Thursday, 5 June 2014

The Whakapapa Spirit

Home, penned TS Eliot, is where one starts from. It is the reason why Winston Reid will be looking to put on a show for his family and friends when West Ham United travel to New Zealand next month. The Hammers defender was born and brought up in the Auckland suburbs until the age of eight, when he uprooted to Denmark. While he has spent the majority of his life away from home, Reid has retained strong ties with the Land of the Long White Cloud, returning regularly and being appointed national team captain in 2013. This summer, the player will enjoy the new and welcome experience of representing his Club on home turf, with dozens of his friends and family members expected to attend the Football United Tour fixtures against Wellington Phoenix and Sydney FC. "It's going to be nice for me personally to go back," Reid enthused. "The majority of my family live there and it's where I'm from. It'll be nice for the boys too, to experience a different part of the world. I only normally get the opportunity to play in front of my friends and family for the national team and now I get to do it with my Club as well, so it's going to be enjoyable for me."

It has certainly been a colourful journey from North Shore to East London, notes John Aizlewood. In 2011 Avram Grant’s reign at West Ham United ended with the double ignominy of relegation for the club and a P45 for him in the players’ tunnel at Wigan Athletic’s DW stadium. Perhaps, though, the seeds were sown as early as the season’s first game at Aston Villa. Grant had admired Winston Reid, New Zealand’s man-mountain centre-half, in the 2010 World Cup and promptly prised him from Denmark’s Midtjylland to Upton Park. The new acquisition- the sixth New Zealander to play in the English Premier League- so impressed Grant that Reid was thrust straight into the starting line-up. At right-back. "I’d never played right-back in my life," he sighs. "What could I do? I’d only just come into the club so I couldn’t really say anything." Reid did not have the happiest of debuts. Ashley Young and Stewart Downing tormented the 22-year-old as Villa won 3-0. The travelling fans wondered 'Winston who?' and 'Winston why?' and Reid would not make another Premier League start for six months. He can laugh about it now. "Hey, I got to try out being a right-back: it helped me mature as a player and a person," he says.

After a traumatic season and with Championship treks to Barnsley and Doncaster looming, Reid contemplated leaving. "I did, but I also thought, 'I’ve got myself in this situation, so it’s up to me to get myself out of it'. When Sam Allardyce arrived we sat down to talk. After that, it felt good, I felt wanted and I wanted to stay. He’s great and wants things done properly on the pitch. Off it, he’s given me a few kicks up the backside but he’s really funny, he makes us all laugh." Reid began the 2011-12 season in the first XI, partnering James Tomkins in central defence. Nine months later West Ham were back in the Premier League and those doubting fans had a new tough-tackling, positionally aware hero. Now he’s even recognised on the street: "It’s no problem, people come over for a chat and they’re welcome." That summer he spurned the opportunity to play for New Zealand at the Olympics to ensure he was ready for his Premier League rebirth. "Oh, I’d loved to have gone but from my point of view it was better to stay here and prepare. I’m sure the opportunity will come again," he says. Curiously Tomkins did participate and following some noticeably wobbly performances would spend much of the ensuing 2012-13 trying to shake off the effects. Meanwhile Reid progressed so quickly over the same time period that Allardyce anointed him as his "key" player. Arguably his best season in a claret and blue shirt, he was rewarded for his form on 8 May 2013 by being named Hammer of the Year; only the third player from outside Europe to win the award. Naturally, West Ham extended Reid’s contract, which was due to expire last summer, until the end of the 2014-15 season. "I’ve always believed in myself but the most important thing for me is playing week in, week out," he says. "Then you can get into a rhythm. It was frantic in the Championship but I used that season to acclimatise."

As roads go, Reid’s has been long and winding. A Maori (his middle name Wiremu means 'determined protector'), he spent his first decade on New Zealand’s north island. "It was certainly hotter than here," he laughs. If his earliest memory is playing football as a toddler with his father Lyle in the backyard of their North Shore home, it his mother who Reid credits with kicking off a lifetime passion. "I was too scrawny for rugby so I played golf, tennis and basketball. My mum got me into soccer." In fact, young Winston was a shy four year old when his mother, Prue, showed up with her son at Onepoto Domain in the autumn of 1992. "As a rule we don't accept any four-year-olds, but his mother pleaded with me to give him a go because he was very keen to play," remembers the Takapuna AFC coach Joe Boyle. "After getting him to kick a ball to me a couple of times it was obvious that his determination and skill factor was just as good as any of the five-year-olds in my team." Boyle remembers that Reid did not stand out for his physical presence, but always managed to match it with older players due to superior skills and a winner's mentality. Even though he may have grown into an intimidating central defender in the 1990s, the youngster was often one of the smaller players in the team. "Winston trained very hard and practised his football skills all the time, so soon he was the best player in my team," recalls Boyle, who played him as central midfielder. He also took the goal kicks and had a good eye for goal. "When he was only eight, we played on full-size pitches, so I got him to take the goal kicks because he could already clear the halfway line and put us on attack. It was not uncommon for him to score from well outside the penalty area."

