wished me all the best."

In the meantime, as he waited for his work visa, came a return visit to Tumaco. Armero was accompanied by members of the Colombian Football Federation who were filming part of a documentary on the career of the players that make up the national team. "They want to know the roots of each, where they grew up, where they played, what they did," he explains. "So I showed them all Tumaco, which we know is very cute and sexy. My first steps were on the beach, where we played barefoot. It's cool and nice and gives me great joy to show that part of Armero", the Colombian says excitedly. Life in Tumaco, he says, is sensory and it happens outdoors; "to be enclosed is to refute the sun, dying of sadness in darkness." Armero was able to show everybody his foundation work which provides sports equipment to aid in the development of the local children. "The motivation is that these children have the opportunity for a moment of joy; to follow their dreams of being a professional footballer just as I did," he explains. "Just to provide balls, uniforms, to give them everything they need so that they can practice their profession. Well, the most important thing is to make them happy and cheerful and to keep intact their dreams so that someday they can be great people and professionals."

It is a message that resonates now more than ever before. Almost a year to the day of Armero's visit Tumaco shook with the explosion of a motorcycle bomb that left eight people dead, more than a dozen wounded and destroyed the police station. It was the culmination of three months of incessant bombings and ever since the streets have been heavily militarized; the increased troop presence a reaction to and cause of the perceived fear among the inhabitants. The day the film crew turned up was the thirteenth straight without power; during which time kids have stayed away from schools and fishermen have been unable to take their boats out because of sanctions. The mayor of Tumaco, Victor Gallo, blamed the attack on the Daniel Aldana Mobile Column of the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias (FARC), which has a stranglehold in the area. A Marxist–Leninist 'Peasant Army', it funds its activities by kidnap to ransom, gold mining, and the production and distribution of illegal drugs. In an impoverished city such as Tumaco, where less than half the population receives even basic primary education, where food is scare and job opportunities limited, the lure of the criminal world can be hard to resist. "The boys do not always choose football in Tumaco anymore," sighs Nery. "My doors are always open but the boys want to earn fast money. There are paramilitary and guerrilla organizations that offer comprehensive training." According to recent figures from the National Planning Department, there are 128.4 murders per 100,000 inhabitants, mostly from neighborhoods that have become "no go" areas of drug trafficking and extortion. "Football is still the emblem of Tumaco, but we can not deny that the possibility of producing another Pablo Armero is limited," agrees municipal representative, Alex Castillo. "Players have been engulfed by a decade marked by violence, especially the young people. I've witnessed many talents become victims of these confrontations."

More than ever it is the reason why those who have succeeded in football do not forget their families in Tumaco. "The first thing they do is give them houses that in many other cities would be no more than middle class standard, but in a place as precarious as Tumaco are like castles," notes Castillo. "Colombia, Leider's mother, has a yellow two-storey, tinted glass, grilles and air conditioning, while Gustavo Armero, Pablo's brother, lives in one decidedly better than that any of his neighbours' houses, where cement has replaced wooden boards and dry mud. Among the favours received by his brother are also several appliances and a shirt of Palmeiras, the Brazilian club where he played before leaving for Italy." Such are the spoils of Galeano's lottery winner. They say in these parts that even as a child Pablo Armero would 'run like he had no brakes'; driven on to gallop faster and further as if by some unfathomable incitation or abstruse fear. The flight or fight impulse of a Velociraptor. "If you are lucky enough to become a professional footballer," explains Castillo, "you can make return visits to the homeland and will be received as a hero. For everyone else, we must wrest from life, or rather, the sea, the resources just to get through the day. A soccer field or the vastness of the Pacific, those are the only two ways for the young people in this remote and poor place." The choice, you could say, between the heavens of glory or ruin's abyss.

Monday, 3 February 2014

The Curious Tale Of The Thoroughbred Donkey

"You're not a thoroughbred racehorse. You're a donkey. You can become a very fast donkey, but you'll never be a thoroughbred......."
Flashback to transfer deadline day August 2011 and AC Milan have already announced that, for them, the window is "closed, in fact it’s very closed." But Adriano Galliani can’t help himself. Like a punter at the races, the Italian entrepreneur who serves as vice-president and C.E.O. of the Rossoneri fancies another flutter, backing a horse everyone else thought was a donkey. The odds are long, writes James Horncastle, but as with Tipperary Tim, Gregalach, Caughoo, Foinavon and Mon Mome, all of whom were 100-1 winners at the Grand National, his outside bet comes home. "It was a stroke of luck," smiled the man who made his name by securing high profile transfers to Milan at cut prices, such as Robinho and Mario Balotelli from Manchester City, Zlatan Ibrahimović from FC Barcelona and Kaká from Real Madrid C.F. So lucky, in fact, that the term A colpo alla Nocerino has now entered the rich vocabulary of Italian football. It refers to the player involved that fateful day when Galliani had a gamble on Antonio Nocerino. "I understand what it means," the midfielder shrugs. "Someone who costs little." He would prove a bargain, perhaps the best signing of that Serie A season. Nocerino was bought from Palermo for £500,000 with barely a few minutes to spare before the market shut. He had been training under the Sicilian sun contemplating the season ahead when a member of the club’s staff came over to relay the news. Speaking to Forza Italian Football, Galliani recounted how he bargained hard: "At one in the afternoon of the last day of the transfer window, someone came running into my office saying that Palermo were selling Nocerino. I found Zamparini as quickly as I could and made an offer. I started low to be honest. He said no but I waited all afternoon and then we called Nocerino who was with the Italian team and we reached an agreement. Then Palermo said yes to the sale. It was a real stroke of luck."

At the time Palermo President Maurizio Zamparini was quick to explain the motivation related to the sale of Nocerino. "He is an important player, but I had to sell him now because otherwise he would have just ended up at Milan anyway in 2012," he stated. "Also I believe he no longer had the motivation to stay in Palermo." In truth, wrote Jack Sargeant, the Palermo owner and his brain-trust were adamant that Edgar Barreto, the €5.3 million man from Atalanta, was an upgrade from Antonio. So it was, he stated, that a player easily worth around €10 million- the only player on the team who started all 38 league games- was snatched in a case of pure daylight robbery. The Rosanero had already sold Javier Pastore for €42 million that summer and lost their most consistent, committed and important player. However, noted Kris Voakes, those two statements have no relation to one another. While Paris Saint-Germain paid through the nose for the Argentine, the Sicilians received only a pittance for Nocerino, and it is the midfielder who made a bigger impact at his new club, as well as proving the bigger loss at the Renzo Barbera. "I'm still not sure why Palermo allowed my contract to run down into its last 12 months," the Italian international told the Corriere dello Sport. "I wasn't at an age or had significant enough wages which would have forced Palermo to sell me in that way. I don't know if there was someone there who didn't believe in me. I was disappointed at the start as I left behind some good friends. I was expecting to sign an extension to my contract and I was ready to. It looks like it was my fault that I left, that I wanted more money or that I wasn't happy. All of that is not true."

Mathieu Flamini’s cruciate ligament injury the previous day had prompted Milan to find a player to cover for him during the several months that he would be missing. Yet the move for Nocerino was still a surprise, and, judging by the adverse reaction of the fans, not a pleasant one at that. He was ridiculed. The general consensus about Nocerino at Milan, notes Horncastle, was that he was beneath them. Although Alberto Aquilani had been brought in as Andrea Pirlo’s replacement, the move for Nocerino was seen in the context of Pirlo’s exit. Both transfers were former Juventus players, and there was a sense that Milan’s rivals were benefiting at their expense. How could Milan let a player of Pirlo’s calibre go for nothing, move to Turin and then buy not one but two Juventus cast offs? Adding further insult to injury in their eyes was the shirt Milan chose to give Nocerino. It was the No 22 and had belonged to Kaká. Milan were champions of Italy, but to some this was already a sign of their decline. "If even Nocerino can play for Milan, so can I," was the mocking refrain among the fans at San Siro; "thoroughbreds don’t want to run with donkeys." It was harsh to say the least. "Far from being a coup, I was treated like a slap in the face," Nocerino told La Repubblica. "I wasn’t worthy of Milan. It was the usual case of judging a player without giving him the time or the chance to make any mistakes. Thank goodness I didn’t make any." He kept his head down, his nose clean and worked hard. With a hint of derogation Italians attribute such qualities to those of a Mexican: loyal, hard-working, dedicated, humble, they say, and willing to do the dirty work when others are not. But then that’s Nocerino’s way. That’s how he got to Milan in the first place. "I’m thick-skinned," he reassured La Gazzetta dello Sport. "All Southerners have to be."

