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.

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