Athletes who eke out a professional career often possess a natural excess of determination, attitude and commitment. Boyle said Reid had plenty of it and was not surprised his protege had made a successful career for himself. "In all those years he only missed one game with us, because he was in hospital with an asthma attack." The fertile partnership nearly came to an end when Reid's best friend moved to another, bigger club. "I said to Prue that although I would be disappointed, I couldn't stop him [going]," remembers Boyle. "But she told me 'he's not going anywhere, he has to learn about loyalty and that he's not going to get it any better anywhere else'." Prue was Winston's No1 supporter and was happy to help to manage the team for many years. Indeed, Reid's idyll- the coastal suburb boasts a 6km crescent-shaped beach with translucent turquoise waters- was only shattered and his knack of adapting fostered when his mother remarried in 1999. The family moved to Sønderborg, a small Danish town on the Baltic, near the German border. "I’d been used to sea swimming all year round at North Shore," recalls Reid. "In Denmark we lived 100 metres from the sea, so during our first April I told my mum I was going for a swim. She just smiled. I didn’t try that again: it was so, so cold." Experiencing no racism ('Danes are pretty open-minded"), he settled in quickly. Only English was spoken at home but, aided by the national policy of one-on-one lessons for non-Danish speakers, he was fluent in his new land’s language within 18 months. That scrawny kid had a growth spurt and the nippy striker ("I used to score a lot of goals") became a winger and then a central midfielder. "I just didn’t have enough lungs for central midfield," he admits. Having decided by 15 that football would be his life, he tried centre-half and, Grant’s intervention notwithstanding, Reid found his role.

Reid signed a youth contract with SUB Sønderborg, and in November 2005 dropped out of school after being offered a full-time contract at FC Midtjylland, of the Danish Superliga. The club were formed in 1999 after a merger between Ikast FS and Herning Fremad, where, by coincidence, Bobby Moore, Reid’s most illustrious predecessor, concluded his playing career in 1978. "I didn’t know that," smiles Reid, delighted by the thought. "I never saw him play but you can feel his presence. He’ll always be part of the club." One of the first players to graduate from FCM's football academy, the first of its kind in Denmark, Reid came through the system alongside Midtjylland teammates Jesper Weinkouff, Christian Sivebæk and former teammate, Simon Kjær. Aged 17, Reid made his FC Midtjylland debut in the Royal League tournament against Norwegian side Vålerenga in a 4–0 win. He made his league debut for FC Midtjylland coming on for David Nielsen as a substitute in the 78th minute. Playing few games in seasons 2005–06, 2006–07 and 2007–08 it was not until season 2008–09 that Reid made 28 appearances and scored his first goal against AaB Fodbold in a 3–2 loss and scored his second in the league in his next match against AC Horsens in a 3–1 win on 5 April 2009. When Midtjylland came within a penalty shootout of knocking Manchester City out of the Uefa Cup (Reid blasted his past Joe Hart), the wider world began to take notice of the by now Denmark Under-21 international.

Carrying dual citizenship through his stepfather Jens Bjerregaard (another credited for fueling his footballing passion), Reid had also played for Denmark at under-18 and under-20. It seemed only a matter of time then before he would make his senior debut for the De Rød-Hvide. Then Fifa changed the rules on eligibility and New Zealand qualified for the 2010 World Cup. Something twitched in Reid. He wondered what it might be like to play for his country of birth and his country wondered whether he might entertain the idea. He did. He followed a "gut feeling" and felt, as a Maori, he needed to play for the All Whites. "Of course I had doubts [about switching allegiance]," he says. "I weighed up my options for a long time and I think I have made the right decision because of the feeling in the team. It was difficult for me in the beginning. I was new to the team and I just wanted to feel my way into the team. But the World Cup was awesome. It's the biggest stage a footballer can be at. It was great being there with New Zealand." He was 21-years-old when picked sight-unseen by now departed national team coach Ricki Herbert - you do that when a player is linked with a host of Italian Serie A clubs, including Fiorentina, Palermo and Sampdoria, and was assured to be playing in one of the top European leagues in the near future. "He's been a great coup for us," Herbert says. "He's only a young player and no doubt internationally he will progress. But he's got a great heart and he slotted into the team really well."

So well in fact Reid sent the country into raptures when he headed home a goal with seconds remaining to tie their opening 2010 World Cup match against Slovakia 1-1; the first point the All Whites had ever claimed at a World Cup tournament. After scoring "the most important goal of my life", the Danish Maori ripped off his shirt, ran towards the corner flag and was swamped by his entire team and every reserve player. When the white mass untangled, South African referee Jerome Damon presented him with the obligatory yellow card for taking off his shirt. "It was worth it," he said laughing. "Something for the scrapbook." His parents had been in the Royal Bafokeng Stadium, in Rustenburg to witness the momentous event and back in Auckland the rest of his family couldn't believe their eyes when their boy scored. "We didn't realise it was him because he plays at the back and we weren't expecting him to be there," recalls his aunt Susan. "Then suddenly my husband said, 'It's Winston', and then he ran past with his shirt off and I thought, 'Yes, I recognise that boy'." Reid's father, Lyle, still living in Papakura, stated he couldn't believe his son had scored. "My foot nearly went through the floor and my head just about went through the ceiling." But then, as Michael Brown points out, "Winston's always been a player who makes things happen, and things happen around him. He is all power and athleticism, topped up by a dash of cleverness and occasional youthfulness. He can dive in needlessly but then make up for his mistake with a timely tackle."