The son of a railway worker, Nocerino grew up in Montecalvario, a rione at the northern end of the Spanish Quarters of Naples. It’s where he first kicked a ball and made his first tackle. His father ran an amateur football club called San Paolo and it was there that he caught the eye of Juventus. Although tempting to paint a picture of young Antonio as the stereotypical 'Neapolitan street urchin' it is not something he invites. "I was born in the district of Saint Lucia," he states, "but by the age of 14 years I was already in Turin at the Juve youth academy." Though he met his future wife Federica there and was taken in by her family, life wasn’t easy. He missed home and it was never certain he’d make it despite being thought of as one of the most promising youngsters in his age group. Typically, Nocerino was realistic enough to take steps to plan for a future outside of the game. "When I was in the youth ranks at Juve, there were at least 300 kids who wanted to be in my position. I graduated as an accountant, but football was my dream. I’m proof that even those born in the South can build their own destiny." To accomplish that, though, Nocerino had to do what Italians call la gavetta. He worked himself up from the bottom. Graduating to the senior squad in the 2003-04 season, Nocerino would not make an appearance for La Vecchia Signora. Instead, like most talented young players, he was loaned out to a lower division club, Serie B side Avellino, for the season, making 34 appearances for them. Under the guidance of Zdenek Zeman he learned from one of the finest and most creative minds in the game. It was a formative experience. "It’s all down to him," Nocerino claimed. "I was 17 and fed up with the hierarchy [at Juventus]. Zeman said: 'For me there are no youngsters and no veterans. Everyone is equal and who runs the most plays'. Working with him was unforgettable. He taught me the runs and the moves that I still apply. You know the famous 'cuts' Barcelona use? Well, he used them before Barcelona. His Foggia did many of those things."

At the end of that season Genoa bought him on a co-ownership deal. The price was €450.000 for half his rights with Domenico Criscito and Francesco Volpe going to Juventus. Still developing his game, observed Horncastle, Nocerino was continually farmed around on loan. After making a total of 5 appearances for Genoa he would have spells three different Serie B clubs (Catanzaro, Crotone, and Messina) in the next two years. Genoa then sold their half of the player's registration to Serie B stalwarts Piacenza; Nocerino's sixth club having just turned 21 years of age. It was there that he encountered Beppe Iachini, another coach who’d bring an influence to bear on his career. "I watched him in training and I noticed that he had the shot and the timing of a striker when it came to getting into the box," recalls Iachini. "I asked him, 'how do you feel about it?' And we tried it. That year he scored six goals, hit the post, crossbar and got a number of assists too. Juve took him back." An expensive mistake, it would cost the Bianconeri €3.7 million to recapture the player they had previously discarded. Although Iachini had struck upon Nocerino’s best position, the left-side of midfield, at Juventus that was still strictly the preserve of Pavel Nedved. A spot on the right was open on account of Mauro Camoranesi’s injury woes and when Claudio Ranieri offered it up to Nocerino, he jumped at the opportunity. Soon to be a regular in the team- he played 32 appearances for the club during that 2007-08 season- Nocerino did enough to persuade Roberto Donadoni to give him a debut for Italy in a friendly against South Africa. Juventus still weren’t convinced, though, and he was sold to Palermo as part of the deal for Amauri. If that £20m transfer wasn’t already considered a colossal disaster, notes Horncastle, then looking back the inclusion of Nocerino as a €7,5 million makeweight makes it look even worse. They say that hindsight is 20/20, of course, but most agree that a deal so wrong on every conceivable level represented the last time Maurizio Zamparini was ever considered a genius.

Of course, that’s easy to say now. It wasn’t until later that Nocerino started to show signs of being the player he would become. Initially he found himself floundering on the periphery of the first team, down on his luck and contemplating yet another move. Then Delio Rossi arrived as replacement for Walter Zenga and little by little, piece by piece, he started to put together a series of reliable if unexceptional performances. Though their positions are different, for a time, he was Italy’s Alvaro Arbeloa, thinks Horncastle. Always a 7 out of 10, rarely higher, but crucially never lower either. Over the course of three seasons and 106 appearances, Nocerino's and Palermo's reputation would steadily rise. In Rossi's first season the Sicilians, aided by surprise results such as away wins against both AC Milan and Juventus, ended the season in fifth place. The following year brought Palermo's return to European football in the form of the UEFA Europa League and a third Coppa Italia final appearance, where they eventually lost 3-1 to Internazionale. It was at this point that Adriano Galliani made his now famous intervention. What is beyond debate is that Nocerino's last season in pink, in tandem with Pastore, was his best to date. "Nocerino is not Johan Cruyff," Rossi would tell La Gazzetta dello Sport. "But he is a good player and his story is one that reconciles you with football." Why? Because he got to Milan, not on ability alone, but through force of his own will, argues Hornchurch. For that reason, Nocerino has inevitably been likened to Rino Gattuso, not because of where they play on the pitch or a mutual enthusiasm for facial hair, but rather on account of the fact they’ve made up for any of their shortcomings with heart and desire. Nothing has ever been handed to them on a plate. They’ve had to fight to get to where they are today and constantly better themselves. As Rossi suggests, it’s rewarding to watch a player like Nocerino succeed.

Those incessant Gattuso comparisons in Nocerino's fledgling Milan career would prove to be as irritating as they were erroneous. Besides, anyone that watched Palermo during Antonio's last season knew their answer to Gattuso was Armin Bacinovic —not Nocerino, who orchestrated play for the Rossonero. "I never arrived at Milan to replace him, we are completely different," he would insist in those early months. "When signing I said I was much better technically and that I also scored a few goals. Yet people continue to expect me to play in a similar manner [to Gattuso]. I do not limit myself to tackling, I like to play. I like to look for space and to score. I can do everything." Not that his protests implied any criticism of his illustrious teammate. "Rino is a very strong player," he reiterated. "It's just that I did not come here to replace him or Flamini. I came to Milan to give my own contribution." Nocerino "has all the qualities to do well at Milan", enthused director of sport Ariedo Braida. "He is an Italy player who always shows great humility on the field. He knows how to sacrifice himself for his teammates, has a solid work ethic and every now and then scores goals. He has all the qualities to do well here." As understatements go it was pretty impressive. In a remarkable debut season at the San Siro, Nocerino finished as the Rossoneri’s second top scorer behind now-PSG man Zlatan Ibrahimovic with 11 goals in 48 appearances in all competitions. Not since Romeo Benetti in 1973 has a midfielder scored that many in a season for the club, and lest we forget he eclipsed the previous record in just over half a season. Predictably his first goal would come against Palermo at the beginning of October, and in a typical show of class he refused to celebrate.

Later that same month came a hat-trick against Parma that led Galliani to believe he had seen a ghost. "I looked at the shirt number and asked myself who’d bought Kaká back from Real Madrid. Only it wasn’t Ricky, it was Nocerino." Or perhaps that should be Nocerinho? "C’mon," he scoffed. "I’m not Ronaldo. I wasn’t a bad player before, but nor am I Platini now either." Describing the experience as a "waking dream", Nocerino added: "We're two different players, and besides Kaká is a true champion." With that he also offered a far more prosaic explanation for his chosen shirt number. "I took the '22' because it is was the closest to '23 ' available." A superstitious number for many Neapolitans, it is closely associated with the Capuchin Catholic priest Padre Pio, a venerated saint in the Catholic Church. Humble to a fault, Nocerino attributed his form down to playing "with monsters of the game every week who send me through on goal" like Ibrahimovic did so wonderfully in a later game against Cagliari. In fact so beautiful was the blossoming of the understanding between the two that the Milanese media coined the name 'Noceribra'. By the time he had bagged the opening goal in AC Milan’s match against Juventus the following February, Nocerino's popularity had grown to such an extent that every Milan fan would have happily 'let the man's donkey tread on their fine linen' as the provincial Italian saying goes. When asked 'Who is the symbol of Milan?', Massimiliano Allegri told a waiting media that "it’s too easy to say Ibrahimovic or Thiago Silva, so I’ll vote for Nocerino."

