Uefa Champions League draw made.
Tottenham fans hope Argentine will fill the void left by Gareth Bale, writes Ian Hawkey
When Erik Lamela was 12 years old, he seemed to have the world at his feet. He had in his bedroom a photograph of himself with Ronaldinho, not the type tourists take, posing next to life-size cutouts of famous players at Barcelona’s stadium, either. It was the real “Ronie”, with long ringlets, goofy grin, a superstar then in his prime.
It had been snapped at a personal meeting, when Lamela was being shown around Barcelona, enticed to join the Spanish club’s fabled academy.
Lamela had been spotted bamboozling bigger lads with his wide repertoire of tricks on the ball at a youth tournament in Galicia, in north-west Spain. Barcelona wanted him enrolled with them before his 13th birthday. They offered €10,000 a month. He could bring his family over, his father Jose was told. A famous sportswear company also offered a contract and reportedly presented Erik, known as “Coco” to his friends, with the chicest mobile phone on the 2004 market.
Back in his native Argentina, news of the offer was greeted with anger. River Plate, the Buenos Aires club to which Lamela was then attached and whom he had represented at the Galicia event, talked about “piracy”, while the tender age of Lamela was cited as an example of how ruthless the trade in young South American talent among the clubs of Europe had become.
River Plate, determined to keep Lamela, counselled his family to let him mature at home, and gave them incentives, including scholarships for he and his brothers to study at a good college.
Lamela stayed in Buenos Aires rather than join a Barcelona side whose nursery had produced teenage countryman Lionel Messi, who was shortly to graduate. His life, though, had changed. He was on a TV chat show, showing off the step-overs, feints and juggles he had been practicing practically since he could first walk. At 12, he was briefly more famous than Messi at 16.
Even before Lamela started being labelled the boy Barca had tried to make their “New Messi”, he had been seen as a reincarnation of a great.
Daniel Passarella, the former Argentina captain who is one of River Plate’s power brokers, was reminded, very early in Lamela’s prodigious teens, of Gianni Rivera, the great Italy and AC Milan playmaker of the 1960s and ’70s.
By the time he was 15, comparisons were being made with Brazil’s Kaka, then propelling AC Milan to triumph in the Uefa Champions League.
The way Lamela glides past opponents is indeed reminiscent of Kaka at his peak, as is the sharp change of pace which Kaka once had. The young Lamela, though, grew up with Zinedine Zidane as his idol, imitating and rehearsing the Frenchman’s turns and dragbacks.
More recently, he has been liked to another iconic No 10. His second season at Roma was so impressive, talk was of his becoming the “Next Francesco Totti”, a wor-
thy successor to the long-serving, adored Roma captain.
Even Totti said so – “I hope he can follow me,” muttered the Emperor of the Eternal City – which may be why Lamela, on leaving Roma on Wednesday, told fans he hoped one day to return.
The £30 million (Dh170.95m) Tottenham Hotspur have paid Roma for Lamela obliges him to take on another succession.
Though Spurs have recruited impressively this summer, anticipating the vast income they will yield from the sale of their star player to Real Madrid, of all the new recruits – including Paulinho, Nacer Chadli, Etionne Capoue and Roberto Soldado – Lamela is the one with the credentials to become their new Gareth Bale. He can surge through opposition defences, ball at his feet, with some of Bale’s intensity, and he has goals in his make-up. He scored 15 for Roma last season in 33 Serie A matches, and in the autumn of 2012 strung together a run of seven in six matches.
That was an important phase in his development, a year and half into his spell at Roma, who had signed him from River at 18 for around £16m. He worked with four different coaches in two years in Rome and dealt with different interpretations of his best role. The breakthrough came under Zdenek Zeman, who took over at Roma last summer. Zeman urged him to exploit his speed, play less with his back to goal and to use his dribbling assets.
“He has had a very good year and has matured a lot,” says Alex Sabella, the manager of Argentina, who has recalled Lamela to the national squad after a two-year hiatus. Ahead of next year’s World Cup, Sabella will monitor Lamela’s adaptation to English football. Tottenham will hope he provides some of the energy, thrill and impact they had from Bale over the past three seasons.
Supporters of certain generation will dreamily wonder if the young Argentine can write history for the club in the way Osvaldo Ardiles, an immensely popular midfielder at White Hart Lane in the 1970s and ’80s, and his compatriot, Ricky Villa, scorer of a memorable, virtuoso goal in an FA Cup final victory, once did.
Almost a decade after Lamela, the precocious schoolboy, turned down Barcelona, he may have found himself the place best-suited to him at this stage of his career.
Tottenham have a rich history with Argentine players such as Osvaldo Ardiles and Ricky Villa and hope their newest recruit, Erik Lamela, can have the same impact at White Hart Lane.