Thursday, 25 June 2015

Obiang The Dancing Bear

It was on a derelict scrub of land in the middle of a housing estate that the young Pedro Mba Obiang Avomo first caught the eye. "He was fourteen years of age and playing in the Alcalá de Henares youth team, his local amateur side in a town about 30 kilometers from Madrid," remembers noted Fifa agent Giovanni Fiore. Scouting for Sampdoria at the time, Fiore sent word back to his Genovese paymasters that he had witnessed a 'dancing bear'; that rare combination of imposing physicality and mesmeric technical skill. "Even at that age he was head and shoulders above all his companions," says Fiore. "He had a great ease of movement and it seemed that he could do the more complicated things without much effort. Then there was his personality. He was already the undisputed reference point of the entire team; a leader his team-mates would always seek out in open play, at free kicks and with corners." As yet blissfully unaware of the burgeoning interest being shown, Obiang- known more familiarly by his nickname Perico (a type of parrot)- has a slightly different recollection of those formative years. "I have strong memories of my early days," he says. "From about the age of twelve I was continually overlooked by the big teams; there were a lot of doors slammed on me." It would be a further two years after Fiore's initial report before the Serie A club with a fast growing reputation as the benchmark for clubs plundering La Liga youth academies would make their move. In that time Obiang had finally attracted the interest of Atletico Madrid, enrolling with the Cadetes despite some initial family reservations. "My father only agreed," admits Obiang, "because he knew it was always my ambition to play for Real Madrid." A tentative step closer to what was still a distant dream but still struggling to make an impression, the young Perico was about to get a break. "When I arrived at Atletico I started as a striker," he explains. "But one of the midfielders got injured and the coach tried me there. Since that day, it became my position. I hated it, and I'm still hating (laughs) but they say I can't change."

August 4, 2008 was the date Obiang insists changed his life. Sampdoria Sporting Director Beppe Marotta and trusted lieutenant Fabio Paratici, responsible for a scouting network that is the envy of Europe, came calling. The pair have worked together for a number of years and although now deploying their collective magic at Juventus, had recently been responsible for, among others, snatching a young Roberto Soriano away from Bayern Munich and Mauro Icardi out of Barcelona. Not that Obiang would use the word 'snatch' in his case. "I would say I was almost discarded," he corrects when he considering the desultory transfer fee of €130,000 the Blucerchiati were asked to pay. "Sampdoria offered me a professional contract," says Obiang, "but also a detailed football project specifically for me." It was, he says, far more than just vague promises and was enough to convince both him and his parents that his style of play was better suited to Italian football than it ever would be in La Liga. Still, at just sixteen- the minimum age that an international transfer within the European Union is allowed- the decision by a young footballer to seek his fortune in another country is a momentous one. "It is actually quite widespread, maybe not in Spain, but in the world," says Obiang. "We tend to think that a home-grown player will have more patience to try and break through, but it is very frustrating when someone from outside will take your chance. It is also true that the player who is bought in has a different value to the club. Besides, in Spain there is far more competition at the younger level than there is in Italy, even if in Italy there is maybe a greater fear of throwing youngsters into the first team."

Life in Genoa was initially hard and the city, in Obiang's own words, was not 'an easy fit'. By his estimation it is a place to be admired rather than enjoyed and the first impression is one of remoteness. "It is created and designed more for its citizens than for tourists," thinks the Spaniard, who lists architectural study as one of his keen interests. In fact, he adds pointedly, it has one of the oldest populations in Europe. "The first trip I made was with my manager, Jose Miguel Gonzalez, and my father to see the facilities and to find out about the sports project," he recalls. "The second trip I did alone. I started living in the residence of Vila Flora with the other youth players and it was quite difficult as it would be for any child who leaves their home and changes country. At first I despaired at not understanding the language. Within two months I said to Jose, 'I want to come back, the Italians speak very fast, and the training runs are long here' (laughs). Then I began to better assimilate the tactical concepts and make friends in the locker room and I began to relax."