By the end of that miraculous season Italian national team manager Cesare Prandelli was another firmly in the ever expanding Nocerino fanclub. Having played for the Azzurrini at the U-19 through U-21 levels from 2004-2007, including captaining the U-21 side that won the Toulon Tournament in 2007, he had also led Italy at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Convinced of his leadership qualities and dependable character, Nocerino had by now become a firmly established member of the senior National team and would go on to make a telling contribution to Euro 2012 that summer. In the tense quarter-final with England in Kiev, Nocerino came off the bench to almost win the game with a disallowed goal before taking a decisive spot-kick in the penalty shoot-out. Far from being daunted by the occasion, Nocerino spoke of his relief at having been involved. "If I hadn’t," he reasoned, "then it would have felt like going to Rome and not seeing The Pope."

Now fast forward 18 months to the fag end days of the January 2014 transfer window and West Ham manager Sam Allardyce is about to take a gamble of his own. "We never thought at the start of the window that a player of Antonio’s quality would be available until the time when that transfer popped up," he said. "You have to be quick and get it done efficiently. Milan have taken Michael Essien from Chelsea, which left the door open for Antonio to come and try and play in the Premier League, which he’s very excited about. He wants to play and wants to achieve as much as he did in Italy, as well as wanting to get in the Italian squad for the World Cup. Antonio is your box-to-box midfield player and has the quality of finding space. Playing at the top level in Italy brings a great deal of experience to go with the talent he has got. He is an intelligent footballer. Our League needs players like him." So it was that an Italian international at the peak of his career went from being voted into Gran Gala del Calcio Team of the Year as one of Serie A's best midfielders (alongside Andrea Pirlo and Claudio Marchisio) to expendable "dirt-kicker" in the space of a season and a half. As a fall from grace it is as hard to explain, wrote Allan Jiang, as the Miracle of Istanbul or how Deportivo La Coruña overturned a 4-1 first-leg deficit to dump AC Milan out of the 2003-04 UEFA Champions League.

There are, of course, numerous theories to explain Antonio Nocerino's "descent into worthlessness" as the Bleacher Report famously coined it. He is a perfect paradigm, so the argument goes, of the player who bottled lightning; overachieving to such an extent that he could not help but fail to live up to the unrealistic standards he had set thereafter. Spurred on by the chip on his shoulder, concluded Jiang, Nocerino became one of Serie A's best midfielders only to baulk when the spotlight fixed on upon him. He set a standard of play that he could not hope to match, let alone surpass. Instead of being the role player Milan had originally intended him to be, a club with serious European ambitions grew accustomed to relying on him week in, week out and the attendant expectations rose accordingly. Nocerino was not helped in this regard by the fact that he now wore the number 8 shirt following the departure of Gennaro Gattuso to join Swiss club Sion. "I am happy because Rino is a dear friend, who last year helped me a lot," he announced at the time. "We have many things in common starting from our backgrounds. We're both guys from the South that were obliged to come to the North to play football. We're both convinced that the road to success is paved with hard work. Rino is a great person, and a formidable character." It is an important, historic shirt and I will do the best I can when wearing it, Nocerino declared, only to discover the huge weight of expectation that following in such illustrious footsteps could bring. Damned by association, by the end of the 2012-13 season, with an increasingly frustrated Milan facing the real prospect of having to settle for Europa League football, Nocerino found himself the unwitting conduit of the fans' ire. The skill set that had initially been so respected- tireless running, unfettered enthusiasm, commitment, aggression- were now seen as part of the problem rather than the solution. When the goals invariably began to dry up as well- Nocerino had scored just once in the league all season, dedicating the strike to the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting- dissenting voices began aligning the deficiencies in Milan's game- lack of creativity, technique and guile- with the perceived weaknesses in Nocerino's. Towards the end of the last campaign he would find himself squeezed from the squad entirely as the Italian giants embarked on a desperate late run to claim the last Champions League spot.

So had Nocerino's 10 goal-haul in Serie A the 2011-12 season been a fluke? asks Jiang. In the four seasons prior to that he had scored six goals in 138 league games; in the season after he played 21 games scoring two goals with a wasteful 12.5 shots per league goal average. Without Zlatan Ibrahimovic, now at Paris Saint-Germain, he argues, it is not a coincidence that Antonio's goals have dried up. He attacked the vacant space left by opposing defenders drawn to Ibra, who would then play in an often-unmarked Nocerino. "Ibrahimovic is one of the few strikers in the world who are happy to make his teammates score," acknowledges Nocerino. "He's great at doing that. I had a fantastic relation with him. He could also have asked himself: 'Who is this Nocerino? What do you want from someone like me?' Instead he’s a really great person and I'm sorry that his public image is different - or rather; it’s very different from his private image." On pondering the goals he scored that season, Nocerino added: "I definitely improved but that was also my objective. I told myself I needed to be more determined and try to score more. I really like making runs into the box and scoring. When I've had coaches like Delio Rossi and Allegri, who both ask the midfielders to make runs into the box, I've always managed to do well. The same goes for Iachini at Piacenza; I ended up scoring 6 goals in that season."

The implication is that Allegri changed the tactical approach of the team or, at the very least, what he required of his midfielder. The following September saw Galliani's ghost take corporeal form when prodigal son Kaka returned from Real Madrid on a free transfer. Signing a multimillion pound two-year contract it would further limit Nocerino's already diminished attacking opportunities. When the Brazilian was immediately made vice-captain upon his arrival the writing was indubitably on the wall. Although hampered by an early injury, Kaka's triumphant return against Barcelona in the UEFA Champions League in October was followed by a string of lauded performances. By the time he had scored his landmark 100th total goal for Milan in a match against Atalanta last month Nocerino and his goals had become a fading memory. With Allegri's sacking in mid January the last vestiges of hope for arresting Nocerino's downward spiral at Milan finally evaporated. The man who had overseen the player's meteoric rise was replaced by Clarence Seedorf; whose decision to switch to the 4-2-3-1 system was never going to benefit Nocerino's boundless box-to-box athleticism. Lacking the pure defensive discipline of a Poli and Cristante or the technical playmaking ability of a Riccardo Montolivo, by the end of January Nocerino had banked just over 800 minutes in a red and black shirt this season.

So when the call from West Ham came a couple of weeks ago Nocerino reveals his mind was made up instantly. "I was already aware of the large following that the Club has in Italy," he states. "I realise how big the fanbase is and the traditions and important history that the Club has, so I was more than happy to come to England." In truth, he says, the 'Mexican' qualities for which he was initially revered and then ultimately derided in Italy should translate perfectly to the English game. "I am really enthusiastic about playing for West Ham," he reiterates. "I am aware of the Barclays Premier League and what I will bring with me is my enthusiasm. I want to show my qualities on the pitch and not just talk about them. I feel I have got the ability and skill to adapt to the English game and I am confident that, once I am ready to play, I will be able to show the fans what I can do. I feel my qualities match what is required in the Barclays Premier League." If Nocerino has his way then he will play his way back into the Italy squad for the 2014 World Cup. "I hope so," he admits. "One of the reasons I came to West Ham and to the Premier League is to play on a regular basis. My first objective is to play for West Ham and help the Club to move up the table. From that, if I am playing well and I get picked to go to the World Cup in Brazil, that will be an added bonus." It would be quite some achievement for the boy who cost Adriano Galliani just £500,000 all those years ago. "It’s amusing and we often joked about it at Milanello," he smiles. "I often say Milan signed me for 3.000 lire and a soda. I'm not saying that I'm worth €20 million or €30 million like Ibrahimovic or Thiago Silva, but in fairness I don't think I'm worth so little either." If Antonio Nocerino can help West Ham United move away from relegation and climb the table, his value to Sam Allardyce and the Hammers will be incalculable.

