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Great Expectations

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Two former ‘next Maradonas’, Pablo Aimar and Javier Saviola, lined up for Benfica in Paris on Thursday night as they secured a place in the next round of the Europa League at the expense of Paris Saint-Germain. Neither had much of an impact on the game and both players were second-half substitutes, epitomising their careers in recent years. A delightful nutmeg through the legs of Mamadou Sakho by Aimar in the second half gave fans a glimpse of the talent that prompted the comparisons with Maradona earlier in his career but it was just one moment, and the rest of the game appeared to pass him by. Saviola meanwhile was subdued throughout. This got me asking, what happened to two such promising talents? I take a look at the impact that the Maradona label has had on their careers…

Diego Maradona has been both a blessing and a curse for Argentine football. His performances as a player at club and international level inspired a nation, and continue to do so. But, as is the case with all great players, when they are gone they leave a gaping chasm that the nation’s fans cannot bear to see empty. Since his retirement, hopeful fans, managers and journalists have labelled nearly every remotely talented, vertically challenged Argentine attacker; ‘the next Maradona’. The excitement that surrounds the attachment of the label is enough to get media attention across the globe and has been a huge burden on the shoulders of many a diminutive playmaker in the past 15 years.

A quick glance through Argentina’s recent international history shows a constant stream of players who have at one time or another been compared to or pronounced as the next Maradona. Many have gained moves to Europe early on in their careers on the back of the hype created from a handful of promising performances at youth level for the national team or in the domestic league.

Pablo Aimar and Javier Saviola had the world at their feet as we entered the new millennium, as they set the Argentine First Division alight with their pace and movement scouts flocked from across the globe to get a glimpse of the devastating duo that had created such a stir in the footballing world. It was not long before major European forces came knocking and in 2001 both players left River Plate for Spain in lucrative moves that saw Aimar join Valencia for £20m and Barcelona shed out £15m on Saviola.

Both were labelled before they made their journey across the Atlantic and in the early years following their moves neither seemed fazed by the expectation and hype surrounding their careers. Each player excelled at club level, Saviola scored 60 goals in 144 appearances over three seasons for Barca while Aimar lived up to his nickname El Mago (The Magician) by providing the flair and imagination that enabled Valencia to challenge for honours on a domestic and European stage.

Valencia won La Liga in Aimar’s first season at the club and then in 2003 were runners-up in the Champions League final to Bayern Munich. His impact on the team and its philosophy was clear for all to see. Injuries limited his involvement the following season, yet the team continued to challenge for honours and were crowned UEFA Cup winners, with only a 30 minute cameo from Aimar in the final. As injuries became more frequent than appearances it seemed that the man who had provided the spark at Valencia’s greatest hour was disappearing into the depths of footballing obscurity. A move to Zaragoza in 2006 yielded little joy, as he was part of the team that was relegated from La Liga in 2008. Aimar then looked to revitalise what had been such a promising career, and after much negotiation moved to Benfica for what some may consider a bargain at £6m. Aimar could point to a series of injuries to explain his fall from stardom but Saviola’s descent was far less understandable.

Despite performing well  for Barca, the arrival of Frank Rijkaard in 2004 signalled an abrupt fall from favour for the sprightly forward. Shipped out on loan to Monaco and then Sevilla, it seemed as if Saviola, like Aimar and Riquelme had already experienced his time at the very top and that it was downhill from there. However Real Madrid offered him a lifeline, and a final shot at an elite European club only to treat him in the same manner as Barcelona did towards the end of stay at Camp Nou. Restricted to appearances off the bench or in cup competitions poor Javier managed just 28 appearances in an unfruitful time in the Spanish capital.

Both players seem content to have found refuge in Portugal at Benfica where their talents are appreciated and the expectations placed upon them decreased. They are enjoying their time in Iberia and at times some of their football acts as a reminder of their early promise and success in Spain. Last season saw them win a league and cup domestic double while the team look a force in the Europe League, and must be considered amongst the favourites having moved into the quarter-finals last night. Nevertheless, it is still sad to see two players who had such potential settle for a standard of football that is below what they themselves, and the footballing world, expected ten years ago.

It is not that Aimar and Saviola failed to achieve their full potential because of being labelled ‘the next Maradona’, rather it was just an unnecessary burden. Diego was unique. There will never be another Maradona. There will always be great footballers, Argentina especially is a hotbed for attacking flair, but it is foolish to compare one player with another across generations. We as football fans should just enjoy the talents that Argentina continue to produce, recognise their abilities and give them the praise they deserve rather than placing them on a teetering pedestal with Diego Maradona looking over their shoulder.

One player however appears to have stemmed the premature, over-excited labelling of gifted young Argentines. Lionel Messi. Just like the others, he too was labelled ‘the next Maradona’, but it soon became clear that his talent was of an extraordinary level. Four years after being seduced by Barcelona’s offer of some much-needed Health Growth Hormones Messi made his debut for the Barcelona first-team in 2004 and has been outstanding for them ever since.

Messi’s rapid rise has satisfied football’s needs. He is not the ‘next Maradona’, he’s just Lionel Messi. And he’s bloody brilliant. Argentina have been crying out for a world-beater and now that they have one they no longer need to label youngsters ‘the next Maradona’.

It is worth considering the careers of players like Saviola and Aimar and wondering what impact the great expectations placed upon them had. Unlike them young Argentines can now enjoy their football without worrying about being compared to a past deity.

Thanks Lionel.

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About Author

A sometime English student and self-confessed football obsessive. As soon as I realised, at the age of about 14, that unlike in my dreams, I wasn’t going to be a professional footballer for Tottenham Hotspur I began considering alternative careers. For the past two years I’ve written about football for the Newcastle University paper, and last year spent an enjoyable month or so being The Observer’s Ghana fan as part of their ‘World Cup Fans Network’ (Damn you Luis Suarez). I try to take in as much football as I can, but focus most of my attention upon the top divisions in England, Spain and Italy along with any major european or international competitions.

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