Wednesday, 16 May 2007

The Best Since Maradona

The Footballing Warrior: The footballing warrior from Fort Apache
By Neil Clack

"Redondo, Riquelme, Cambiasso, Colocinni, Sorin, Gago..." Ramon Madonni proudly reels off the names of some of the 70 professional players he has discovered. It reads like a Who's Who of Argentine football, but the legendary youth coach is under no doubt as to whom he considers the best of the lot. "Tevez is the biggest explosion in Argentine football since Maradona," is his description of the kid from Fort Apache who has captured the hearts of West Ham fans.

Madonni, 62, works for Boca Juniors and first saw Tevez play when he was eight years old. "He was just different," he says, "but when I say different, I suppose I mean he was just better than everyone else. He was playing for Santa Clara, the team from Fort Apache, against my team, El Parque, who were the best in the area, but he ran us a merry dance that day. He played just as he does today, running all over the opposition's area, beating everyone. He had lots of aggression and chased everything. So we invited him to join El Parque. Maradona is something unique, something apart, so we never compare anyone with him, but, after Maradona, Tevez is the best Argentina has produced."

Fort Apache is not actually the real name of the isolated ghetto that lies four miles to the north of the centre of Buenos Aires. A journalist first coined the phrase after a shoot-out in front of the local police station in the early 1980s and it has stuck ever since. Most of the 30,000 inhabitants of the 22-block labyrinth are descendants of indigenous Indians from the interior of Argentina and bordering countries. It is a self-contained community, with its own set of codes, and a shocking crime rate. Built in two stages, the project was originally part of the Ongania dictatorship's plan for the eradication of shanty towns in the 1960s but, later, during preparations for the 1978 World Cup, the military government, worried about security and the image Argentina would portray to the rest of the world, rounded up delinquents, placing them, out of sight, in the Ejercito de los Andes estate, a name that has long been forgotten.

"The biggest problem is juvenile crime," says the captain of the local gendarmes. "Of every 10 arrests, seven are minors carrying arms." Since 2003, the neighbourhood has been patrolled by armed soldiers wearing bulletproof jackets. Rusting iron corridors run between the irregular buildings, giving the complex the feel of an abandoned military base, or prison, taken over by squatters but, "Fort Apache is the most beautiful place in the world," according to Tevez. "I had an unforgettable childhood there and I will never forget my roots," Tevez has said. "If I wasn't a footballer, I'd be one of the rubbish collectors, I'm sure of that. There is real poverty but I'd like to live there again one day."

At the centre of the community is the Santa Clara football and social club. Every evening they run classes of "Baby Football". All over Argentina and Uruguay, children are taught by qualified coaches, on seven-a-side dust pitches, with an emphasis on ball control in reduced spaces. After an hour-long series of repeated trapping, dribbling and passing exercises, the six-year-olds play a 10-minute match. The little lad up front, wearing the Boca Juniors shirt looks quite useful - his name is Christian Tevez. It was here, on this very dust pitch, that his uncle first started learning his tricks before Madonni spotted him. "Carlitos was a great kid, always well behaved," says Madonni. "All he wanted to do was play football. He never missed a training session once. We loved him and so did all his team-mates because he gave his all in every single match and inspired everyone around him."

Madonni becomes animated when asked to explain his methods. "We always look for technique, that's the overriding principle in everything at El Parque. Then we teach the kids aggression, jumping, heading, chesting, shooting, but when I say aggression, I don't mean kicking or hitting opponents, but channelled aggression - shielding the ball, using your weight and balance. The truth is you can't teach anyone how to play football, but you can perfectionise [sic] it. And most important of all, it must be fun, they must enjoy it!" All this would, of course, be music to the ears of the FA's director of football development, Sir Trevor Brooking. It is a virtual blueprint of everything he wants English grass roots and children's football to adopt. "We never played in a competitive league at El Parque," says Madonni, "just friendlies. We were like a sort of Harlem Globetrotters team and the players knew that they were there to learn."

Only at the age of 12 do children in Argentina move on to bigger pitches and 11-a-side. So, aged 12, Tevez left El Parque to join his first senior club, lower league All Boys, a 15-minute bus ride away from Fort Apache. However, when Madonni invited him to join First Division Argentinos Juniors, the club where players like Maradona and Redondo had begun their professional careers, the 14-year-old Tevez's response was surprisingly negative. "'No, Argentinos, no, Papa', he said," recalls Madonni, mimicking Tevez's voice. "He was a fanatical Boca Juniors supporter and was not interested in Argentinos."

But, in 1996, when Madonni himself was handed the job of academy director at Boca, one of the first things he did was go back for young Carlitos. It proved a very astute move. A debut for Boca at 17, two Argentine league championships, two Copa de Libertadores (the South American Champions League) and the 2003 World Club championship, in which Boca beat Milan in Japan. Tevez then won a Brazilian championship with Corinthians and has been voted South American player of the year three times.

It is not unusual to see West Ham replica tops with Tevez's name on the back in Argentina, especially at Boca Juniors matches, and since he signed for the Hammers nearly all their matches have been transmitted live in his home country. Tevez's goals against Bolton and the presentation of the Hammer Of The Year award filled the middle page spread of Ole, Argentina's sports daily. But how does Madonni feel his protégé is doing at West Ham? "If I'm honest with you, I'm not quite sure how he ended up there," he says. "He should be at a better team, in my opinion. They say he went there to adapt but Tevez can adapt to any football. At one point, they were playing him in midfield. That's ridiculous! Tevez has all the natural characteristics of a striker, a brilliant striker in fact."

It does seem strange that it took two-thirds of the season before Tevez was able to nail down a regular place in the West Ham attack, although there has always been some debate over his best position. The former Boca Juniors manager Carlos Bianchi, with whom Tevez won everything, once said: "Not even Carlos Tevez knows what his best position is so, in the end, we just put him on the pitch and let him get on with it."

Back in Fort Apache, everybody has a story. "I saw him here on Christmas Day a couple of years ago," says one teenage girl. "He was playing football at 10pm with all the other lads. He's never really left the area. He signed a football for us last time he came here, which we raffled," says his old kindergarten teacher.

El Piola Vago (which roughly translates as "the lazy urchin" or "lazy chav") are a Cumbia dance band, made up of some of Tevez's old childhood mates and he sings and dances with them on stage, Latin American style, whenever he is back in Argentina. The group made a television appearance recently, two of the band wearing West Ham tops that Tevez had given them. "He'll be back, playing with them again in June and July," says Tevez's cousin.

Ramon Madonni recounts one more anecdote. "I remember that when I first took over at Boca, we had a match against All Boys and Tevez started on the bench for them. We were winning 1-0 but then he came on in the second half and scored two. When he got the winner he ran over to the bench and started doing that Cumbia dance thing in front of me, grinning away. I said: 'What, you want to dance with me?' and he took my arm and started swinging me around... that's Tevez for you."

The Independent

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