Wednesday, 29 January 2014

A Tale Of Murder, Sex And Money

La Gazetta Dello Sport's Massimo Cecchini once described the life story of Marco Borriello as a tale of murder, sex and money. The 31-year-old, he stated, has for far too long been a prisoner of perception, and like everyone has secrets and skeletons in the closet that can be revealed if you scratch away at the surface. So let’s start by addressing Marco’s sporting fallacies. "Firstly that I’m 'just the striker who is only good in the air'" shrugs Borriello, before pointing out that of the 70-odd goals he has scored in Serie A, 90% of them have been scored with his feet. Part of the problem is a lumbering 6ft frame that belies a surprising technical ability. Writing in Bleacher Report, Matteo Bonnetti reveals the striker is "a serviceable No. 9 in the right system"; operating most effectively in a 4-3-3 when the wing players provide him with a steady stream of crosses which he's able to feast on. While never a natural finisher, Borriello has specialized in bizarre left-footed volleys and has plenty of power to score from outside the box as well. Yet inconsistency is always the word used to define Borriello's career in Italy, from long dry patches without a goal to being near the Capocannoniere title with a flurry of hat-tricks and braces, Borriello has never been able to cement a place with a squad for more than a few years. When it is frequently asserted he has so far got less out of his career than his talent deserves, typically Borriello only partially agrees. "I could have achieved more, but it wasn’t always my fault," he explains. "Sometimes people put a spanner in the works. And every time I actually had a good season it was always followed by one blighted by injury."

So many goals, so many girlfriends, so many teams; it's perhaps this nomadic type of career lived on the road and in the gossip papers, thinks Bonnetti, that never really allowed him to reach his full potential. If every sporting career is the culmination of a journey, then Marco Borriello's peregrination- through ten clubs and thirteen moves via assiduous patronage of the world's most exclusive nightclubs- has been circuitous by any standard. Born in San Giovanni Teduccio, one of the most deprived suburbs of eastern Naples, Borriello remains fiercely proud of his roots. "It is my neighborhood and one of my favorite places," he states. "It is my home even though Naples can at times be difficult." It is the unceasing turmoil and the daily come and go that makes Naples such a heaving and fibrillating city, concluded the Marquis de Sade. If visiting now even he would be astounded by the groups of small boys who drive motorbikes at high speeds through tiny streets, where you can still see the damage from the 1980 earthquake and the population density is amongst the highest in Western Europe. On every corner there are huge muralled walls pockmarked with bullet holes from the local criminals using them for target practice. "It's not easy," admits Borriello. "In my neighborhood there is the highest concentration of clans in the city. It is a jungle, but also a little bit Disneyland. There a child is forced to grow up fast because one year there is worth ten years somewhere else. Football, then, helped me to overcome losing my father, but I would have liked him to have seen what I could do."

Borriello's father Vittorio was killed by the mafia in 1993; like Pescara's Giuseppe Sculli and Roma's Daniele De Rossi another in a long line of players whose private lives have been affected by the miserable consequences of organised crime. In those years (we are at the beginning of the 90's), according to court and police reports, Borriello's father, known as "Baby Bottle", was supplying usurious loans to the people of the local community controlled by the Mazzarella clan. Vittorio ended up on trial for Mafia association, but was acquitted completely. On the same day, however, "Baby Bottle" disappeared. It wasn't until years later that Borriello discovered that his father had loaned money to Pasquale Centore, the former mayor of a town in Casertano with links to the Casalesi clan. "He didn’t want to pay my father back and, during a fit of rage, he murdered him," he explains. A repentant Centore had confessed to the murder over what he considered unreasonable interest demands; shooting Vittorio before removing the body and burying it under his villa. "I was 10 at the time and from then on my mother was instrumental in the way I grew up," recalls Borriello. "I've always had a family behind who supported me and I have never gone without. Growing up without a father figure was hard but it is an experience that has strengthened me and made more independent. Otherwise I would not have left home at age 14." Signora Borriello is wide-eyed when she recalls the first time she truly noticed how talented her bambino could be. "My son started playing football in the square in front of the tobacconist" she says, pointing to a square where there are shirtless boys chasing the ball. "It all started from that road, as it does for most boys, but unlike many his dream came true."

Spotted by traveling scouts when playing in a practice match with friends, Borriello came up through the ranks of Milan with a growing reputation but never had the opportunity to prove himself before being transferred to Treviso in a joint-ownership deal. He made his professional debut for Triestina in Serie C2 but it was his subsequent 10 goals in 27 Serie C1 games for Treviso that prompted Milan to recall him in June 2002. He was then handed his Serie A debut the following September against Perugia. After he failed to immediately establish himself he would spend much of the next few years on loan at other Serie A clubs, including a stay with league rival Empoli for the rest of the 2002–2003 season. Borriello returned to Milan for the 2003–04 season, playing in just 4 games before going on loan to Reggina. It was here that Borriello would meet the first of several high profile girlfriends in the shape of Argentine model, actress and television personality, Belen Rodriguez. Still playing second fiddle to his younger brother Fabio, star of the reality show "Champions", in the 2005–06 season, Marco was once again sent on loan, this time to Sampdoria along with Milan team mate Samuele Dalla Bona. Boriello left Sampdoria in January 2006 for a six-month loan stint at Treviso where he scored his then career best of 5 Serie A goals.

It was in the summer of that year that Borriello returned to Milan with the assurance of first team football following the departure of Andriy Shevchenko to Chelsea and the release of Marcio Amoroso. Yet by December his future was put in jeopardy when he tested positive in a drug test for prednisolone and prednisone after the 11th match of the 2006/2007 Serie A season. After confirmation of the test results in January 2007, he was suspended for two months. A scandal at the time, Belen would famously claim that the positive test was down to her boyfriend's contact with the creams she was using to fight an 'intimate' infection. It is just another in a long line of apocryphal tales in the building of Borriello's legend. "She was given bad advice and exaggerated during the interviews," Marco explained to Cecchini. "It had nothing to do with it. Those substances [catabolic steroids], were only present in a cream for back pain that I never actually used. Would you believe me if I told you that I still don’t know how I tested positive?"

Whatever the truth, six months later Borriello was sold to newly promoted Genoa in a co-ownership deal with Milan. At age 25, with his reputation now in tatters, it would be the move that finally saw the blooming of Borriello's latent talent. He finished the season with 19 goals, third behind Juventus pair Alessandro Del Piero and David Trézéguet and now a firmly established member of the Italian national squad. Having received his first cap in a friendly against Portugal in February 2008, he would subsequently earn a call up to the European Championships only for Roberto Donandoni to inexplicably prefer a clearly hobbled Luca Toni. Despite being shunned during the hottest streak of his career Borriello remains philosophical about the experience. "I stayed 20 days in a 5-star hotel," he smiles. "The food was great, I saw lots of great sights for free and had my picture taken with Cannavaro and Buffon." By now he was back in Milan, the subject of a €10 million transfer following Alberto Gilardino's departure to Fiorentina. He was also back in the gossip pages, telling the world in typical hyperbolic fashion that he made love to Belen "37 times a day". Even if Antonio Cassano has slept with between 600-700 women, he graciously conceded, "I've bedded fewer, but better looking ones."

In Borriello's first season of his second spell at Milan, he made just 7 Serie A appearances scoring a solitary goal against Reggina. Toiling away in Carlo Ancelotti’s preferred 4-4-2 diamond formation for which he was patently unsuited, he also scored against F.C. Zurich in the UEFA Cup, but an unfortunate injury kept him out of action for the rest of the season. After star man Kaká left the club in the summer 2009 transfer window, Borriello chose to move to shirt number 22 which he had worn at Genoa. The following season, now "in the court of Leonardo" and as the figurehead in a 4-3-3, he scored his first ever brace for the Rossoneri in a 2–0 win over Parma followed a few weeks later by his first Champions League goal against Marseille in a match that finished 1–1. Ahead of a fine run of form, Borriello scored another brace in Milan's 5–2 defeat of former club Genoa, one of his goals being an acrobatic bicycle kick from a cross from Ronaldinho. The following week Borriello scored a lovely goal against A.C. Siena, when he hooked a 30 yard chipped pass from Pirlo into the top corner first time from an acute angle in a move that brought back memories of Marco Van Basten's strike for Holland against the USSR in Euro 1988. On 21 February 2010, Borriello scored his fourth volley of the season in Milan's 2–0 win over Bari. Then in April, he scored two second half goals to help Milan come from 2–0 down to draw against Catania before finishing the season with an impressive 14 league goals in 26 appearances. It was enough to see him in Lippi's 28-men provisional 2010 FIFA World Cup squad, although he never made the final 23-man cut.

