Friday, November 17, 2006

The Vexing Case of the Little Rabbit: Javier Saviola and FC Barcelona

As someone who is both a Barca fan and an Argentina fan, I've commented on blogs all around on one or the other about Javier Saviola's current situation at Barcelona. Having seen Argentina fans and Barcelona fans break into all-out flame wars over this topic on forums more than once, I felt that a full write-up of the facts and my own opinions on the problem might be useful.

the past

another new Maradona - the beginning

It is the year 1999. Javier Pedro Saviola is a small youth loved by the fans of his club River Plate for his boyish enthusiasm and clever eye for goal. They nickname him El Conejo, the Little Rabbit, for his dangerous scurrying runs into the opposition box (and for his front teeth, which resembled that of a rabbit). Together with prodigious midfielder Pablo Aimar - brilliantly talented and hailed as the next Maradona - Javier is part of a marvelous River Plate side. The magic four of Aimar, Saviola, Columbian striker Juan Pablo Angel and the legendary Ariel Ortega lift this great Argentinean club to two league titles ahead of eternal rival Boca Juniors. El Conejo, for his part, finishs as the league's top scorer for one of those winning seasons and with the South American Footballer of the Year award for 1999. He is 18 years old at this time.

Meanwhile, over in Spain, Louis van Gaal's Barcelona is winning titles. However, behind the veneer of success a subtle decline is beginning, on the playing front from a team of glorious attacking players who knew how to win to a collection of dispirited individuals addicted to the losing habit; this decline is matched by the once-glorious institution of the club rotting from within as it begins to lose track of its identity and its bank balance. A period of pain for all Barca supporters marked by gross mismanagement from the club board on all fronts arrives, with the election of Joan Gaspart as club president in the year 2000, as van Gaal and long-time president Nunez are ousted for failing to deliver in Europe.

It is the year 2001. Javier has just taken the World Youth Championship by storm as a member of the winning team, crowning his marvelous tournament by taking both the Golden Boot and the Golden Ball awards, the former with a goal tally of 11, a record that will take some beating. The only other person who had finished the competition with both awards was none other than Diego Maradona himself, and the race is on to claim Javier as the next Diego, the great hope that Argentinean football always desperately craves. This makes him hot property - and highly prized - for a possible European move.

Meanwhile, over in Barcelona, things are not going so well. Gaspart had managed to lose star Luis Figo to Real Madrid, an event which is still a bitter memory for many Barca fans, and one which some believe had a traumatic effect on Gaspart. Over the next few years, he would spend incredible amounts of money on the player of the moment, regardless of the desires of the coach, desperately trying to buy some success in the face of the unstoppable Galactico machine. The Juan Roman Riquelme transfer was one such dealing. Even worse, some believe that the trauma of losing Figo to Real - who offered better conditions - lead to Gaspart tying his star players to unreasonably expensive contracts in order to prevent them leaving, despite the club being near-broke. Here's a telling illustration of the results of that policy: when he left office, paying Patrick 'Nightclub' Kluviert's took up 10% of Barca's wage bill. Gaspart spent 200 million euros in his 3-year rule on 16 players, most of whom have now been sold off at bargain prices. And how many trophies did this madness bring? None.

It was under these conditions that the 20-year-old Javier Saviola left his native Argentina for the seriously big time, to be thrown in at the deep end at one of Europe's most impatient clubs, with some of the most demanding supporters in the world.

At such a young age, he cost Barca an astonishing 33 million euros, which is a very large sum for 2001, plus 6 million for his agent. In comparison, Pablo Aimar cost Valencia 24 million at around the same time.

Here's another comparison. How much did Ronaldinho cost? 30 million. Samuel Eto'o? 25 million, and even then some fans were grumbling that the club overpaid for him. (Overpaid! The very thought of suggesting such a notion is hysterically funny now.)

In many ways, the Saviola transfer was a perfect representation of the excesses of the Gaspart era, and it set the stage for the problems of today.

"Saviola, Saviola, Saviola" - 3 seasons at Barca

The part inside the quotation marks came from an old frontpage headline of Catalan sports daily - entitled, imaginatively enough, 'Sport'. It came after Saviola had scored a hattrick for Barca. The wonderboy made a good start to life in Spain under coach Carles Rexach, forming a useful partnership with Kluviert (and that phrase tells you how quickly football changes - 01-02 wasn't that long ago). He scored 17 goals in 36 appearances - not bad, given that 'main' striker Kluviert only got one more. The fans became very fond of El Conejo. His commitment and hard-working attitude was refreshing, especially when put next to Nightclub Patrick and many of the other players.