Given his new found hero status it was perhaps inevitable that within three years the West Ham United defender would be taking over the national team armband previously worn by Ryan Nelsen, who hung up his boots last year to be coach of Major League Soccer side Toronto FC. A well-liked member of the All Whites squad, Reid's was a popular choice to lead the team forward. "There was a couple of giggles when Ricki told them, but they've all been good about it," he admits. The appointment continues a rapid rise for Reid as a player and a leader. The quietly-spoken 25-year-old already has experience of captaincy, having been stand-in skipper for his English Premier League club. He says the most important thing he learned when leading the Hammers was 'just being yourself'. "The main thing is being honest, saying your opinion and just working really hard, really," he said. "They're the main attributes I bring to the table." He knew he had big shoes to fill in succeeding the hugely respected Nelsen and was looking forward to the challenge. "I was very privileged to be a Premier League captain for a side like West Ham," he said. "Now I've got the responsibility of doing it for New Zealand. It's a great honour to captain the national team and me at a young age also."

That responsibility extends to being a figurehead and inspiration for future generations of autochthonous footballers. Football NZ doesn't keep statistics on how many Maori play the sport but indigenous players, female and male, make up around 22 per cent of the country's elite teams. In recent international squads Leo Bertos, Rory Fallon, Jeremy Christie and Reid have Maori whakapapa. Winston says he's always felt a strong connection with New Zealand and his Maori ancestry; he affiliates to Tainui through his father and to Te Rarawa through his mother. "If I can help other young Maori players to start off in soccer, that could be good," Reid states, going on to say that it is one of the reasons he always felt New Zealand was a better place for him to continue his sporting career. "Sometimes you have to follow your heart and your gut. There were other young kids ahead of me for the Danish team but I really wanted to play for New Zealand because I felt more like a Kiwi than a Dane. And my New Zealand family get to see more of me." Like back in Takapuna where Joe Boyle reveals Reid returned a few years ago on holiday and asked whether he could have a kick-about with his old mates. "It was in the middle of winter and we played in a mud heap," smiles Boyle at the recollection. "He didn't really stand out because he was trying to pass the ball and it kept getting stuck in the mud or his team-mates did not anticipate what he was doing. But you could easily see that his game had gone to a higher level."

If Reid is excited about the opportunity to return home next month, then Supporters from across Australasia are also relishing the chance to catch the Hammers in action, with capacity crowds expected for the fixtures with the Phoenix at Eden Park on 23 July and Sydney FC at Westpac Stadium on 26 July. The centre-back praised the Phoenix for enticing West Ham and Newcastle United to become the first English top-flight clubs to visit New Zealand in 29 years. "I've known about the trip for a while," he revealed. "There were a couple of representatives from the Phoenix here [in London] recently and I had a meeting with them where they talked about the interest in bringing the Club down. I thought it sounded exciting and fair play to them, they've done a lot to make it happen and I think the guys are looking forward to it." Reid is also looking forward to having some company on his flight home for once. "The plane is going to be a little more crowded than it usually is," Reid said. "First and foremost, it's going to be good for the public down there to see a couple of good quality teams. It will be good for our squad as well to get out of our normal environment. We're travelling a little bit further abroad than usual and it will be good for the lads to see a country they would perhaps never go to otherwise." Reid and his West Ham team-mates are used to spending their pre-season camps training in hot and sweaty conditions, but conditions in New Zealand are set to be a much cooler. Average July temperatures in Auckland and Wellington are just 11C (52F) and 10C (49F) respectively, meaning the Hammers are more likely to putting on tracksuits than sun cream! However, Reid is remaining optimistic about the weather conditions that await him and his colleagues during what is, first and foremost, a week aimed at getting them fit and sharp ahead of the 2014/15 Barclays Premier League campaign. "Hopefully the weather will be alright in July!" he continued. "I know it will be winter down there, but Auckland is a beautiful city and all the people in New Zealand are very friendly, so I think it'll be ten days of enjoyment, while obviously we'll be working hard in our pre-season. We're going down there for hard work."

And with that he muses upon his own personal journey one last time. "Y’know, footballers are very privileged. I do one of life’s most amazing jobs, where you get to go out and do what you really want to do: to get on a pitch and kick a ball around. Most people aren’t able to do that. That’s what motivates me and makes me happy."

Friday, 30 May 2014

White Heat Of An Entertainment Revolution

He that has light within his own clear breast May sit in the centre, and enjoy bright day: But he that hides a dark soul and foul thoughts Benighted walks under the mid-day sun; Himself his own dungeon...
Fans of the Premier League, cast your minds back to April 12th, 2008. It was the day that Mauro Zárate truly caught the attention of English fans, following up goals the previous month against Reading and Manchester City, with a sumptuous free kick to equalise late on against Everton for relegation threatened Birmingham. Zárate’s brief cameo in England’s second city was just one of several unusual stops in what has been an intriguing, frustrating and often perplexing career, wrote World Soccer's Adam Durack.