Despite starting the first game of the 2010-11 season for Milan against U.S. Lecce, Borriello's position was unceremoniously usurped by the high profile arrival of Zlatan Ibrahimovic. By late August he was loaned to Roma for free (where he then scored the winning goal against Milan at the San Siro on 19 December), with the obligation to purchase the player's rights before the 2011-2012 season for the payment of €10 million split over 3 years. He would go on to score 11 goals in Serie A that season, as well as two in the Coppa Italia and four in the Champions League. Yet June saw more upheaval, this time with the arrival of Luis Garcia as the Giallorossi's new head coach and the start of his ill-fated 'Spanish Project.' In what was becoming a familiar pattern in Borriello's stuttering career, the signing of a 'new toy'- this time €15 million Dani Osvaldo- would lead to severely diminished opportunity and indifferent form. He spent the first half of the season on the bench, playing just 7 matches of which he started in only 2, before this most peripatetic of footballers agreed a January €500,000 loan deal with Juventus, with the option to buy him for €8 million at the end of the season. After his official unveiling to the Turin press, Borriello met with a hostile reception from Juventus fans. In his first game he was greeted by a huge banner that read: 'Borriello, mercenary without honour or dignity.' The antipathy could be traced back to a perceived snub two years previously when Borriello was thought to have chosen Roma over Juventus when he decided to leave Milan. Like so many things in Borriello's life things are not necessarily what they seem. "Borriello is to all intents and purposes a Juventus player," Juventus coach Antonio Conte pleaded with the fans. "I think he explained that he never actually 'rejected' this move previously. The Bianconeri simply didn’t have the funds to offer a permanent deal at the time and the player and Milan preferred to send him to Roma, but he did not reject Juve. Only a madman could reject this jersey."

Predictably Juventus decided not to purchase Borriello after his loan spell at the club and he returned to Roma. Although Luis Garcia had by now departed there would be no respite in the form of new coach Zdeněk Zeman who immediately placed the striker sight unseen on the transfer list. By August Borriello was back at Genoa, in the arms of the club where he first made his mark. "I must not be a top player, just call me a good player," he said bitterly in his Genovese press conference when prompted to contemplate the circularity of his career. Emboldened by being back in the City of the Griffin, at the one place where he had always been loved unconditionally, he added: "I do not understand. I scored 15 goals for Milan, more than Ronaldinho and Pato, then was Roma's best scorer of the season. I scored the crucial goal for Juventus that sealed the Scudetto but none of this counts." Here it is, the eloquent summary of the nomadic striker with his numbers clutched in hand; "destined forever to always take on new challenges with commitment and goals," observed Galeano, "but never repaid in the same love or coin." As replacement for Alberto Gilardino, Borriello bagged three goals in eight appearances before a nasty ankle injury sidelined him for six weeks. Despite the enforced absence, he still ended the season as the club's top scorer, his 12 goals vital in helping the Rossoblu avoid the drop.

Which brings us to the start of this season and a return visit to Roma's bench. Having started in the first game of the season against Livorno, Borriello watched on forlornly as new coach Rudi Garcia preferred Francesco Totti, Adem Ljajic and Gervinho for his new look attack. Naturally his cause was not helped by the fact the club happened to be embarking on the best start ever recorded in the history of Serie A. In typical Borriello style he did have a small but crucial role in maintaining the record; scoring an historic winner against Chievo in late October. His first and only goal this season a small crumb of solace for a striker now unavoidably labelled a reject. No matter the circumstances, it never sounds like an appealing title to be given and yet in football terms huge number of players may wear such a hat, noted Jack Ross. Ultimately, there are different ways at looking at being labelled a reject. One is that a player believes he is not good enough, or the alternative is that he maintains faith in his own ability and acknowledges that his rejection is only down to the opinion of one man. Those who fall into the latter category, like Borriello, need to support such a belief with a drive, dedication and displays which make it impossible for them to fall out of the game and find themselves without a team.

It is the very reason Marco Borriello is now looking forward to the challenge of playing top-flight football in England. Having joined West Ham on loan from Roma until the end of the season earlier this week, the 31-year-old insists he is eager for the chance to prove himself in a new league. "I was given the opportunity to move in the summer and I was looking to come over to England and the Premier League, but I decided to stay at Roma at that time," Borriello told the club's official website. "However, when the opportunity arose to join West Ham in this transfer window, I was very happy to make the move. I can't wait to start playing in the Premier League - I know the fans are very passionate and I'm very excited by the challenge. I know it is a very tough league, but I am very much looking forward to testing myself here. Serie A and the Premier League are two different leagues. The Italian league is a bit more tactical, whereas the English league is maybe more physical. However, the ball is round in both countries, so if you are good player you can play in any league in the world."

Good footballers adapt. It is the motto of journeyman footballers everywhere; those brave souls forever traversing the highways and by-ways, forever starting out at a lower level club, forever pulling on a new strip (slightly tighter than the last). Men who were once bright-eyed players wheeling away in celebration but, as time goes on, the look of grim determination and old pro guile becomes the defining feature replacing the vim and brio of youth. As Rob Marrs once wrote, it is tempting to imagine a journeyman suffering with aches and pains, physically making noise as he pulls on his boots, hauling his wearying body onto frosted pitches in the icy air of the provinces and shires. Yet in truth, argues Ross, the term should be used in a more positive way as it reflects someone who has served their apprenticeship and learned their trade and provides a manager with reliable and experienced performances. Of course, a football team cannot consist of 11 such players, just as it cannot be filled with defenders, but their presence is vital and should be considered invaluable. Nobody understands this quite as well as Sam Allardyce. A man who has signed 87 players from 32 different countries in his time as a Premier League manager, and the vast majority of which have been of the longer in the tooth variety. Remarkably, in all that number, Big Sam had never signed an Italian in the top flight. In fact, his only previous purchase from Italy was Emanuele Morini at Bolton in 2000; Morini flopped and playing just twice in the Championship. It goes without saying Allardyce has far higher hopes for his latest arrival. "You go on the quality of the CVs they have got, the quality of the player they have been, and they want to achieve that type of quality here," he says. "It will bring more to the team. It’s not too difficult to say what we want from Marco - that’s goals and Italian flair." Goals and flair... of all the misapprehensions that continue to surround Marco Borriello, West Ham fans will hope his potential to produce both is not in question.

Friday, 8 November 2013

Sunlight Of Opportunity

Satan is inspecting Hell, or so a much told Romanian joke begins. As he strolls down the various alleys he arrives at a sector where the doomed are being boiled alive in vast cauldrons filled with pitch. Each nation has its own cauldron: Englishmen are boiling together, Frenchmen together, and so on. By each cauldron a horde of fiends are standing guard with tridents in their hoofs. As soon as the doomed cannot take the pain anymore and attempt to clamber out, the fiends sting them with their leisters and cast them back into the oily fires. However, Satan notices that one of the cauldrons is completely unattended. "This is outrageous!" he roars. "You will all regret this! How dare you leave a cauldron unattended, and who are the people boiling inside it?" To which the superintendent promptly replies: "Your Darkness, do not worry! These people are Romanians, and there is no need to guard them. As soon as one of them tries to get out, the others immediately pull him back in."

If something of the humour is lost in translation the sentiment is clear. Razvan Rat thinks it is best expressed in an old proverb repeated from generation to generation on the streets of Bucharest and Cluj-Napoca; namely, if the sun doesn't come in through the window, the doctor will come in through the door. It is a cautionary warning about the myopic dangers of parochial insularity and is something West Ham's peripatetic defender has clearly taken to heart. As befits someone born in 1980s Piatra-Olt, a sleepy railway town and road intersection that serves as a gateway to mountain or coast in all directions, the young Razvan always had an eye on broader horizons. "When I was a kid, I dreamed of being famous, signing autographs," he laughs. "I loved football and it was all I ever saw on television." Not that you tend to get much choice when your father is a former football player and so many of your relatives are also playing the game. "My dad noticed that I had the talent and desire," says Rat. "He was a coach in the village where I had been born. That's where I started playing. And then, little by little, I became who I am now."