Although he arrived as an intended member of the 'Allievi Nazionali' youth squad, in the August of 2008 Obiang was immediately thrown in with the first team for pre-season training. By late January of the following year coach Walter Mazzarri had included him as an unused sub in games against both Lazio and Chievo. The next season, with Mazarri now departed, brought promotion to the Primavera, or reserve squad. Obiang says he was learning quickly but there were some aspects that he initially found difficult. "It was physically and especially tactical," he admits. "At first I tended to 'exaggerate' everything with elaborate flourishes, as is encouraged in Spanish football. In Italy there is very little room for such things. I also suffered a lot of blows and endured much contact. I thought 'you can not give me so many kicks'. Tactically, coaches like you to hold your position, to keep things simple, no heels or tunnels. They removed these things very quickly from my game and when I adapted, I started playing more." While still technically a youth player Obiang would go on to make 7 preseason appearances in the summer of the 2010-11 season, scoring 2 goals. His full debut would follow that September after an injury crisis ripped through the Sampdoria first team. Called off the bench to replace Vladimir Koman by new coach Domenico Di Carlo, and with his side trailing Juventus 2-1, Obiang helped his team to a credible 3-3 draw in the Stadio Olimpico di Torino. On the morning of the game he had put pen to paper on a new 5-year deal. A few months later Obiang made his European bow in a 0-2 Europa League defeat to Hungarian side Debreceni. Although disappointing on the night, it would be the start of what has become an enduring fascination for the travel-loving Spaniard. "I love doing it [European competition] because I consider myself a citizen of the world," enthuses Obiang. "To know and to discover irresistible temptations." It is also the reason he has become a self-confessed 'slave' to the Internet. "It opens the mind and satisfies my curiosity," he says, before revealing that for a recent birthday his friends gave him a computer. Surprisingly for someone known as 'Perico' to his friends he says he is not that inclined to tweet; preferring as he does to communicate with people face-to-face.


Although never establishing himself as a regular in a season that would ultimately end in the pain of relegation for Sampdoria, Obiang's education on and off the pitch was continuing apace. "The Italian practice sessions for the first team are done through repetitions," reveals Obiang. "There are sessions where we would work the same concept for an hour; sometimes it can be an hour video study." It is an idea referred to as 'Omni Particulare Cure' and is centred on preparation through obsessive attention to detail. "When you face a technically superior team," he says, "you have to be superior on a tactical and physical level." Obiang also describes with wonderment the 'thrill' of finding himself lining up next to Antonio Cassano and Giampaolo Pazzini for the precious few months before they would depart. "I already knew about Antonio from his time at Madrid when I was living there," he states. "When I trained with him, I felt nervous but I also had the desire to want to prove myself." Cassano could be a little 'fussy' always wanting the ball played to his feet, Obiang explains with a smile, but insists all the veterans gave him confidence. "Even though he was very serious during training, at the end Cassano always had a joke and time to talk with me."

That April Obiang, who also holds Equatoguinean passport, earned a Spanish Under 20 call-up for Porto International Tournament. Despite the fact he never made it onto the field it only served to intensify a tug of war between the two countries that has yet to be definitively settled. After all, if Obiang has always identified himself as Spanish (having also represented the country at Under 17, Under 19 and Under 21) things can still get a little complicated when your uncle- Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo- is an African dictator. Once described as 'worse than Mugabe', the man who routinely refers to himself as El Jefe (the boss) is now the world's third longest-ruling non-royal head of state since he ousted his own uncle (Francisco Macias) in a military coup in 1979. Accused of unlawful killings, government-sanctioned kidnappings; systematic torture, corruption, embezzlement and cannibalism, Obiang is understandably cautious when discussing the subject. "I spoke to him only once, when I first said no to the national team," he says. "I know of his life, but I do not judge. In Guinea, when we speak of family we really mean tribe; it is very different from in Italy or Spain. I have two uncles from my mother's side, and on my father's side they are in double figures." He says that he once asked his father to make a list of all his family members and it was 'so long' that most of the names on it he has never met. Obiang also has a cousin, Ruslan, who is 'Secretary of State and Sport' in the African country with direct influence on national team selection. He says he was last approached by the the Guinean Football Federation prior to their hosting of the 2012 edition of the African Cup of Nations, but declined their entreaties on the grounds he could never agree to play for a country on whose land he has never set foot. "Once my parents migrated, they made the decision to never return there before my coming of age," he states. "They still would never leave me alone, even when I was in Italy. Only now, after 25 years, have they returned to visit the country."

