The tale, to the more astute among you, isn’t a wholly unfamiliar one. He resided in a residential suburb of Buenos Aires, Argentina, his childhood of the unspectacular variety and his appearance, but for his diminutive stature, was equally unremarkable. He may even have been regarded as an ordinary boy were it not for the extraordinary technical ability he exhibited when a ball was placed at his feet, an aptitude which would intrigue Barcelona scouts when he was just shy of adolescence. But the proposed move to Spain didn’t materialise, he never left the club of his youth and his name is not Lionel Messi. Today, as an 18 year old, Erik Lamela has once again surfaced on the radar of notable European clubs, which begs the question: “Where does the story of Erik Lamela digress from that of Lionel Messi? How has the Barcelona prodigy come to be showered with individual accolades whilst the other has been left lingering on the periphery?
Well, the explanation is startling in its simplicity and is not intrinsically linked to the capabilities of the player in question. The year was 2004, and football fans had yet to be awed by the delicate control and scoring pedigree of Lionel Messi or be overwhelmed by the lucrative price tag attached to Christiano Ronaldo. Erik Lamela, affectionately referred to as Coco, was just 12 years old and Barcelona were more than prepared to accommodate his transfer to Spain from River Plate, where he was currently being nurtured in the youth academy. Such interest, in and of itself, more than verifies the substance of the player’s talent as, after all, Barcelona’s acumen for recognising a sound investment is hardly worthy of scrutiny. However, proceedings were brought to an abrupt, and ultimately decisive, halt when the then President of the club, José Maria Aguilar intervened with a view to retaining the hot prospect. The family, in particular Lamela’s father, José, who had been greatly enthused by the prospective transfer, were thoroughly financially compensated and it was agreed that the player would remain at River Plate. He has remained at the club since but recently has once again been the subject of transfer speculation, most notably involving AC Milan who are reportedly interested in procuring the services of Lamela at the end of the current campaign in a deal which rumour states would cost no less than 12 million Euro. Time will tell whether Aguilar will deem it more fiscally effective to retain the still developing Lamela, who has yet to reach the end of his current contract, or to cash in on his investment.
Believe it or not, there is a player somewhere in the midst of all of this furore and avid followers of Erik Lamela, or indeed of Argentinian football as a whole, wax lyrical about a supreme technical aptitude and an eye for goal, the precision of which is perhaps misrepresented by his meagre accumulation of 3 goals this season. He is blessed with a deft touch and a certain finesse that will prompt the inevitable comparisons with a plethora of compatriots who boast even remotely reminiscent attributes. Yet, the player’s individual virtues, however numerous, are likely to be undermined by the marginalised status of his present club. River Plate, prominent though they may be in Latin America, are unable to offer him the environment in which he can blossom into the world renowned player dictated by his potential. Indeed, the disparity between European football and that of South America is best epitomised by the Argentinian national squad, which reads like a who’s who of Champions League and Europa League main performers. Well, the shores of Europe are beckoning him once again and, as primarily disorientating a venture as a transfer to Europe would be, it would afford him the opportunity to assimilate the substantial accomplishments of the numerous fellow countrymen who have preceded him.
Yet, the player himself seems somewhat contented with his current situation, asserting that;
‘I owe everything to River and I don’t want to leave. I want to achieve a title here and should the time come for me to leave then I would like it to be within a couple of years.‘
The words may not be easily digested by the directors of AC Milan but such a display of compassionate, and seemingly sincere, commitment to the club which raised him is a commendable rarity and his modesty is conspicuously refreshing in a sport so infested with petulance and immaturity. The notion of his toiling in obscurity for another couple of years may be a disconcerting notion for some but perhaps Aguilar’s temporary retention of the young Argentine may serve the player himself much better in the long term. As fans of football we are naturally inclined to yearn for the next Maradona or the next Batistuta but now it seems prudent to appreciate the merits of each player’s ascent. Yes, Lionel Messi was recruited by Barcelona as little more than a child. Yes Diego Maradona had already adorned top-flight Spanish football by his early twenties with his devastating blend of pace and strength. But Lamela is by no means compelled to replicate the trajectory those who have passed before him. He may be shrouded in anonymity at present but surely his talent will inevitably propel him into prevalence sooner or later.
So, the future of the young Argentine is something of a precarious one and it is difficult to assess his prospects without regarding him as an alternative incarnation of Lionel Messi. Indeed, dare contemplate what would have become of Barcelona’s South American sensation had their preliminary endeavours to sign him been to little avail? Perhaps then, Erik Lamela will serve as something of an answer to such wonders but it is unclear how long the spotlight will await him. After a recent flourish against Huracan in the Argentine Championship the secrecy of his dexterity has become dubious and River Plate may yet need to brace themselves for a flurry of enquiries from across the Atlantic. However, it seems a pity that if such imminent transfer proposals don’t transpire then the world would have passed by Coco, football’s forgotten superstar.
By Brendan Timmons