Who he was going to be was certainly not a goalkeeper like his father, who although never reaching the highest levels played in the Romanian Fist Division or Colegiul Divizionar A. "To be honest, I was not very interested in that," admits Rat. "He [his father] told me some things, but I didn’t listen to him attentively, because I didn’t want to become a goalkeeper." Typically, Rat's inspirations were further afield. "I was rooting for Manchester United since childhood," he says, before revealing his all-time hero to be Ryan Giggs. When he started his career with his hometown club before playing schoolboy and youth-team football for Universitatea Craiova, Constuctorul Craiova, Sporting Pitesti and Cetatea Targu Neamt he did so as a left-sided striker. In fact, Rat played locally for several years and despite never owning a 'proper football' until he was fourteen claims to have no memory of ever doing anything else. "I played football for seven years," he recalls. "Before that I was kicking various ducks, small balls ... as long as I can remember, I've always liked football."

After completing high school, Rat then graduated from the Institute of Physical Education. "Basically, I'm a professor, no joking!" he says with a smile when thinking back to those formative years. By now it was 1998, and aged 17, Rat joined Rapid Bucharest and quickly established himself at the Romanian Premier League outfit under manager Mircea Lucescu. It was he who 'reclassified' his new charge into a marauding left back. "Lucescu is the person who has had the biggest influence on my entire career as a football player," states Rat. "I think if Mister had not found me a new position on the field, if he had not employed me as a full-back, I would not have achieved what I have now." It was the start of a friendship that would last many years and cross several borders. Having made his European debut in a UEFA Cup qualifying round defeat at Armenian club Mika in August 2000, Rat then embarked on a six-month loan spell with FCM Bacau before returning to Bucharest to win the Romanian Cup in 2002 and the Romanian Premier League title the following year.

Then came the move to Ukraine in the summer of 2003- "they sent the money by bank transfer and I moved there. As simple as ABC." Rat would enjoy an illustrious spell of success with Shakhtar Donetsk, lifting a total of 15 trophies - the vast majority of them under the guidance of former mentor and compatriot Lucescu, who took charge at the club in 2004. "It was 10 years ago when I was invited," he states. "I knew little about Shakhtar. I was told that this club has a great future and that the team is striving to become well-known in Europe. So, I decided to try." Rat thinks the Ukrainian league’s level is certainly higher than that of Romanian league. "There are teams in Ukraine, who achieved good results in Europe, primarily Shakhtar," he explains. "As for the fans, it can be said that I have lost contact with the Romanian fans long ago and I viewed Shakhtar fans as my natives. Shakhtar has given me everything I have in my career and in life in general. So I never even wanted to think about another club."

Everything in life includes his Ukrainian wife of six years, Iulia, who he met in Lenin Square one sultry May evening. "I made my choice, and I was not scared that my wife was of a different nationality than me," says Rat. "The heart wants what it wants. Frankly, between us there are sometimes misunderstandings. This is because of the language of communication, mentality, but these are little things." The two married in July 2007 and in early 2011, following many failed attempts and visits to various doctors and several specialty clinics, came daughter Nicole, whose birth Rat describes as the most memorable moment of his life. He insists he has no sporting aspirations for her and believes the most important thing is that she grows up healthy and intelligent. "A smart man would succeed in any field," he says. "And to become an athlete, you have to have a talent in a particular direction: football, volleyball, water polo - it does not matter." Salubrity remains Razvan's biggest remaining wish in life. "It's always been a dream of mine – to live a healthy life," he insists, before confiding that a second child is also a priority. "I already have a girl and now I want a boy to be born to us. Can you make an order?" It is clear that a close-knit family is the thing above all else that gives Rat succour. If pushed he will admit that he thinks it impossible to have many real friends. "All the rest can be considered acquaintances, comrades," he says. "I do not know whether you will agree with me, but the most real friends are your parents. Later, when you grow up, when you have husbands, wives, children, they will also become your friends. And those are almost the only people you can trust, who will support you, no matter how life pans out."

So it was that following ten successful years in Donetsk life unexpectedly saw the 32 year-old deciding to embark on his latest adventure in east London. "It was painful that the Shakhtar team broke up after all those years," he thinks. "But this is life, I also felt the need for fresh blood. It was a very beautiful time with many unforgettable achievements." Rat had been approached by several teams, including Besiktas and Marseille, in the January transfer window and Sam Allardyce declared interest in his services a few months later. "West Ham United are a team with great history, great traditions," he states. "I have big ambitions and West Ham really wanted to see me in their ranks and fought for me. I was very happy with such a kind of trust shown towards me on the part of the club."

More importantly for Rat the move to Upton Park represented the chance to realize a life-long ambition. "I fulfilled the dream of playing in a strong league, maybe the best in the world," he states, before pointing out the decision was made in full consultation with his wife. They both agree that their daughter, at almost three years of age, will find the adaptation the easiest and all are prepared for the vagaries of the English climate. "I know that the weather is fickle in England, but I do not come here to lie on the beach," says Rat. "Basically, everything is just as I expected it to be," he says when giving his first impressions of life in the capital. "I'm fine here in England and adaptation is painless. In everyday terms, there are absolutely no problems. We live on the outskirts of London in a very nice place. You could even say that we live in the woods! Nature, fresh air and no fuss. It is also not far from the stadium. It takes me about fifteen to twenty minutes by car to reach Upton Park. Currently, I am getting used to the left-hand drive."

If the oncoming traffic is not a danger to Razvan's beloved 250,000 euros Ferrari 430, then the same cannot be said about his new team-mates. It’s a staple of most Premier League footballers to have personalised registration plates on their top-of-the-range cars, but this probably wasn’t what he envisaged when they offered to get him some new plates. "I recently bought a new car and the lads have been having some fun at my expense," explained Rat on the club's official website. "As you will know, I have been nicknamed 'Roland' because of the TV character Roland Rat, so the boys put some new number plates on the car with 'RAT 1' and 'ROLAND RAT' written on them, like the real Ratmobile! My car is red, but the Ratmobile was pink and a bit slower, but it is nice."

Suffice to say that although he has not been at Upton Park long the new summer recruit is already a popular character in the East End. "Basically, West Ham is a very friendly team," explains Rat. "All the guys were originally open and they helped me in every way to safely pass the adaption period. Of course, my knowledge of the English language helped me to quickly blend in with the team. A foreigner always finds getting used to life in a new country easier if he or she speaks the language of the local people. I already speak five languages​​: Russian, English, Spanish, Portuguese and, of course, the Romanian language. Basically, I have a good relationship with all the guys. But I communicate more with the team captain Kevin Nolan. Also, I have developed a friendly relationship with Joe Cole. He and I shared a room during the pre-season training camp."

It was the latter who was responsible for that now ubiquitous soubriquet. "When I first came here Joe Cole showed me a picture with Roland Rat and said ‘This is you’" smiles Rat. "Now most of them call me Roland. I’m getting used to it. It’s funny and the fans here are singing songs about Roland, and now everyone in Romania knows as well." Initially bemused, especially as his surname back home is pronounced Rata and means Duck!, the former Romanian Player of the Year took to watching YouTube clips of the TV puppet and has since grown to like it. "It is funny for me, it's not embarrassing," he says. "There were lots of articles about Roland Rat in Romanian papers and now everyone knows who he is."

If that is one Anglo-Romanian confusion cleared up, Rat is keen to address another; namely, that his new manager is not the raging alcoholic he is commonly held to be in Eastern Europe. "One myth around Sam Allardyce is that he chews gum because he drinks alcohol," laughs Rat. He had to explain to the media back home that Big Sam does not drink alcohol, or more precisely not on match days. "He just has such a habit," Rat told them. "In England, this is normal. Not only the coach, but many players chew gum during games. By the way, one of the coaches of the national team of Romania has the same habit, but in doing so he has never drunk alcohol."

Pitch-side masticating aside, Rat says there are other marked differences between his new boss and Lucescu, the former Romanian footballer and veteran manager of Shakhtar with whom he won the UEFA Cup 2008–09. "They are two different specialists," he states. "Their philosophy and views on football are different. Besides, characteristics of the players of Shakhtar and West Ham are markedly different. It also affects the teams’ playing style and the coaches’ requirements. The English Premier League is different from the Ukrainian Premier League. If the Donetsk club is in many components superior to all of their opponents, West Ham compete with the top teams, respectively, this influences the game."