Young Pedro remains the only one of his siblings yet to take the trip to Akam-Esandom, the region where his father was born. "Before they would put more pressure on me," he smiles, "but since they see that things are going well for me in football they understand things differently. They know that I travel a lot and need to focus." Part of his ambivalence can be explained thus: "There are things that scare me a little. I see it in pictures, but I only know the things that I have been told. I want to live my own experience, because not everything is always as advertised. Right now, I could go and not know if I would enjoy it. I'm waiting for the right moment, when I have a longer vacation. I wanted to go last summer, but had to cut short my break because of fitness issues." All of which is to suggest Obiang has not fully turned his back on 'his roots'. Recently, he reveals, he got a call from current Equatorial Guinea coach Andoni Goikoetxea, the legendary 'Butcher of Bilbao'. "He spoke to me again about the project," says Obiang, "but I told him we should talk later because my club were in a negative run at the time and I needed to stay focused. To address such an issue requires a lot of quiet thought but I guess I will need to decide soon." There is, of course, a third option available to Obiang. "Never, even if in theory I could play for the Italian national team," he laughs. "I like to defend the causes I believe in. If I chose the blue shirt, it would be like a betrayal."

Obiang would get a chance to fight for Sampdoria's promotion cause in the 2011-12 season following the club's ignominious fall from grace. With several of the big names- including Cassano and Pazzini- jumping ship, new manager Gianluca Atzori was forced to put his faith in young recruits and academy players. The team struggled initially but following yet another change of coach late in the year finally scraped into the playoffs with a sixth place finish. Obiang made a total of 33 league appearances during the campaign, mostly in a purely defensive midfield capacity, and then shone as the team went on an unexpected run through the promotion deciders that saw them upset both Sassuolo and Varese to return to the top flight after just a year. "I had always believed that sooner or later I would play a leading role for a club at the highest level," states Obiang. The following season he was at the heart of Sampdoria's first survival season back in Serie A; his consistently solid performances in the centre of midfield allowing the more creative players such as Andrea Poli and Icardi the freedom to work their magic. Now established as a key player in the side, his form over 34 league appearances would attract the attentions of some of Europe’s top clubs; Chelsea, Tottenham and Manchester City reportedly among those showing interest. "Sampdoria was the ideal club for me to mature and develop my skills," says Obiang when he thinks about the teams rumoured to be looking at him at that time. "But then I also think that dreaming about joining a top club in the future is natural and inevitable." Further evidence of his growing profile was a poll conducted at the end of that 2012-13 season by Inside Spanish Football naming Obiang among their top 15 Spanish youngsters.

