New Delhi: Since the legendary Diego Maradona called time on his colourful career, numerous Argentine strikers have been burdened with the weight of the label the ‘next Maradona’.
One such was a slightly built teenager Javier Saviola, who just after the turn of the century arrived in Barcelona armed with lightning pace and trickery, hoping to live up to expectations and of course, terrorise defenses.
Three years later, at the age of 22 the deadly striker was an unquestionable part of Pele’s FIFA 100, a controversial list where the presence of compatriots such as Juan Sebastian Veron and Hernan Crespo raised more than a few eyebrows.
As in most cases, the burden of the ‘next Maradona’ tag was too much to handle and soon enough the baton was passed onto the next in line, Lionel Messi - a substitute for Saviola in 2006 at Barcelona.
The duo shared the dressing room at the Nou Camp for a couple of years before both career graphs took very contrasting turns.
The former Barcelona star arrived in India for the first time in his life with quite a bit on his plate, a football match, sandwiches, samosas, media duties, training clinics along with the dust and pollution of the Gurugram.
While the Barcelona legends in their latest outing romped home to 6-0 win against the Mohun Bagan legends at the Salt Lake Stadium in Kolkata, many miles away in Spain Ernesto Valverde’s men experienced a difficult week ahead of their Champions League trip to London against Tottenham as they failed to register a single win domestic win.
“Barcelona is a top, top team and even if they experience some difficult times because there are big boots to fill, they will bounce back,” Saviola says.
Barcelona, undoubtedly one of the most feared teams in world football, has seen some of their most influential heads move on.
The likes of Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta and Neymar along with Paulinho played crucial roles in various important wins before they bade farewell to the Camp Nou, while Messi almost single-handedly meets the expectations of the demanding fans.
“When you have to replace such big players it is very very difficult, but the coach and the team must work together as a team and not panic in difficult times.”
'Let Messi Decide Own Argentina Future'
A conversation about difficult times with a former Argentine footballer is more often than not likely to veer its way around to the Albiceleste’s current situation.
Knocked out at the 2018 FIFA World Cup in the Round of 16 by eventual champions France, the 1986 champions’ most recent stories of success has been at the Olympics where they won the Gold medal in 2004 and 2008.
“Argentina focus too much on one individual and that’s not the way a team plays football. The national team needs to regain the lost glory and win back the fans, but for that they have to play as a team,” the former striker explains.
“Leave Lionel Messi to decide on his own future. It is important to function as a unit and not just look at Messi to deliver.”
At 16, Saviola made his professional debut for River Plate, where he was nicknamed Conejito (rabbit) by one of his senior teammates.
Conejito's spell in the spotlight wasn’t as long-lasting as the bunny in the Duracell advert, but the man who was once the biggest teenage sensation in world football hopes that he can inspire youngsters to follow in his footsteps.
Saviola announced that the Barca Academy Asia Pacific tournament (under 9, under 11, under 13 and under 15) in January 2019 will be hosted in India and believes that the youngsters must jump on this golden opportunity.
“The earlier you start playing the better for the player. What you do with the ball should become second nature by the time you are in your mid teens.”
“One of my most favourite memories is the reception I got when I landed in Barcelona after coming from River Plate as a teenager, it was amazing. If the player does not prepare well from the beginning, becoming a success at the senior level is difficult,” he signed off.