Interestingly, Rat believes that although the physical demands of the respective leagues vary, the differences are not quite as you might expect. "In my opinion, the work loads in England are not so heavy," he insists. "In fact, perhaps, it may be that in London we work no less, but, at least, the trainings are organised so that the players don’t get tired that much. Allardyce is trying to build training so that the players work with pleasure. Even when we have a fitness training, all the exercises involve ball handling. At Shakhtar, we did more training work without the ball." In Donetsk sessions would last around 80 minutes and would often take place twice a day. Now he has more energy to pursue his other favourite activities such as tennis and ping-pong. Curiously, Rat also professes a fondness for traditional British pub pursuits, including billiards. "In particular, I love watching darts," he enthuses, before also revealing he is something of a gastronome. "My favourite is borsch, but there are some others," he says. "Basically, I'm not very picky. I can eat everything!" Otherwise he does not miss the opportunity to reiterate how proud he is of his wife. In addition to being beautiful and flirtatious, he says, she turned out to be a perfect housewife. "I only eat at home because my wife cooks very well and I like it very much," he smiles.

Although he is now rapidly establishing himself as a first choice member of the West Ham back four, Rat reveals he was never concerned by his personal slow start to the campaign. "Recently, the Irishman Joey O'Brien played in my position," he states. "Generally he is a right back, but due to the fact that last season, the main left-back had his cruciate ligaments damaged, O'Brien was moved to the opposite flank. In principle, West Ham finished the last season well, and the manager decided to leave Joey on the left flank in the opening rounds of this league edition." In truth, Rat says he relishes the competition. "That's the way it should be," he insists. "I try to do everything possible to be in the starting lineup. Our business is to train, and the final word, naturally, is for the manager." Even before the start of the season, says Rat, Allardyce told him that in the opening weeks he would not feature in the starting lineup. "This is normal. He wanted me to feel the atmosphere of the English Premier League. Still, it's a new league for me and a totally different level. The coach explained to me that I should first get a feel for the English Premier League, and then he will field me. I have played around 60 Champions League games and I understand I need to perform at that level."

It is the very reason he has no time for accusations levelled at him in the Romanian media that West Ham represents a regressive move in his career path. "In the English Premier League there are games that can be compared to the matches of the Champions League," he insists. "When you play against Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea, Tottenham or Manchester City, you can feel the level of the Champions League. So my move to West Ham is not a step backward, but a sideway step, so to say." The excitement he feels before each game still remains and it is the reason he knows he made the right choice to move to England. Ultimately, he states, he wants to be one of the key players of the team, to be a first-team regular. "Having moved from a team that is constantly playing in the Champions League, I must prove my high level now at West Ham so I have to put my best foot forward. I expect to play at the level of the English Premier League for more than three years."

That, of course, would take Rat beyond his current contract so exactly how much longer does he intend to play? "For as long as my knees are not worn out," he laughs, before adding he has no intention of slipping into a coach's tracksuit when his time is up. "It depends on what opportunities there will be," he muses. "I could drive a certain business, though not necessarily related to football." But then the multilingual and multifaceted Razvan has consistently marched to the discordant beat of a different drum. Most of his career earnings to date have been invested in Romania where the couple have an extensive property portfolio. On the plot of Rat's once humble home now stands a multi-million pound hotel complex complete with tennis courts, football pitches, outdoor pool (complete with football boot tiling) and a bowling alley that serves as a home and business for extended family. When he is not attending to the restaurant, conference rooms or luxury apartments, his father, Ion Dincă Rat, cruises around in the Chrysler limousine gifted by his son and the locals agree it is probably the most imposing vehicle that ever passed through Piatra Olt or Slatina. While in the family garage patiently sits the BMW sports car the Rats use during their frequent visits back home.

Down the road in Predeal there are newly built hostels for transients and the disadvantaged, while 2004 saw the construction of a new sports complex. "Razvan was the one who wanted to do something in Slatina," explains his father. "He wanted the kids to learn the secrets of football in better conditions than we had it. To get football when he was little, he had to commute 44 miles from Piatra Olt to Craiova. The sports centre offers extraordinary conditions such as hot water, ground cover, equipment, balls and coaches. Razvan sent all his money back home, money that I have used here. He had no childhood, had no joy, but he has tried to make things better for Slatina. It is beautiful." If this is what can happen when you let the sunlight of opportunity through your window maybe we all should draw back the curtains just that little bit wider.

Monday, 14 October 2013

The Fluke Of Random Greatness

What makes for a prodigy is a difficult question. In some spheres it means extraordinary achievement at an inordinately early age. George Steiner had this definition in mind when he claimed that there are only three fields of human endeavor in which genuine prodigies happen: music, mathematics, and chess. The twelve-year-old Mozart wasn’t an exceptional composer for a twelve-year-old; he was just an exceptional composer. Bobby Fischer became a grandmaster at age fifteen. Not all such prodigies go on to become as great as they are expected to become; but they all accomplish a great deal, by any measure, in their art or discipline. As Frank D. Gilroy once noted, a person who's going to be famous usually drops a few clues by the time they're twenty-one.

In football we call players prodigies when they show extraordinary promise early on. It is an industry that has always snuffled hungrily after new things: new faces, new stories – and above all intact and unruined youth. Flick through the back-pages of any newspaper- national and regional- these last few days and it would be hard to avoid the name Ravel Morrison. He is the latest in a long line of callow youngsters who dominate players their own age, but who we can’t be certain will be able to take the steps necessary to achieve as brilliantly when they’re playing against the best in their profession. Their promotion has a rush of event-glamour about it. Partly this is the simple pleasure of inhaling that vital scent, gorging vicariously on great dripping vampire handfuls of downy-cheeked pep and vim, thinks Barney Ronay. But mainly it is the faint thrill – the distant, outside chance – of proximity to greatness. Being there means reading the first page of history.

There is an unforgiving Venn diagram here. Writing in the Guardian, Ronay argues that all great players are sensational when they're young; but only the tiniest fraction of sensational young players go on to become great. But still they just keep coming, doomed infantry battalions of junior jinkers, trainee poachers, apprentice pivots, bringing with them the same old jangling excitement, the sense that maybe this time, maybe this might be The One. Broadly speaking, he notes, there are two different kinds of prodigy: those who mature physically ahead of schedule and dominate their peers with brawn and pace, and those who develop very high levels of skill before they could reasonably be expected to.

By far the more common is the muscle-prodigy, a player who is a prodigy simply because he seems averagely, or even above-averagely, good at a very young age. James Milner was this kind of prodigy, performing at the age of 16 with all the grizzled poise of a 26-year-old when others of his age are moping and loafing, experimenting disastrously with basic heavy-metal guitar, and loitering quite near groups of girls hoping to appear fascinatingly aloof rather than pustulous and gaunt. Aged 26 Milner will still be performing with all the grizzled poise of a 26-year-old. This is the static prodigy phenomenon, where early gains ossify into a state of frowning and manfully borne stasis, a condition Ronay believes is known as 'Huddlestone's Mooch' in sports science circles.

Rarer, and naturally more exciting, is the skill-prodigy, the ferrety junior ballerina who comes snorting out of his elite rabbit hole ready-made; the skill-merchant for whom an entire wildly optimistic career map is instantly projected in prancing fast-forward. These are our most fragile prodigies. The skills won’t do them much good if they don’t develop the physical resilience to deal with angry strong men who wish to knock them about. Often they will simply disappear, or congeal, or stick around, gravely burdened in their spangled boots and faded No23 shirt.

Ultimately, the few who make it to adult greatness often take a slightly crooked path. Wayne Rooney was a hybrid prodigy – part muscle, part skill – who came barrelling out of obscurity clenched with adolescent resolve. The early Rooney was often portrayed as somehow semi-feral, a man-boy, a dustbin footballer, discovered complete in a carpark shopping trolley. In contrast mid-period Rooney has prevailed above all by a triumph of will and wit, of unblinking resolve rather than untameable inspiration. Perhaps, muses Ronay, the hysteria that greeted his atypically spectacular goal in the Manchester derby in February 2011 had at its core a release of pent-up prodigy anxiety, a reclutching to the maternal bosom, slot-mouthed with buried disappointment, of our puppyish infant-genius. Ryan Giggs also made it and stands now as the prodigy complete, still lithe and slippery in old age. Since he arrived in Manchester United's first team as a 17-year-old in 1991, he has regularly done things with a football that could qualify for an Arts Council grant. Among the concrete house builders of the British game he stood out like Michelangelo, observes Jim White. But it has been a circular process. Old Giggs has justified the lull of mid‑Giggs, and formed a boomeranging reinforcement of early Giggs. Perhaps the same process will occur with late Rooney.

