Thursday, 5 July 2007

Carlitos' Way

The following is the "incredible rags to riches story of the East End's favourite Argentinian prodigy". It comes from the latest issue of a top-selling football magazine and isn't available anywhere online as far as I know. I'll try and keep it here until such time that somebody in an expensive suit tells me to take it down.

Carlitos' Way- His season began and ended in a blaze of publicity and controversy. But in between, Carlos Tevez proved why he's one of football's hottest properties.
Marcela Mora y Araujo

When Carlos Tevez signed for West Ham United at the 11th hour of the transfer deadline in August 2006, we knew we were in for some story...

Up until that minute rumours were rife that the small Argentinian forward would join a Premiership club, but the names touted were the big four- apt stages for an international who had stunned the world with his flair during the World Cup.
Stocky and bull-like, with the sort of skills and ball control the world has come to associate with Argentina, Tevez had been a regular in his national team's famous youth squad, picking up World trophies and Olympic medals alike. He spent a season with Brazilian club Corinthians, where in spite of an abrupt and antagonistic departure he became an idol and won the domestic league. During the World Cup in 2006, Argentina were knocked out by Germany- but for lovers of 'beautiful' football, they were the team who displayed the most breathtaking technique. And Tevez shone. Arguably even against Germany, he demonstrated an ability to both showboat and play with efficiency, displaying individual flair and assisting the team- and to charge with rhythm and play until the 90th minute with the same stamina as the first.

In a restaurant in Hamburg after the match against Holland, a cluster of international football agents were dining. "Tevez will join the Premiership next season," they were tipping reporters, "but only for $100 million." So when West Ham unveiled their new signing- part of a double coup along with fellow Argentinian, midfielder Javier Mascherano, also from Corinthians- with the proviso that an undisclosed deal had secured both top internationals for a very modest fee, speculation started in earnest about what might be going on behind the scenes.

Argentina's squad was in London at the time, for a friendly against Brazil. The jaw-dropping transfer was announced to the press in an East End hotel. Tevez sank low into a deep leather armchair and joked about how the only thing he knew about West Ham was that the club's insignia consisted of two little hammers. Someone asked him if he a shirt yet. He didn't, so someone else made a point of seeking a blue and claret strip, returned with it already bearing the number 32, and Tevez hugged them with joy. Why 32? "Michael Jordan. I've always loved him and the 23 or 32 evoke him for me," he said. Just like David Beckham someone ventured. It was obvious from the reaction around us that this wasn't taken as a compliment. The preferred analogy on the day was that of Diego Maradona's joining Napoli; a small, forgotten club with a long tradition of football-loving supporters who loyally stuck by them through times of trouble; a club with a history. A club in need of a number 10 groomed in the vacant lots of Buenos Aires's poorer quarters.

In the beginning, West Ham fans rejoiced and Alan Pardew, then manager, spoke candidly about his delight and his reluctance to question the hand that fed him. The deal, confused and confusing, was incomprehensible from a business perspective. But Pardew was providing soundbites about how brilliant it was to have "world-class players" and all seemed set to roll along smoothly for West Ham, who were emerging from a spectacular season, to continue enjoying lashings of glory.The remains of the summer were still just perceptible at the training ground in those days, with early-morning Friday press conferences in the sunshine and Tevez bouncing about trying to find his feet in his new home. During training, Pardew's voice could be heard commending him as the newcomer dribbled his way across the fields of Chadwell Heath.
There was something so quintessentially English about the surroundings, the gates into the training ground, the neat rows of cars, the timetables and contempt for Argentinian improvisation among the press. But the players kept high spirits and showed enthusiasm for their new life. "We want to be here for a long time," they said.

As the clocks changed and winter set in, it was more than skies that darkened. Pardew didn't seem able to find a way to accommodate his "world-class players", and both often found themselves on the bench. The drizzle and the cold came in hand in hand with a run of bad results. Increasingly, observers questioned what these two Argentinians were doing at West Ham. Alfio Basile, appointed manager of Argentina's squad, told a press conference that he watched them "and they worried him".
Basile's comments were based on tactics and football styles. In particular, he expressed concern about Mascherano, a typical number five in the Argentinian sense of the word, not being exploited to capacity. "I like Mascherano as a double five," Basile had said, using a phrase that refers to the South American tactic of playing two holding midfielders one in front of the other. Obviously it wasn't simply a matter of numbers and translations hampering the Argentinian's fortunes. But perhaps there was an untranslatable quality to the way they play, the vocabulary they use to define and describe it, the codes on and off the pitch.