Having started life in Haedo, in his native Argentina, Zárate was always destined to be a footballer, coming from a moderately wealthy family with real sporting heritage. His grandfather Juvenal was a Chilean international footballer. His father turned out for both Independiente and Ancona Calcio; while at the latter meeting future Italian wife Catalina. His three older brothers, Ariel, Sergio and Rolando played for Malaga, Nuremburg and Real Madrid respectively during various points in their careers. It was no surprise then when young Mauro showed an aptitude for the family trade at an early age, quickly outgrowing the age groups at Velez Sarsfield to make his debut for the first team at just 17. It was a club for which his brother had made well over 100 appearances and scored 50 goals. If Zárate felt the burden of expectation, he did not show it. He played a part-time role in Velez’ capture of the 2005 Clausura as a teenager, before hitting 19 goals to share the title of top goal scorer for the Apertura with now Inter striker Rodrigo Palacio in the 2006-7 season, his first as regular starter for Velez, and also his last for the club before moving abroad. In the same year in which he was making headlines domestically for his goal scoring form, he earned global recognition, winning the FIFA under-20 World Cup with Argentina in Canada. It was team-mate Sergio Agüero who stole the limelight, earning both the competition’s Golden Ball and Golden Shoe awards for best player and top scorer, as well as a place in the All-Star team. Nevertheless, Zárate stood out at the tournament in and amongst future world stars including Arturo Vidal, Angel Di Maria and Gerard Piqué as a talented young forward, notching a goal in the final against the Czech Republic. Zárate’s future seemed well laid out for him, an oft trodden path taken by Argentinian players of shining domestically before jetting off to the big lights of Europe.

It was at this point that Zárate’s career took one of several unusual terms. The in-demand forward ignored advances from European sides, and the option to continue to forge a reputation at home, in order to make the move to Al-Sadd of Doha, Qatar. This initially puzzling move is perhaps explained by the careers of his brothers, in particular Sergio. Although Rolando had a brief spell at Madrid, none of the Zárate brothers ever made it at a huge club. With Sergio acting as his agent, the move to Al-Sadd came with a reported fee of around £13 million and a lucrative contract, setting Mauro up financially. This Middle Eastern sojourn was to be short lived however, with Zárate making only 6 appearances for Al-Sadd, in which he still managed 4 goals. Within six months Zarate would finally find himself heading to Europe. "I knew the chance to come was very important and, after speaking to Al-Sadd a few times and pushing them for a loan move, they agreed to let me go and here is the result," he told the Daily Mail upon his arrival in England. "Birmingham were the first to come in for me and the ones that pushed the hardest to get me out of there. I am very happy with my choice as I am a big fan of the English game."

Unusually then, Zárate made his debut in Europe in a defeat to Sunderland for a desperately struggling Birmingham. Not the most exotic locations for a silky skilled, fleet footed Argentine attacker to announce himself. Despite this though, and even though Zárate was unable to fire Birmingham to safety, a handful of impressive goals in just over a dozen appearances left him with no shortage of suitors. Having just turned 21 at the time and initially looking lightweight when first introduced to the helter-skelter of English football via the substitutes' bench, Zárate quickly grew in confidence to offer a touch of the unexpected to a workmanlike team. "He's one of those guys that are comfortable with a ball and caressing a ball," enthused then manager Alex McLeish. "I don't want to compare him to the Argentinian greats but he is of that mould. He has great balance and mobility. He can play anywhere along the front four. More importantly he's somebody that we think can create something out of nothing." His first Blues goal came in yet another defeat against Reading, which he followed up with an excellent brace in a 3-1 win at home to Manchester City; the first with his left foot, a delicate chip past Joe Hart, and the second drilled with his right foot low into the far bottom corner. "I don't know if he is a left-footer or a right-footer," teammate Franck Queudrue admitted at the time. "In training sessions he uses both feet. If we don't know which is his best foot, maybe the opposition don't either." That 1-1 draw against Everton in the middle of a barren April for the Blues saw Zárate score his fourth and final goal for the Blues, finishing with 14 appearances, with 8 as a substitute. "I am sure performances like that will make it very difficult for us to hang on to him, but I hope he has a future in the Premier League because he loves his football and he's a great kid," admitted McLeish. "He will be a good asset to one of the big clubs. It's just a shame that our situation counted against us." Predictably Blues’ relegation from the Premiership saw any hopes of a permanent transfer vanish, and it turned out to be a case of ‘what if?’, as David Sullivan announced that a deal had been in place to bring Zárate in on a long-term basis, on the condition of surviving relegation.

Facing a reluctant return to the Middle East, the ‘El Pibe de Haedo's’ next step was instead to a more suitable stage for his abilities, the Stadio Olimpico in Rome, the Eternal City. Although still a rather unknown quantity when he arrived at Lazio, Zárate wasted little time in showing his desire to take centre stage with the Biancocelesti. On an initial loan, Zárate immediately set about impressing, leading owner Claudio Lotito to label him "better than Messi" and endearing himself to the fans with two goals on his debut away to Cagliari before notching a breathtaking goal in his first home game. Writing in La Repubblica, Giulio Cardone recalled: "Zárate instantly showed what he has, in a debut which finished 4-1 to Lazio at the Sant’Elia – blazing dribbling, a powerful shot, ice cold. That, ice cold, temperament which allowed him to score the equalising penalty. The real feat came later, lobbing with his left – the boy is ambidextrous – a desperately onrushing Marchetti, with the slimmest margins of success." With superior acceleration, dribbling ability and a powerful shot from either foot, observed Paolo Bandini, he possessed not only the flair to fire fans’ imaginations but also the ruthlessness to ensure his fancy footwork didn’t go to waste. Zárate found the net six times in the opening five weeks; a spectacular beginning gifting Lazio their best start to a Serie A campaign for a decade, and earning 'The Zárate Kid' instant legendary status amongst the Curva Nord faithful. His finest moment came on April 11th when Lazio hosted arch rivals Roma in the Derby della Capitale. With Rome’s other no. 10 declaring Zárate was not a true champion in the days preceding the encounter, 'Maurito' responded in stylish fashion scoring a wonder strike just four minutes into the game stunning Roma and silencing the doubters. With Lazio reaching the final of the Coppa Italia just a month later Zárate yet again took centre stage and scored an almost carbon copy of his derby wonder strike. With the game billed as a showdown between himself and Cassano, the Argentinian had once again proved he could stand up when it counted showing the makings of a true champion. As Lazio lifted their first piece of silverware since the glory days of the Cragnotti era, a genuine love affair bloomed between Zárate and the Lazio ultras. On the field he continued to delight with his skilful play and eye for goal, finishing the season with 16 in all competitions; off it he mocked hated rival Totti ("He speaks too much and forgets that he is already finished - he has not scored for 10 derbies!"), and even watched matches he wasn’t involved in with the fans, a practice that would result in much controversy in 2010. Serving a two-match ban for insulting a referee during a game against Sampdoria, Zárate was pictured among the avid and notoriously pro-fascist sections of home support making a Nazi salute, an incident for which he would preposterously claim ignorance of who Hitler or Mussolini were and that he "did not realise the significance of his gesture".