As befits a player who started out as a striker, Obiang says that before he came to Italy he was a far more offensive player. Now he had developed into the player he was always meant to be. "I have become a mixture because I had learned a lot of defensive work," he says. "Clearly, I like to get into the penalty area, but now my role is more defensive." Where once he would regularly cite the 'innate elegance' of Zidane as is role-model, now his points of reference are Marcos Senna and Sergio Busquets; to Obiang's eyes the quintessential modern midfielders because they make everything easier through good positioning. "I also love Pirlo because he doesn't just play in front of the defense," he says. "In Italy that player can also control the whole game." For similar reasons he names Xabi Alonso as the player he most admires at the moment. Along with Cruyff and Guti he is the inspiration for why he likes to wear the number 14 on his back. That said, Sam Fribbins, writing for Transfer News Central, thinks there is perhaps an even more apposite comparison to be made with Manchester City's Yaya Touré. "Obiang possesses great stamina and energy enabling him to get around the pitch with ease, especially as a box-to-box midfielder," notes Fribbins. "At the height of 6”2, Obiang can be easily compared to a player such as Touré, since their roles are also fairly similar and both have strong builds, therefore making it hard for any player to push them off the ball." Though larger players, neither are necessarily slow, he observes, and this enables them to make meaningful runs from their own half and well into the opposition’s half. Another similar trait is a great passing ability, ranging from little 'one-two’s' to the more optimistic medium to long-range passes. This is one reason why the Spanish youth setup regularly employed Obiang as a deep-lying playmaker during his time with the team, since he possesses a good passing ability, as well as being able to closely dribble with the ball. "As well as all this," concludes Fribbins, "Obiang has good tackling ability, again making him a dependable option as a box-to-box player. He is known for his terrific work rate, which is a key attribute for any central midfielder to have. Moreover, his natural fitness is of the highest quality, without sustaining any major injuries throughout his professional career to date."

That latter point would be called into question during the following 2013-14 season when a lingering hernia injury meant Obiang would only feature 27 times. During a stuttering campaign which saw Sampdoria struggling to keep their heads above the relegation places, the Spaniard's meteoric rise temporarily faltered. That November, however, would see the arrival of new manager Siniša Mihajlović; the man credited with putting both the club and player back on track. "Mihajlović kept us under strict control, but it depended on how you reacted to him," reveals Obiang. "In some periods he was serious, and at other times very open." If the midfielder has one criticism of a man he credits as a great influence on his career then maybe, he says, "he takes things too much to heart" before acknowledging "but with him we got great results." The list of people who have played an important part in Obiang's journey is a long one. "The first was my discoverer, Antonio Lozano," he states. "Along with my agent, Jose Miguel, he never let me give up on football. Then I went to Atletico. Felice Tufano also, my first coach in Italy with the youth team. They are the ones who have given me a harder psychological mentality. They were very insistent that you had practiced fully and was always learning. After this the physical training troubled me far less. Now I realize that this is a requirement if you are going to be able to handle the pressure of modern football. Nor do I forget Domenico Di Carlo, who gave me my debut." Aside from Mandela and Obama, who Obiang calls his idols, the rest are what he calls his 'family'. "I need to thank the strength of my mother who convinced me to leave Madrid; the courage of my father the traveler and immigrant; the joy of my sister, who occasionally comes to visit and brings a breath of fresh Spanish air. There is also Samuel Eto'o, symbol of Africa, and then [Alfred] Duncan, [Afriyie] Acquah and [Stefano] Okaka. We feel and treat each other as brothers."

Obiang and his brothers would all play their part in what was to be a momentous return to form for the Blucerchiati in 2014-15. Far from the best set of individuals in the league, their industrious, combative style of play turned them into one of the best teams as they finished an impressive seventh. "It's Samp's level of self-sacrifice and defensive organisation that has been the most impressive aspect of their game," noted Sports Blog Nation's Jack Sargeant. "Unsurprisingly, Mihajlović emphasised rapid counter-attacks, and urged his team to get the ball forward as soon as they won it back. It was not always pretty, and it lead to them giving the ball away more often than more patient sides, but its success was undeniable." Then there was the fastidious level of training involved. Taking 'Omni Particulare Cure' to extremes, one report from a training session last season tells how the reserves were called upon to replicate Roma's 4-3-3 formation, and for almost an hour the first team practiced winning it back and instantly triggering a counter attack. "There's no doubting that Mihajlović is an excellent tactician," observed Sargeant. "However, it's not just on the field that the Serb impressed - his press calls continuously provided entertainment. In his introductory press conference, he borrowed heavily from speeches by John F. Kennedy, describing him as "a man whose ideas and words continue to make us dream." He said he'd ask his players "not what Sampdoria can do for them, but what they can do for Sampdoria." A few months later, ahead of a game against Atalanta, he began quoting Dante's epic poem Divine Comedy, urging his players to "push past the Pillars of Hercules." He added that when he arrived at the club, "we were in hell, now we are in purgatory and I want to reach paradise." However, he saved his best literary reference for Samp's trip to Verona, when, in true Shakespearean style, he threatened to "knock Juliet down from the balcony."