Things began to go downhill in 02-03, however. Saviola was played out on the wings, where he was largely ineffective, by the returning van Gaal in a truly horrible run of results that ended with the coach's sacking. At that time, the club was just 3 points outside the relegation zone. Emergency coach Antic was bought in to save Barca's season, which he duly did, ensuring that Barca would not say goodbye to European football for the first time in its history by guiding the club to a 6th place finish. Javier also fared better under Antic, scoring 11 goals under his charge in the second half of the season to take his tally up to 16.

03-04 represents a historical upturn in fortunes for Barcelona as a club, as new president Laporta got very, very lucky with two deals. One of these was signing Ronaldinho as a consolation to the fans for not getting Beckham, which was what he'd promised to do if elected. The second was taking a gamble on Frank Rijkaard as coach after Koeman and Hiddink had turned the job down. It certainly didn't look like a smart hire in the first half of the season, as Barca remained mired in the bottom half of the table with a string of bad results leading to increasing calls for Rijkaard's head. Then the club bothered to listen to the coach and actually signed a holding midfielder during the January transfer window, and results took off. A 15 match unbeaten run left Barca with a second place finish, above Real Madrid.

So that's all great. What about Saviola? Rijkaard's 4-3-3 favoured the use of only one central striker, which was the increasingly useless Patrick Kluviert. So it saw Javier benched a bit, although he still clocked up 33 matches. More importantly, Kluviert - much like the Ronaldo of today - was frequently unfit and therefore injured a lot. This gave Saviola opportunities to start, and he grabbed them with both hands, forming a great understanding with Ronaldinho and Luis Garcia upfront. He finished with 14 goals - not a lot, but far more than Kluviert had managed, and just 1 off team top scorer Ronaldinho's 15.

rabbit overboard - transfers and loans

In the summer of 2004, an atmosphere of optimism enveloped Barcelona after the way the team had finished last season. Optimism, and increasingly daring ambition. The board splashed out on new players, including 2 great center forwards in Henrik Larsson and Samuel Eto'o. Saviola came back from his stint as a substitute in Argentina's Olympics victory to find himself surplus to requirements. He was loaned out to Monaco, where he had a torrid league season, scoring only 7 goals, but not a bad Champions League campaign, with 4 goals in 7 games.

He was loaned out yet again in 05-06, this time to Sevilla, missing out on Barca's Champions League triumph. Again he found it difficult to find the net in the league, managing only 9 goals, but things went much better in Europe. His first European trophy came in the form of the Spanish club's UEFA Cup win, during which he again performed admirably, netting 6 goals.

That brings us to this season, which is the last on Saviola's contract. It's clear that Barca tried to sell him during the transfer window, but to no avail. Reportedly the club received many offers, but most were either outside the Argentine's requirements (he only wanted to play in either Spain or England) or they got spooked by his salary demands. No offer came that would suit both parties. Desperate to trim the squad (and cut down on salary costs), the club eventually offered to let him leave as a free agent. Yet in the end, Javier opted to stay.

the current situation

the squad

By even the most hostile reports, Saviola has not made a negative impact on the team spirit at Barca. He gets along well with a lot of the players from his last stint at Barca, particularly Ronaldinho and Xavi, with whom he has an instinctive partnership. Popularity in the dressing room is not hard to come by for an amiable guy who simply stays out of trouble and works hard, and maybe that's why Javier is so well-liked amongst the squad.

Under previous coaches, the Barca dressing room used to be plagued by the Dutch gang, who were all powerful. The current group of Brazilian players who dominate the squad are careful to avoid the tag of a clique and have great relationships with both Argentineans, which is a great credit to them. One only has to look at the problems Inter had with Adriano and their 7 Argentineans to see what can happen. Not at Barca, thankfully.

the press and the fans

A survey in one of the Catalan sports papers found that most fans were of the opinion that Saviola had stayed at Barca for the money. His case divides opinion bitterly on fan forums. The aftementioned papers, who often sing the same tune as the club management had been attacking him for weeks on end during the transfer window.

Despite this, most want him to start ahead of Gudjohnsen now that Eto'o is out injured, and the faithful at the Camp Nou week in week out love him. No sooner had he appeared as a substitute against Valencia, his first official appearance for Barca after 2 seasons - 854 days, to be precise - out in the cold, an appearance which was much heralded by the home faithful and described by Sid Lowe in this excellent Guardian column, then some fans unveiled a giant 'FORCA SAVIOLA' banner, as captured by the TV cameras. The response to him coming on against Zaragoza was an ovation and a massive roar; the response to his stoppage-time goal against Zaragoza was ear-drum shattering and went on and on.