An indiscretion attributed to the vagaries of youth, similar allowances were made for Zárate's on field tendency towards profligate indulgence. "There is nothing so bold as a blind mare," cooed Lotito as by Christmas his charge was named one of the wonders of the Serie A season so far by Italian sports daily La Gazzetta dello Sport. "Has a star been born?" asked Cardone with some reservation, before concluding: "It’s too soon to say, but he seems far too in love with the ball." As befits the virtuoso, Zárate only truly flourished through the subservience of the collective. Writing in Football Italiano, David Swan observed: "When Zárate first joined Lazio he was under the guidance of Delio Rossi, who had a lot of trust in him. He was used as the reference point of the attack, the go-to guy, and everyone else played around him. The 4-3-1-2/4-3-2-1 Rossi primarily used is ideal to this end, but it still took courage to make a guy the focal point of the attack when his only experience of football in Europe was 14 games with Birmingham City." Even more so when you consider Rossi also had Goran Pandev at his disposal, who had just finished his best ever season in club football in terms of performances. True or not, his performances on loan were enough to convince Lotito to stump up approximately £17 million for Zárate to buy out his contract, an arrangement that would later surface as yet another of many controversies that plagued his career. With the buying out of his contract in Doha it seemed that a bright future was all but assured. There were even rumours in the Corriere dello Sport that if Argentina continued to ignore Zárate, Marcello Lippi would make the striker the latest 'Oriundi' to switch to Italy after Mauro Camoranesi and Amauri.

The good times at Lazio wouldn't last for Zárate. For all of the positives, he had noticeably faded in his first season, revealing the selfishness to his game that although not an issue when he was firing, became problematic when he was off his game. Unfortunately, it was this Zárate and not the one that had made such a good first impression that returned to preseason the following year. Lazio had changed managers over the summer, Delio Rossi replaced by the less indulgent Davide Ballardini, and with Zárate struggling to replicate his previous season’s form he was criticised by the manager for his selfishness in possession; a trait that has seen Zárate chastised by coaches since his days as a youth player. On one infamous occasion with the Vélez Sarsfield youth team, Zárate’s coach is said to have left him on the bench as a punishment for not passing more. Upon being introduced as a second-half substitute, the player won possession deep in his own half and ran the length of the pitch, beating several opponents before rounding the goalkeeper. He then stopped the ball on the goal-line, and left it there, running back towards midfield. As he did, he shouted over to his coach: "Now you put it in!" Zárate’s pivotal role had also changed. "He was not always the focal point of the attack, especially when partnered with Julio Cruz, and this was confirmed with the arrival of Sergio Floccari in January 2010," noted Swan. "Performances started to dip, and the constant moving of the player to facilitate a return to the highs of 2008/09 began." Indeed there is a direct correlation between the inconsistency of Zárate's performances and the inconsistency of his tactical deployment. Successive coaches, argues Swan, have experienced real difficulty in finding a position best suited to harness the Argentine’s undoubted talent. He played on the left, on the right, as a 'seconda punta' and as the main man in attack.

With Lazio fighting at the wrong end of the Serie A table and Zárate struggling for form in a season in which he only notched 3 goals in the league, things finally came to a head in January. Zárate had returned to Argentina early before the official Serie A winter break without permission in December. Ballardini was outraged and made his feelings known to the press: "He is a great player if he is in the game. As for quality, he remains one of those players who can invent something in any given moment. But management is not only about teaching technique. It also means education, respect for your team-mates, professionalism. This is what I am talking about. There is an attitude that bothers me a lot. You can make mistakes but you also have to reflect on your errors. I look at attitude. This behaviour is not right towards his team-mates, those people with whom he trains, but also the fans who like to see Zárate. Mauro is an extraordinary player. The argument is regards his attitude. He could be much more useful to the team." Unapologetic, the reaction from the Zárate camp was for his brother Sergio to demand that Ballardini be given the sack, or else Lazio would face losing Mauro: "Lotito will have to decide who goes". Lotito stuck by his big money, mercurial forward and Ballardini was relieved of his duties on February 10th, 2010.