The idiosyncratic approach clearly worked for Obiang, whose game over 34 impressive appearances visibly improved again. "He remains neat in possession and loves to get forward, making runs from deep with or without the ball," wrote Unibet's Adam Digby, but now he has added an increased goal threat. According to statistics from WhoScored.com, Obiang averaged 3.1 tackles and 1.7 interceptions per game, the former mark (153) bettered by only four players in Serie A. That compares favourably to the likes of Song (2.6), Mark Noble (1.9) and Cheikhou Kouyate (1.8) last season, while Chelsea’s Nemanja Matic, for example, only averaged 2.8 successful tackles per 90 minutes. He also had an impressive 82.2 per cent pass completion rate. "Obiang was often deployed to man-mark a visiting playmaker, sticking to the task diligently and showing a good awareness of the game going on around him," notes Digby. "Long shots at both ends have become something of a trademark, the Alcalá native unafraid to either throw himself in the path of an opposition attempt or unleash a powerful effort of his own." At a point when Spain is still in the grip of the tiki-taka generation of shorter and more agile midfielders, Obiang thinks it is an advantage that he clearly provides another option. "Since I've been away from Spain I feel that I can bring something different," he says. "I have a special mark. My brand is the tactical and physical aspect. In Italy the ball goes faster, so tactically the players are better positioned and apply more pressure so I had to work hard to master that facet." Yet if Obiang had learned to add that physical approach to the neat passing he had learned in the Spanish capital then it is clear that he had not forgotten those lessons, as his delightful through ball to Mauro Icardi for a winning goal against Juventus showed. Then there was the composure and man marking skills displayed against AC Milan, specifically the way he effectively neutralized the threat of Boateng and Montolivo; or the long range effort against Inter Milan that Samir Handanovic somehow parried away from the goal.

Although he clearly blossomed under the guidance of Mihajlović, notes Digby, there was still a hint of a spat between the two men last season; Obiang gaining notoriety for kicking over a water cooler on the touchline after being substituted during a loss to Lazio. "I’m happy because he was angry with the team’s performance and not the substitution," the Serbian said at the time. "It’s pointless being angry afterwards, as you need to use that fire on the field." In fact, so great is the respect between the two that Obiang became the first black player to ever be named vice captain at the Genoa club. "My responsibilities remained the same," states the Spaniard. "Us younger players must always show that we are ready to take the next step." It was, nonetheless, an important symbolic gesture in a country where acts of discrimination remain an everyday occurrence. Take for example the recent comments by former Italy manager Arrigo Sacchi that there are 'too many black players' at youth level in Italy and that it is evidence that the nation is now 'without dignity or pride'. "I challenge racism," insists Obiang, "but I can also agree with what he said if the criticism is not about skin color, but vocational training. I grew up in football in Italy, did years of school there, enrolled at the University of Genoa to study Political Science. I feel so at home there, that it seems like I am more a foreigner these days when I visit my father and my mother in Madrid." It helps, of course, to have a thick skin. If being likened to a 'dancing bear' is questionable enough, then regularly being referred to as the 'Coconut Hierro' in the written press is problematic in the extreme. He was fortunate, Obiang says, to live in a city that quickly learned to accept him. "I was, at first, wondering why there were so few blacks there," he admits. "Yet the Genoese people are strange. At the beginning they are suspicious but then if you make the effort they will take you in their hearts and there is no more difficulty." It is the reason, he says, the recent horrific footage of the drowning illegal immigrants 60 miles off the Libyan coast hit so hard. "I hated the way those images were portrayed on TV," he sighs. "It creates an unwarranted fear in people. Intolerance is not always racism, it can be ignorance and selfishness. The world has changed and some people are afraid of losing their status quo, their well-being, because someone else is in trouble economically."