"He was 13 and just floated over the ground like a cocker spaniel chasing a piece of silver paper in the wind," remarked Alex Ferguson on seeing Giggs for the first time. Yet in a country where the usual form is for footballers to look like troglodytes and run around like beheaded poultry, the elegant, economical Giggs was still assumed by many to be too flash, too handsome, not serious, recalls White. Then again, being British and gifted in the feet, you are expected to go off the rails up top. There's Bestie with his drink and women; Gazza with his ice-cream and hair extensions; and most deviant of all, the teetotal, God-bothering Glenn Hoddle. Which brings us back to Ravel Morrison, the 'troubled genius' described by Ferguson as "one of the best he's ever had at that age."

Almost on a weekly basis the former United boss would be confronted with news that the midfielder had stepped out of line in training. Worse yet, reports of his unruly behaviour away from United's Carrington training complex caused Ferguson far greater concern. He was the Lost Boy of the United academy, showing up late and exasperating staff with his inability to grasp the opportunity at his feet. Morrison's numerous run-ins with the law nearly ended up in a prison term in 2011 when he pleaded guilty to two counts of witness intimidation. Yet Ferguson allowed Morrison numerous second chances; second chances that were not permitted for far more illustrious names. Why? "There was a feeling at United that Morrison could go on to be one of the club's greatest ever players," one United source told the Mail's Sami Mokbel. "Ferguson knew what he had and he didn't want to let it go."

United's players knew it, too. Many of them would watch in awe at a prospect who had the potential to become a "monster", if he got his head right. His stunning solo goal against Tottenham on Sunday simply underlined the ability of a player that Ferguson believes can still go on to to be one of the world's greatest. Rio Ferdinand tweeted: 'Great to see Ravel Morrison playing well and focused consistently now. That goal wouldn't make his top three goals showreel by the way.' And it's true, notes Mokbel. It wouldn't.

Morrison would routinely make senior internationals look ordinary in training at United. However, despite his immense talent, he would only go on to make three League Cup appearances for the Old Trafford club. His connections with Manchester's murky underworld ultimately meant Morrison had to leave the city if he wanted to make a go of his career. Having grown up on the tough streets of Wythenshawe, south Manchester, he was involved in his fair share of trouble. Reluctantly, Ferguson sanctioned Morrison's sale to West Ham in January 2012, for an initial fee of £650,000, and a clear switch in mindset since has seen him go from the brink of prison to a potential England call-up.

Sir Alex did not want to sell, though he knew it was necessary for Morrison to have a fighting chance of salvaging his career. He told Hammers manager Sam Allardyce: "I hope you can sort him out, because if you can he’ll be a genius." In truth, United sent West Ham a giant package of trouble, wasted talent and arrogance: a dysfunctional young footballer, born to be the kind of player the English game so wantonly lacks, but unlikely to overcome a "wrong beginning", as Larkin might have put it. Ferguson, however, was not dispatching him to oblivion. Allardyce says his friend in the north told him: "A brilliant footballer. Brilliant ability. Top-class ability. Needs to get away from Manchester and start a new life."

Now 20, and in the England Under-21 squad, Morrison initially showed the same old traits; arriving late for training combined with a laissez-faire attitude during sessions. A reluctance to integrate with the rest of the squad is also understood to have rankled. "The reason he is succeeding now is because he has got rid of all those hangers-on," explained a source. He showed signs of improvement during his loan spell at Birmingham City last season, where he played 30 games for the Midlands club. Allardyce has seen the improvement with his own eyes since pre-season: a new Ravel, who is finally ready to show England what he has got. Indeed, his decision to have 'Ravel' and not 'Morrison' on the back of his West Ham shirt is a symbol of his attempts to leave his past behind him. Allardyce says: "He [Ferguson] let Ravel go for Ravel’s benefit, because he couldn’t see it happening at Man United. It was: 'Get him down there and see if you can get the best out of him, because you’ll have a great player on your hands.'"

No longer was Morrison happy to be an outsider. He made a noticeable effort to involve himself with his team-mates and captain Kevin Nolan, in particular, is helping to ensure he continues on the straight and narrow. "The Kevin Nolans and Mark Nobles probably do it better than me," the manager said. "He’s in the dressing room day to day with them and they’re guiding him along and talking to him, and saying – you’ve only just started. There’s a lot of praise going to come his way, and deservedly, particularly after that goal. We’ve been seeing it – not quite as good as that goal – all season. We’ve seen his finishing quality in pre-season. That’s why it wasn’t a great difficulty for me to take someone out with experience and put him in, because everyone was saying: 'He’s looking like he’s ready, gaffer'. He is that. As we say in the football fraternity, the penny’s dropped. It’s dropped in his lifestyle and his attitude to everybody, his timekeeping and so on. All of a sudden there’s the belief that he doesn’t want to do anything but break into our first team.

"I think a 12-month loan spell at Birmingham gives time to reflect on what exactly it takes to be a player on a week in, week out basis. It probably taught him a lot. ‘Who’s this lad? Can he stand the physical side?’ Rav’s learnt from that experience and taken it into pre-season, where he’s listened to what we’ve had to say, and what he has to do in our team shape. Basically we’re talking about players getting the ball to him in space as much as we possibly can. We saw it in pre-season against some good opposition like Sporting Lisbon and Braga. We saw it in the Capital One Cup. There was talk at the start: shall we take him out of the pressure pot position and start him in the wide position, because there’s less pressure out there? We ended up putting Mo Diamé out there and Rav in the middle. That’s what we felt his performances deserved."

On his audacious run through the Spurs defence, Morrison displayed balance, poise, confidence, speed and the ease of movement you see in all naturally gifted players, drools the Telegraph's Paul Hayward. Roy Hodgson, the England manager, who was in the stands, is bound to have recognised a quality his squad is constantly accused of lacking. A curse of the English game is that talent so often arrives with a side order of mayhem. In Morrison’s recent discovery of stability there is no guarantee that praise and exposure will work in his favour. The boy who claims never to have of heard of Gazza may pass through his whole career one indiscretion away from implosion.

But for now, West Ham should enjoy the emergence of a man who has the minerals to become one of the Premier League's greatest. Because sink or swim, prodigies seem to speak to something vital, a football-centred sense of enduing national fecundity, of great, untapped footballer-pockets still walled beneath the granite slopes, concludes Ronay. Brazil has always done this better than most, celebrating its own twig-thin ball-jugglers with an almost sacrificial zeal. In England the initial trumpeting around Theo Walcott, the Berkshire boy, seemed to portray him as a kind of wood sprite, a rural foundling, glossy-coated and wet-nosed, ready to hare out of the tree line. But really, alluring as they are, the big thing with prodigies is probably just to stop talking about them. Prodigy-talk is a vice that feeds greater vices, a substitute for rigour and systemic excellence, pinning hopes instead on the fluke of random greatness. This is just another reason to wish 'Ravel' well as he faces the usual challenge of trying to wring every drop from his considerable talent – and to remember that, in every sense, we are extremely lucky to have him.

"There is a sacred horror about everything grand," wrote Victor Hugo. "It is easy to admire mediocrity and hills; but whatever is too lofty, a genius as well as a mountain, an assembly as well as a masterpiece, seen too near, is appalling. Every summit seems an exaggeration. Climbing wearies. The steepnesses take away one's breath; we slip on the slopes, we are hurt by the sharp points which are its beauty; the foaming torrents betray the precipices, clouds hide the mountain tops; mounting is full of terror, as well as a fall. Hence, there is more dismay than admiration. People have a strange feeling of aversion to anything grand. They see abysses, they do not see sublimity; they see the monster, they do not see the prodigy."

Copyright 2007 ID Media Inc, All Right Reserved. Crafted by Nurudin Jauhari