Another example is the word
gambeta, as used in Argentina. Gambeta can be described as the combination of dribbles and feints used by the most dazzling players, but it is actually much more. In a sense, it is the aim and purpose of the kid who plays for fun. When asked to define it in English, former Real Madrid sporting director Jorge Valdano said: "It's like a tango- only different." Carlos tevez, on the other hand, is more to the point, his language lacking such frills: "It's getting a guy off your back while keeping the ball at your feet," he once told me. Such a prosaic definition does Tevez no justice, though. What he can do when he gets hold of the ball is more akin, as the Argentinian rock song The Dance of the Gambeta goes, to the rather more poetic "dribbling fate". As Basile had said, Tevez can play all over the pitch (but not on the left). Rather than a straightforward striker, he is more of an Argentininan number 10- a link, a thinker, a playmaker. But he has the speed and strength of the young Ronaldo (the Brazilian) as well as the precision and efficiency of the unfussy pragmatist. Ciaran Simpson, who worked with him at West Ham as his translator, said: "If he loses the ball in a trick, he will run 120 metres to recover it." His skills are unparalleled, and although rarely displayed gratuitously, are full of the charm and attention to detail so often associated with the street children of South America.

Carlos Tevez was raised in Fuerte Apache, an astonishingly poor area of Buenos Aires afflicted with a huge crime rate. Tevez has been frank about the difficult childhood he had there, and has been quoted saying that despite the fact that they didn't have enough to eat, he feels proud of the place where he was born and raised. In his case, however, the harsh realities of Fuerte Apache didn't quash the dream. He was very good at football and his talent was spotted early on. He would play with much older kids for the fun of it- even when they played for money. He was signed by Boca in 1997, and the hunger that drove him in the informal kickarounds never left him. Under the tutelage of Ruben Madonni at club level and Jose Peckerman at international level, by 1999 he was representing Argentina at Wembley.

It was a three-way under-16 friendly tournament between England, France and Argentina. Argentina sent a squad of 14-year-olds because Jose Peckerman and Hugo Tocalli, the head of youth development, felt it would be a good introduction for them: how to behave in a hotel, how things work in other countries, a taste of the facilities at a training ground... Most of those boys had never even been on a plane before; many had never set foot outside Argentina. Tocalli let me travel to Wembley in the coach with the kids, and then sit on the bench. As the coach drove into what was then the world's football cathedral, one of the boys stood with his mouth wide open: "What the fuck are we doing here!?" he gasped. They took on their English opponents- a couple of years older and several inches taller- nervously but bravely. Before the game, we had asked Tocalli which one of them we should look out for in years to come. Was there one who would definitely make it? Without hesitation he pointed to a small, stocky, cheeky clown joking about with a ball. A boy with a noticeable scar running along the side of his face, all the way down his neck and torso: Carlos Tevez. Tevez scored at Wembley. "That was my first goal in the Argentina strip," he says, his eyes full of delight at the memory.

On June 5, he scored again in an Argentina friendly, this time a confident header from a pass by Messi; this time one of the most established names in the squad, one of the most experienced members of the team, and one of the few dead certs for this year's Copa America squad. But on the pitch he does not look any different from back then.

Tevez's debut for Boca's first team came a few years later, and he quickly became the club's idol. Following in the footsteps of Maradona and Riquelme, both of whom befriended and supported him- and shared his experience of an extremely deprived childhood- Tevez embodied the typical tale of the boy from the neighbourhood for whom football becomes the meal ticket out of the slum. He gave everything, playing every game as if it really mattered. He still does. He became a celebrity quickly too; a controversial one. Media interest in his private life became intrusive, the paparazzi never left his side, and by the time Boca sold him to Brazilian club Corinthians, he expressed relief at the distance he would gain from Argentina's national press. In Brazil, he said, they were more interested in what he did on the pitch than off it. But by the time he left Corinthians, controversy had caught up with him again. Appearing at a press conference wearing a Manchester United strip, a physical fracas with opposing fans, and a heated exchange with the manager all contributed to his departure being a little rushed. Some even described it as a flight. Nevertheless, his potent play had by then helped the club win the league. And for this, Tevez became an hero to the fans.

The murky world of international transfers is never clear at the best of times. In South America, where clubs are more often broke than not, and therefore unable to afford top players, it's common for third parties to become involved in the financing of players. So, trust funds are set up, where investors contribute to the purchase of players in the hope of recouping their money with subsequent sales. Sometimes, instead of trust funds, individuals finance the players. Particularly in Argentina, where private ownership of clubs is prohibited by law and many aspects of club management are contracted out to third parties, what is commonly described a s 'player ownership' is not uncommon.
Mauricio Macri, chairman of Boca Juniors, sold Tevez to Corinthians. He said it was a straightforward transaction in which he insisted the full amount be paid up front. Corinthians were by then under the management of MSI, an international company fronted by an Iranian, Kia Joorabachian. Joorabachian had also expressed an interest in buying West Ham, and a serious offer was under consideration when he moved Tevez and Mascherano to the East End. The idea was to build a team around them, and the fact that the 'sale' had not been for as much as was touted during the summer was not a problem so long as the long-term vision worked.