Unfortunately for Lazio and Lotito, Zárate didn’t get on much better with Ballardini’s replacement. He finished the season with just three league goals in 32 games, and was later chastised by new manager, Edy Reja, after showing up the following preseason training 5kg heavier than his usual playing weight. The forward scored nine goals in 2011-12 but even his sublime moments appeared increasingly isolated in a sea of anonymous performances. "He [Zárate] is always convinced he can get past his man, but football is a game played by 11, not on your own," complained Reja. "I’ve been here for a year now, as soon as I saw him play, I saw how he trained and I kept him to one side, depending on Rocchi and Floccari and we achieved safety." Accusations of selfishness when playing up-front appear to have influenced the frequency with which Reja started him in a game with a strike partner – only twice in 2011 did this happened. The rest of Zárate’s year was spent out wide, or on the bench, and it was the benching that was most indicative of the Coach’s frustration. "The supposed selfishness is not a tremendous attribute for a wide player or a seconda punta, and it is difficult to get round that unwanted addition to the team through anything other than keeping him away from the starting XI, which became an increasing occurrence," observed Swan. When he did play, the outspoken Sergio had problems with the style his brother was asked to adopt. Against Palermo, following defeat in the derby, Zárate was tasked with tracking back on the right hand flank in order to assist Lionel Scaloni. Enter Sergio... "They’re destroying my brother … he’s not a full back. I hope to see him attacking." Problems arose again when Zárate arrived an hour late to training for a match against Catania, claiming he had misread the meeting time. Reja spared no quarter, and put him on the bench as a punishment. Except that the lesson he was trying to teach Zárate by excluding him from the game didn’t quite go to plan. Just thirteen minutes in Giuseppe Sculli was injured and Reja turned to the bench, with what must have been disgruntlement, and called Zárate into the fray. What followed, was a determined performance from a young man who looked like he was playing for the team. He provided two assists, in positions where he may have ordinarily chosen to shoot himself, and topped his performance off with a goal direct from a 25 yard free kick into the bottom left corner of Andujar’s goal. After the game Reja joked: "I liked the way he came into the game [attitude off the bench]. Perhaps I’ll start him from the bench in Milan against Inter as well."

The problem for Lazio is that these decisive performances had been few and far between, and his fate at the club appeared to remain constantly in the balance. Earlier in 2010, Zárate had cost Lazio and Lotito yet more money. Lazio were ordered to pay solidarity payment to Velez Sarsfield, fees that the club believed they had avoided by giving Zárate the money to buy out his contract at Al-Sadd rather than pay the club a transfer fee. Zárate had always been a luxury item, but now he was an under-performing luxury with dramatically declining economic worth. When Zárate’s deal was made permanent in 2009 the newspaper La Repubblica had confidently predicted that: "Lotito is assured a profit if he ever sells the player, given that his fee is sure to be over €30m." Now he would be prepared to accept half that amount as Zárate’s reputation as a troublemaker preceded him and potential suitors balked at Lazio’s valuation. Eventually a loan move to Inter was arranged with the option for a permanent transfer. The Nerazzurri paid €2.6m for a season-long loan, with an option to buy for €16m at the end of the campaign. "It came about as a result of a phone call with Lotito," revealed Inter President Massimo Moratti. "I got the impression that with a few negotiations we would be able to find a solution allowing us to take him on loan and then weigh up whether to buy him outright. He’s a lovely lad, I met him today. He’s overjoyed to have the chance to come to Inter and now everything is in the hands of the coach." At the time it seemed like a good deal for all parties, offering the player a chance to revive his career, Lazio the possibility of recouping most of his initial transfer fee and Inter a wide forward who could operate in new manager Gian Piero Gasperini’s 3-4-3. Once again, however, Zárate fell short of expectations. Despite being offered a €15,000 assist bonus by Inter— a ruse to counter-act his perceived selfishness— he finished the campaign with just three appearances in all competitions, as well as three goals. The Nerazzurri did not take up their option, and Zarate returned to Lazio. "It all went wrong," Zárate explained. "It was not a good season and not just for me. Except for Diego Milito who scored a ton of goals, almost all of us were below par, below what we are capable of. Three different coaches, a strange season, but it is over and you have to start again. Now I want to go play and have fun."