Never one to hold back, when Genoa was hit by catastrophic floods last October for the second time in three years, Obiang could be found rolling up his sleeves to help the so-called 'mud angels' in the massive rescue and clean-up operation. Corriere della Sera, Italy's biggest daily newspaper, attacked the government by announcing in its front page headline: 'The mud of Genoa, shame of a country', while the Archbishop of Genoa called for a 'timely and massive' action by the government to resolve the crisis and prevent similar disasters in future. "When your city has been rocked, it is normal to give something back," says Obiang. At times like these his mind casts back to all those who helped him when he first arrived as that bewildered sixteen year old; from the lowly employees in the club office who would give him the money for a taxi back to his digs, to his 'second mother', Mrs. Cristina, who would make him dinner and speak patiently and incessantly to him in Italian long before he was able to respond in kind. By now it is clear that Pedro Obiang is not your average footballer. A self confessed cinephile (I usually go to the movies two or three times a week) and fluent in several languages including English, his nickname in the Sampdoria dressing-room was 'The Intellectual'. "That started with Mihajlović," he laughs. It was, he says, on account of his glasses and intellectual pursuits. "I study more as a hobby these days because I never have the time to take exams" admits Obiang. "I studied architecture because of my father, although I was always attracted more to psychology. I think I'm good at talking and I am very interested in the personalities of people." So does he believe in the application of psychology to football? "Yes, it has helped," he insists. "When Sampdoria won promotion to Serie A we had a mental coach who though not specifically a psychologist, worked more on the motivation side. It helped me to relax." After all, he says, it is not always easy to carry out a normal life on the one hand and on the other a football life; to juggle two competing and often conflicting set of expectations. Not even for a dancing bear.

9 comments:

Florin's Gone Shopping said...

Another great piece. I really like the sound of this guy both as a footballer and a person. We might get more high profile players this summer but I have a feeling he is going to prove to be the best value of the lot.

Anonymous said...

Lovely read, thanks. Now you best get started on a Payet post!

Goatygav said...

Superb piece. Just wanted to say thank you very much for such an informative posting. Great stuff :). I agree with FGS' comment above. Clearly Pedro is an intelligent, well read and hard working individual with high personal ethics and standards. He has some great role models and has learned from them.

The spine of West Ham's team is looking stronger and stronger. Adrian. Reid, Tomkins and Collins. Chek Koyate and Pedro Obiang. All good, solid and hard working players who will disrupt opponents and use the balls that they've won intelligently (OK - Perhaps Ginge might punt up-field a few times but will most probably be encouraged, and have more confidence, to distribute via midfield now with the deeper midfielders inspiring more confidence).

It's the strength in depth of the squad that worries me still. Further good signings undoubtedly needed but things are looking up after Super Slav has said that they won't panic buy but will be patient if needs be to find the right quality. Really need an injection of creativity now IMO. Payet looks a good prospect. Hope to see him sign soon.

Better times ahead I feel.

Anonymous said...

You've gotta stop posting these great articles because I'm just getting far too hyped for the start of the season. I know it's all going to go tits up.

Anonymous said...

Thanx, really enjoyed that

Anonymous said...

Now that's what i call a bloody good read. Keep up the fine work

Anonymous said...

Fascinating piece - not your average footballer it would seem and sounds like the strength of character to adapt quickly to England and our game. Looking forward to seeing him play. Thanks

Jake Bentley said...

Excellent article. Future captain possibly?

Babafemi Onagbesan said...

Beautiful write-up; well pieced together. Amazingly educative also. Keep this up. Babafemi

 

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