Enter Eggert Magnusson, an Icelandic football man and businessman. "I've been following football for 50 years," he told journalists in his first briefing after he took over the club. Because Magnusson's consortium bought West Ham, quite suddenly, having outbid Joorabachian. One of the first things Magnusson said when he arrived at Upton Park, was that he was unhappy with the contracts for the two Argentinians; this notion of them being owned and loaned, or partly owned, by a consortium. "Would he have entered the agreement?" someone asked. "No."
It's still unclear what the terms of this agreement are, and the affair has had an additional spanner thrown into its works by the FA's decision to fine West Ham for breach of rules. The FA does not allow third-party ownership of, or third-parties to benefit from the sale of players. Deals must be club to club. This complicates many South American transfers, where the 'selling' club is not always the outright 'owner' of the player. In the UK, however, the situation is somewhat stricter: a player must be registered with a federation, that registration must be lodged with a club, and that club in turn must have some sort of contractual agreement with the player.

Tevez's tale took another twist and turn when Pardew was sacked and replaced by Alan Curbishley. With Curbishley's arrival, the entire story shifted. At his first press conference, before he had even met any of the players, Curbishley was asked about the Argentinians. He said as far as he was concerned, this was a new start; a clean slate: "They've got to force their way into the side." He was unsure if West Ham's misfortunes were simply a case of lack of confidence leading to lack of results or bad results leading to a lack of confidence. "I don't know what comes first, but I do know either way we've got to get both back in here," he announced.
By now, Mascherano was fast losing his way: playing with the reserves, he was distinctly unsettled. Tevez would get off the bench more, although he rarely started. He was also becoming puzzled by a series of quotes in the tabloids that he insisted he never gave. Tracking the source proved futile- everywhere his unkind remarks appeared they were quoted as stemming from somewhere else. He became even less trusting of the media.

"There's something going on here that goes beyond football," Mascherano told me cryptically in the New Year. Both he and Tevez agreed that all they could do was get on the pitch and play. Play better. But keep at it. Mascherano moved to Liverpool during the January transfer window, and so Tevezwas left alone in the East End. Football has helped him and his family raise their standard of living- and a as a result, Tevez has a huge respect for the game. So on the pitch, however adverse the conditions, he never stopped trying.
He was unlucky, though, and couldn't find the goal. Curbishley was apparently surprised by the stats that showed Tevez hadn't scored at all. But although he wasn't scoring, Tevez's workrate never diminished. He would delight supporters with his skills, but if he lost the ball, he would sprint with all his energy to recover it. West Ham fans became very appreciative of this, and started chanting his name. He recently told Argentinian reporters that he would sit on the bench hearing the crowd calling his name and wanted to stand up and say "I'm here. Look: I am Carlos Tevez."

The end of the season approached with the club actually facing relegation. Even though Tevez's luck turned, and he started scoring, the club's fortunes didn't look so good. But the worse the prognosis, the more driven Tevez became. "Fighting relegation doesn't make you less of a player," he said when someone asked him if he felt worthy of a more successful stage. Those close to him say he really wanted to stay at West Ham; wanted to help the club; wanted to "dribble its fate". The final game of the season, against Manchester United at old Trafford, provided Tevez with the perfect setting for a perfect goal. He used all the tricks he had perfected on the streets of the slums- chest, dummy, flick, one-two, side-kick (or as the Argentineans say, "pechito... amague... pared... gambeta... sombrerito... chanfle"), and netted the ball for the only goal of the game- so hauling the club away from the precipice of relegation.

"Avoiding relegation was absolutely amazing for us," he tells me. For all the analysis his West Ham performances had elicited, Carlitos remains matter of fact when asked what prompted his reversal of fortunes in front of goal. "Nothing," he said. "I've done nothing different. Earlier in the season, I was missing the goal. But lately, the ball's been going in."
Football can withstand the most detailed scrutiny, the most passionate tactical debates, the harshest and most extreme ideologies as to what works and what doesn't. But its magic is that it all boils down to whether or not the ball goes in. And there's no formula. The best of the best are those players whose passion and devotion to the ball remain constant no matter what the circumstances. Those players who enjoy playing the game so much that they pass on their enjoyment to those who watch. Those players who can combine raw talent with hard work and excel as athletes, yet always remind us of a child at play.

The way Carlitos Tevez does.

Taken from FourFourTwo magazine

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Im gonna cry like a baby if he leaves.

Well maybe not, but you know what i mean.


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