The whole episode might be seen as a metaphor for the player’s frustrating career. Zárate could argue that he was scuppered by events beyond his control – Inter sacking Gasperini after just five games. Others, however, would point out that the player did little to fight perceptions that he simply didn’t care enough about his work. Zárate developed a reputation for loving the nightlife in Milan, and was caught partying in a nightclub just hours after Inter’s defeat to Udinese. But where Zárate could get away with such an egotistical approach in youth football, the harsh reality is that he can’t at this level. He is a good player, notes Bandini, one whose technique and close control are well above average even for Serie A. But he is not the phenomenon that he was once made out to be. He is no Messi, nor even— to cite a player known to adopt a similarly selfish approach at times— an Arjen Robben. Writing in his Calcio Considered blog, Rob Paton offered a fascinating insight into the Zárate conundrum as seen through the prism of Inter's victory against Cagliari in November 2011. With Inter in search of just their second home win of the Serie A season, Claudio Ranieri took a risk at half-time. Having already lost Wesley Sneijder in the pre-match warm-up, the coach removed the side’s most active player from the first half – Mauro Zárate – and replaced him with Ricky Alvarez. "The Lazio-owned Argentine’s 45 minutes were involved, as in Sneijder’s absence he took on a roving attacking role, but four shots – twice as many as any other teammate – matched with a 57 per cent pass completion – 30 per cent lower than any other teammate – perhaps highlights where his focus on proceedings was," revealed Paton. "On more than one occasion did the Argentine pick up possession in one of the channels only to cut inside and attempt either a lobbed pass or, more commonly, a shot from outside the penalty area. Match reports also recorded his tendency to block teammate Philippe Coutinho for space." Statistically, notes Paton, no-one contributed more to the team’s attacking in the first half than Zárate and he was within inches of opening the scoring from a free-kick. However, as many of the post-match pagelle marks highlight, his performance was interpreted negatively, as trying to win the game alone – one pundit described it as 'more heat than light for his team'. Indeed, tactically, Zárate’s continued decision-making saw him generally take three or four touches before releasing the ball and it visibly allowed for Cagliari to often anticipate play and organise themselves to push out of their penalty area, in what proved to be a frustrating first half for the Nerazzurri," he writes. "That replacement Alvarez provided a cross for the first goal and played a quick pass in the build-up to the second did Zárate’s choices on Saturday evening no good. In effect, Alvarez – with the clear and simple directive to target left-back Alessandro Agostini for pace – provided the light that Zárate’s heat could not generate."

That Alvarez’ introduction and Coutinho’s increased influence in the second half came with a formation change to 4-3-3 is perhaps Zárate’s saving grace. It leaves focus as much on Inter’s best formation as it does on individual contributions within that. It was still telling, though, that both Ranieri and President Moratti were vocal in their praise of both Alvarez’ impact and that the team had won by playing as a unit. If Zárate were ever to truly devote himself to the service of his team-mates, argues Bandini, he would certainly have been a valuable asset to Lazio or any other team. Instead, he found himself back on the margins. He and his agents sought to blame Lotito for that fact, but the club’s latest manager, Vladimir Petkovic, painted a rather different picture the following December, when he claimed that the player had "removed himself" from the squad. Unhappy to be sat on the bench, a place he has detested his entire career, Zárate allegedly failed to respond to a call-up for Lazio’s game against Inter. Even the supporters who once adored Zárate now turned against him. "Wherever he goes, Mauro will be loved and appreciated by the Lazio fans," blustered one of his agents Luis Ruzzi as the team resumed training after the winter break. Those supporters responded with a banner which read: "The true champion is humble. He goes and collects the balls when training with the reserves. He doesn’t cry on Twitter, and he reduces his wages. He does not cling on to an overly generous contract. Zárate: get lost."

Again Zárate began angling to leave the club, clamouring for a transfer termination. When an international break rolled round in March last year nine Lazio players were called up to represent their countries in friendlies and World Cup qualifiers over the fortnight, but the forward was not among them. Not surprising, noted Bandini, since six years had passed since Zarate’s late strike against the Czech Republic won Argentina the Under-20 World Cup, yet he has still never played for the senior side. Instead Zárate too boarded a plane bound for the far side of the planet but rather than boots and shinpads, he packed swimming trunks and flippers. To celebrate his 26th birthday, the player had decided to indulge in a mid-season mini-break to the Maldives. Lazio had not granted him permission to do so. Indeed, Zárate had never asked. Instead he simply presented club officials with a sick note from his doctor which stated that he needed a few days off training to recover from a skin condition caused by "fatigue". The cynics wondered what could possibly have brought on such a state. Zárate had been training apart from the first-team for months, and by most accounts not over-exerting himself. Either way, he was granted the time off and swiftly set out on his secret sojourn. He might have got away with it, too, if it weren’t for the fact that there happened to be a Lazio supporter on holiday at the very same resort. That fan put in a phone call to Rome’s Radio Sei, informing listeners that he had just seen the player snorkeling in the Indian Ocean. Zárate returned to training on 22 March amid reports that the club would impose a fine as great as €400,000. As the club compiled their evidence against the player, Zárate upped the ante himself, initiating legal action to have his contract with Lazio terminated. Zárate’s agent, Ruzzi, telling reporters that he had assembled "many documents" to support their case. He argued that Zárate had been frozen out of training by Lazio and also denied the opportunity to leave the club, two acts that would effectively constitute a restraint of trade.

Lazio have been here before. In 2009 Zárate’s then colleague Pandev announced his desire to leave Lazio and was consequently frozen out of the club by Lotito. Pandev had his contract rescinded after being forced to train apart from the rest of the team for several months. The player had sought a move away in the previous transfer window and successfully argued that the club was denying him the right to play as a punishment for those actions. Lazio eventually had to pay the Macedonian for emotional distress. Pandev then of course went on to win the treble with José Mourinho’s Inter. Fast forward three years and Zárate was thought to have been on his way to Dynamo Kiev the previous month (Ukraine’s transfer window does not close until the end of February) but the move eventually fell through. Zárate has accused Lazio’s owner of raising the transfer fee after a deal had already been agreed. Others have claimed that it was Zárate’s demand for a release clause in his contract which scuppered the move. Whether Lotito does unfairly treat his players, or just has a penchant for signing troublemakers is up for debate. "However, in the case of Zárate, it is certainly feasible given the players track record for misbehaving that he played a role in the collapsed deal with Dinamo Kiev," argues Durack.

