Where do you expect to find a rabbit? Certainly on a lush green field, scampering around aimlessly, playing on the turf, kissing the honeydew air, kicking around— one of Nature’s best creations that reminds you of a certain thing termed innocence.
But there was no such rabbit scurrying around on the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu pitch last Tuesday night when Lazio came to the Bernabeu party. Instead that rabbit was buttonholed and lapped up in a substitute’s dressing gown and relaxing expectedly in an uncomfortably cozy couch on the dug-out. There was really no sign that the rabbit was going to be pulled out of the hat at all.
For the last season or so, Javier Pedro Saviola’s life has always been like that. The Little Rabbit (as he’s nicknamed for his bustling runs, slender build and boyish impressions) has more often than not been relegated to the bench. Saviola has been the rabbit that has rarely been extracted out of the hat and baited onto the pitch to hatch destruction on the opposition. Instead he has been a rabbit who has had to suffocate inside the hat without so much as a nose-pipe to help him out.
But for Saviola this was hardly the sort of football career that he had conceived way back in his good old days at River Plate. Forming a fearsome triumvirate with Pablo Aimar and Juan Pablo Angel at River, Saviola has been picking the cherry all the time. The 5’6″ player with a frightening run directly straight at the opposition defenders, gifted technique wonted to all those who graduate from River’s disciplined youth academy and pruned intelligence was once the new Maradona but like every cursed new Maradona, Saviola too turned out to be a talented entity but not talented enough to be El Diego II.
Yet the regret lingers on that he could have been a better player than he is, that he could have had more accomplishments to seep into his CV, that he could have shaped out a better grail for him. Now he is perceived as a lost child wandering in a desert, trying to find some refuge and dig out some glory.
But when Saviola was signed by FC Barcelona in the summer of 2001, he came to Europe on the back of 53 goals in 86 matches for River Plate and a South American Player of the Year award. He might have been one of the many expensive rubies smuggled into Camp Nou from overseas by the then money splashing Barca President Joan Gaspart but he was the youngest, the most buoyant, the most innocent, the most optimistic—in every sense, a boy wonder.
Javier Saviola scored 21 goals in all competitions for the Catalan giants in his first season and also signed the most vital goal against Panathinaikos in the UEFA Champions League that drove Barca to the semi-finals. Barca didn’t win the league that season and wouldn’t win it in the next couple of seasons that Saviola was destined to actively participate in the Barcelona dressing room but that weren’t his fault by any means.
Instead it was this rare gem that stood out from a constantly failing and often deceiving Barcelona unit. While his fellow strike mate at Barca, Patrick Kluivert, was looking more and more the overweight, overpaid, past-his-sell-by-date centre forward, the diminutive Argentine was looking more and more the genius that he was once discerned to be at River Plate. But Camp Nou isn’t Estadio Monumental and although the Barca fans adored this boy, the coach didn’t. Saviola fell out with Louis van Gaal in 2002-2003 and scored just twice in the first half of the season. Van Gaal’s sacking and Radomir Antic’s appointment unleashed a new lease of life to Saviola and he returned the favor with 11 goals in 17 matches in the second half of the 2002-2003 season.
That season real Madrid won La Liga title and Barca have had enough. The old Gaspart regime fell crumbling down like a Saddam Hussein reign crashing down with one blow of the US hand. The revamping measures commenced at the Camp Nou cathedral: President Joan Laporta took over as the president; Frank Rijkaard became the new manager and Roanldinho the new Messiah. A new era was signaled.
With Kluivert, Marc Overmars and Luis Enrique Martinez being sent packing at the end of the 2003-2004 season, it was time too for Saviola to dig out his handkerchief, dab at the corner of his eyes, say Adios and jump to another boat. And he did so too, only in his case there was a rope tying the two boats togetherâ€”a loan bond. Saviola was handed on loan to AS Monaco whose previous season’s UEFA Champions League exploits soon wore off. He returned to the Camp Nou after one year in the summer of 2006 having scored just 8 goals in the French Ligue 1 and 4 in the Champions League.
Then again Saviola was off-loaded to Sevilla for another year on-loan. By this time it was clear that Saviola was unwanted garbage at Barca. It was also clear that more than blight on Saviola’s caliber, his banishment had something personal at its heart, that Rijkaard and Saviola didn’t see eye to eye (did Saviola say something to Rijkaard to get him pissed?). Last season Saviola came back to Catalonia having won the UEFA Cup with Sevilla and actually refused no fewer than 14 offersâ€”yes, it is true—to stay at the Camp Nou to see out his contract.
10 goals in 24 appearances for Barca last season was hardly an achievement and as his 6-year contract with Barca winded down to a close in the summer, so did Saviola’s tolerance of mistreatment. He switched to Barca’s archrivals Real Madrid, an act of bravery (or cowardice?) shared only by Luis Enrique Martinez and Luis Figo in recent years (Ronaldo doesn’t count since he went to Internazionale from Barcelona) and pissed out his pent-up emotions.
But Saviola’s season so far at the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu has not been any better than what it was at Barca. True, he is flanked by fellow Argentineans Fernando Gago and Gonzalo Higuain and is quite popular among the Real squad, but when it comes to matter on the pitch, Saviola deciphers himself far below the pecking order. Ruud van Nistelrooy, Raul, Robinho and even youngster Higuain are ahead of him in the strikers’ list and while manager Bernd Schuster has been emulating Liverpool’s Rafael Benitez’s rotation policy, Saviola has regularly found himself out in the wilderness n the Real substitute bench. he has played just four times in a Real Madrid shirt this season but has hit the back of the opposition net twice.
Saviola is still only 26 and the greater extent of his talent is sadly yet to be tapped into. And under the current circumstances, he won’t be able to explore himself at Real Madrid. So much so, that the Real hierarchy is already looking to offload him when the January transfer window yawns open. The Spanish press reports that Real Madrid are contemplating on a swap deal with Juventus pertaining to the Argentine international.
Real Madrid wasn’t a good choice for Saviola and nothing that would contradict to this belief has come up so far. Real are going through a somewhat edgy period after last season’s title win with Schuster yet to gift the Bernabeu ‘perfect football’. Saviola is in Schuster’s plans but he’s likely to be on he periphery rather than anywhere near the centre. Saviola has a 3-year contract with Real Madrid and don’t be surprised should he be on the move soon. Again.