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Remember that time that the young Argentinian broke on to the scene as a fresh-faced teenage sensation before setting the world alight at Barcelona? He went on to break tonnes of records, showcasing his blistering pace, fearless dribbling in traffic and exquisite finishing. After countless trophies, he would retire an Argentinian legend, and also an icon of the European leagues.
Are we thinking of the same person? No, not Lionel Messi, Javier Saviola. Sadly, the breaking records and lifting of trophies happened only in a virtual world: Championship Manager. Unlike Messi, who actually achieved these feats, Javier Saviola’s career can be summed up as one that has the question of ‘what could have been’ looming over it.
A Buenos Aires native, Saviola came through the youth ranks at River Plate, making his debut at the tender age of 16 and slowly forming one-quarter of a formidable quartet: Saviola, Pablo Aimar, Ariel Ortega and Juan Pablo Angel, more commonly known as ‘Los Cuatro Fantasticos’.
The fantastic four trotted around the pitch like they owned it, despite their average age barely into the twenties. All four were set for big careers, Saviola had the biggest potential of all of them.
It was at River Plate that Saviola earned his nickname: El Conejo – the rabbit. If you think about it for a second, you can see why. This is where writing becomes nullified as a medium, you will have to search for Saviola at River Plate compilation videos on Youtube.
He ran around the pitch with rabbit-like speed, with a smile stretching from cheek to cheek – he loved every second he was on the pitch. If you are strange enough to chase rabbits around a field, you will know that you simply cannot catch them, due to their blistering pace and agility. This was Saviola. If you do manage to catch a rabbit for speed, they will somehow wriggle away and be gone again. Saviola darted around the pitch like a rabbit, weaving in and out of opponents, and leaving defenders for dead at will.
In 1999, Saviola won South American footballer of the year aged just 18, and after scoring 45 goals for River in his teenage years, he left for Spain to join the post-Cruyff era at Barcelona. He joined for £15m, which was a hefty fee at the time, especially for a teenager, but Barça jumped at the chance to sign ‘the next Maradona’.
Barcelona were in a state of disarray at that time, they had just come out of a glory half decade, Saviola was tasked with being the partner of Patrick Kluivert up top.
The comparisons with Messi in hindsight are understandable: they both had that innate finishing ability, unforgettable pace, and had both won major youth tournaments as a teen. It didn’t work out for Saviola though, and the arrival of Frank Rijkaard basically spelt the end of his time in the first team.
Despite the poor form at Barcelona, Saviola had a plethora of offers: seventeen of them to be exact. He rejected all but one of them: Real Madrid. It didn’t receive the same negative reception as some Barcelona to Real Madrid deals have done, with Saviola moving to the Blaugrana’s bitter rivals.
His time at Madrid was short, and he failed to score the goals that he did in his first couple of years in Barcelona. His time can be described as more of a ‘stint’ or a ‘cameo’ rather than anything else. One may ask why he joined a club that already had attacking power in Higuain, Robben, Robinho, Van Nistelrooy and Baptista, but still, he did move, and it was a failure.
The moment that probably summed up Saviola’s career came at Madrid, though. A Champions League night at the Bernabéu was the setting, with Madrid facing Belarusian club BATE Borisov. He was one of those typical substitutes, who always had one eye on the manager, waiting for the signal. Jerzy Dudek and Miguel Torres joked with Saviola that he was about to come on, and the Argentine’s face lit up with joy and anticipation.
Sadly, Madrid had already made all their subs, and he was the mere butt of a prank. Yet, this summed up his career in a microcosm: someone who just wanted to play football, but he never really had the chance to express himself. That night was a ‘what could have been?’, and sadly, so was his whole career.
After Madrid, Saviola roamed Europe, having mediocre spells at Benfica, Olympiacos and Malaga before returning home to Buenos Aires with River Plate. He was duly accepted by the fans, but again, it didn’t work out on the pitch: he couldn’t score in 13 appearances, which spelled retirement.
Nowadays, Saviola is Assistant Manager for Andorran side Ordino, which is strange but he seems happy with where he is.
Sadly, life in the hat for the rabbit wasn’t what it could have been. He still scored over 200 goals in an 18-year career and played for some of the biggest clubs in the world, but the fresh-faced kid at River Plate promised so much more.
Somewhere, in an alternate reality, Javier Saviola would have gone on to hit the heights of some of the other kids that grew up on the streets of Argentina – like Aguero and Higuain – but in this reality, it didn’t happen, and Javier Saviola has to go down as the kid that never grew up.