Last July, Zárate finally got his way, ignoring overtures from Sunderland and Tottenham to sign for former club Velez Sarsfield. Earlier that month, he had taken to Twitter to declare: "From now on I’m free, finally I can go and play elsewhere". Interviewed by Argentinian newspaper Olé on his return, Zarate stated: "After I returned to Lazio from Inter I was frozen out by President Lotito and his gang which consisted of the Sporting Director, the coach and 2-3 players. I have never seen anything like this before but this President does these kind of things." Although the legal wranglings surrounding his contract with Lazio persisted, Zárate quickly rediscovered his form on native soil. Replacing both Fernando Gago as the big name in the dressing room and last year’s top scorer Facundo Ferreyra, Zárate has not only been the 2014 Torneo Final’s top goal-scorer with 13 goals (also scoring the most goals across the entire season, with 18 strikes to his name), but has also been one of the championship’s top assists contributor as well. "The Velez Sarsfield forward found the time to top both charts even whilst being immersed in his side’s rotation policy so as to keep players fresh for both domestic and Toyota Libertadores Cup duties," declared Football Rants's Daniel Fraiz Martinez. "Zárate has quite simply been exceptional this season, and is the only pick for Player of The Season. His outstanding play, and the range and depth of his influence on both his club, and the domestic competition alike could be somewhat akin to that of Luis Suarez’s contribution this season to the Premier League."

Now there will be the chance for a direct comparison as Zárate finally completed his move to West Ham United, after signing a three-year deal. "This signing is based on his record from being in Argentina, where he has scored the goals that he has scored because we are looking for some goals," Sam Allardyce told the club's official website. "Hopefully he is going to settle in quickly and bring us those sort of options that we need to be more successful in terms of goalscoring next season. We hope that a combination of the fact that he knows the Premier League and now he has become more experienced and more mature, he is going to have evolved in terms of giving us a few more goals in the Premier League when he gets the opportunity. He is a different type of player to what we have already got, which is what we have been looking for for a while. He is small and sharp and quick and has got good feet, so hopefully he can give us another dimension for what we don't have in the squad at the moment." Zárate becomes the fourth Argentine to represent West Ham following Lionel Scaloni, Javier Mascherano and Carlos Tevez. "This is a new chance for me and I want to play," he stated. "I think I played well for Velez this season and that was important for me. I had some good team-mates and they helped to make it a fantastic season for me. If you ask me what I can bring to the squad then I say I hope I will bring goals! I will also bring dribbling skills and other attacking qualities. West Ham is a very important club and we know all about them and the Premier League in Argentina. This club is a beautiful club. I know English football from my time at Birmingham and I hope I will play well and reach the highest possible level."

Despite guiding the Hammers to a respectable 13th-place finish in 2013-14, manager Sam Allardyce found himself the subject of increasing criticism as the season progressed and many fans demanded a more eye-catching brand of football. Frustrations peaked during a 1-0 loss to West Bromwich Albion in April, where a banner reading 'Fat Sam out, killing WHU' underlined the distaste with which a section of the club’s support viewed the product on the field. West Ham’s board seemed to share their concerns, albeit rather more subtly, and it was only recently that they confirmed Allardyce would be returning as manager next season. The vote of confidence, however, came with a caveat. "After listening to feedback from supporters," read a statement posted on the club’s official website, "the board have insisted on improvements to the set-up of the playing and backroom staff to ensure the team provides more entertainment next season." The statement also divulged that the board would have 'greater involvement' in player acquisitions, and it’s likely the pursuit of Zárate began in its chambers. "No doubt Zárate will be expected to become the centre-piece of the Premier League outfit’s entertainment revolution," notes Bleacher Report's Jerrad Peters, "but in no way is the Argentinian an Allardyce player, and in no way does he fit the template of cautious, hard-nosed football— high in crosses and low in creativity— currently used at the Boleyn Ground. A support attacker who can also operate as a lone striker and left-sided forward, the 5'9" Zárate generates goalscoring opportunities with equal parts speed and skill— dribbling at pace and shooting from distance with either foot. But he is also wildly inconsistent— a mercurial talent— and has a history of clashing with club executives and indiscipline." When Paolo di Canio is describing you as "selfish, not very useful to the team and with little personality" any West Ham fan would be entitled to choke on their jellied eels.

Upon leaving Lazio for Velez, Zárate famously thanked the fans and declared that "I have always given my all to the Lazio shirt." It is a patently untrue statement, argues Durack. "Between weight gain, nights out, on pitch selfishness and constantly resisting ever being a substitute, during his time at Lazio it is obvious Zárate played for himself. Unfortunately for Lotito, Zárate is not better than Messi, and could not afford to show so little disregard towards playing for the team. There is no doubt that on his day, Zárate is a pleasure to watch and if he could just resist that little voice inside his head that tells him to take on just one more man, or shoot rather than pass, he has all the qualities to be a top player." At 27 years old, Zárate should theoretically be at the peak of his powers, and has done well enough last season to deserve another chance in the big leagues. Yet it would be wise for any potential suitors to think long and hard about why it is that Zárate has not yet achieved the success that was anticipated of his career. And ask why things should be any different if they sign him. "Zárate could still have the career that beckoned to him when he was younger," concludes Durack, "but he will need to convince the world that his petulant ways are behind him if he ever wants to be more than just a big fish in a small pond." That Mauro Zarate will bring the heat to East London is a given; we can but hope for all concerned that he will also bring the light.

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.

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