Overall, there seems to be a shift in the balance of power. The press are now being easier on him, perhaps confused by the conflicting signals sent out by the coaching team and the board. There's a lot more talk about his good attitude, his popularity within the squad, and how his hard work in training (not to mention goals scored) has perhaps earned him a starting spot. Even some of the more anti-Conejo fans have come around to this last idea. After all, it's difficult to sustain a vendetta against someone who just puts their head down, works hard and doesn't complain, even more so when that someone has bags of skill that the team urgently needs.

club management

Just for purposes of clarity, when I say 'club management', I mean the president, the director and their gang, who make a lot of transfer-related decisions and aren't necessarily loyal to the coach. (In fact, director Beguiristain was all ready to stick the knife into Rijkaard's back when he wasn't doing so well.)

Here's Rijkaard's explanation of the transfer process at Barca:

"If I think the team need something extra I discuss it with Txiki Beguiristain, our technical director, and with [then] vice-president Sandro Rosell and president Joan Laporta. Then they go to find the players who fulfil those criteria. Where they come from is immaterial. The priority is having the right players for the needs of the team."

To be fair, they also have to worry about the financial aspects of the club.

There's a lot of gossip about who's really pushing for what in the Saviola saga, and the following is my own view of events. I've arrived at these conclusions by a mix of what's accepted as conventional wisdom in Spanish football circles and reasoning based on hard evidence.

Firstly, the management's position. Let's be clear what the sticking point is. Javier's very expensive contract - 55 million euros is the sum Barca have spent on him - ends in June of next year.

It's not hard to see why a board as financially careful as Laporta's want to sell him in January. They've probably pressured Rijkaard not to cup-tie him for that purpose, hence his non-appearance in the Champions League so far this season. (I hope to be proven wrong on this point, but that's what events so far point to.) Barca has spent a lot of money on Saviola and the money-men would like to get some of it back by selling him on, instead of letting him leave on a free at the end of the season.

Reportedly Saviola actually wants to renew his contract, but even he must know that's not possible, especially with its current salary demands. Even if he were to accept a contract on reduced terms - which, let's face it, would be no great shame since the likes of Xavi and Puyol had to do the same at the beginning of the Laporta era, only to earn themselves better contracts after successful seasons under Rijkaard - it seems like Javier is permanently out of favour with Beguiristain, and not likely to ever be back in it. There are commonly 2 reasons cited for this. The first is his unwillingness to renegotiate his contract, and the second his insistence on going to the Olympics in 2004 to sit on the bench for Argentina.

As Saviola himself tells it, he came back to find himself out of favour and was quickly sent out on loan. The fact that the club had signed Henrik Larsson and Samuel Eto'o during that time probably didn't help matters. Beguiristain is probably the biggest obstacle to Saviola getting games while at Barca and certainly a decisive factor in any decision about his future, especially since his word seems to be final on transfers.

coaching staff

Everybody says that Rijkaard doesn't like Saviola, and that's why he's not getting games. I think this is rubbish. The latest reports before Javier got injured hinted at divisions within the club on whether or not to play Saviola. After the above discussion about the technical staff, it's easy to guess who's arguing for what.

I think after the Depor game (his first start this season in the league) and the cup game against Badalona Saviola had actually worked himself up to about almost equal status with Gudjohnsen in the coach's eyes. Even though he didn't get to start against Zaragoza, Rijkaard was becoming more willing to throw him on, if Gudjohnsen's particular qualities weren't making an impact.

The bottom line is that apparently Rijkaard prefers a target-man type forward as his center striker in the 4-3-3, which is why he wasn't even convinced by the purchase of Eto'o. I'm not sure how much I buy this theory, given his previous success with using Saviola as the tip of the forward 3, but I do see the possible objection about using him when the other forwards don't exactly have much physical presence in the box. It would be very easy to muscle them out of games. This throwaway comment from the Eurosport livescore of the Depor match made me laugh out loud at the time, but it is illustrative:

"Saviola loses out to Lopo, tough leading the line solo when you're only a little wabbit."

On the other hand, he knows the system that Barca play in and have a good understanding with players like Ronaldinho, Xavi and Messi. That results in great, defence-ripping passing moves. And of course his pace and technique are wonderful.


For those who don't know, Saviola pulled a muscle in the Zaragoza game, where he once again put in a great performance, which would have surely earned him even more chances. He'll be out for at least a month. As that would make his return date mid-December, a lot of this post wold seem a little redundant, especially if Barca try to offload him in the January transfer window.

Personally, I don't think this is going to happen. From what Beguiristain has been saying about the possibility of getting a player in the transfer window for cover (basically that it would result in Barca having '8 forwards' when everyone is fit - a number which includes Saviola) and their actions near the end of the summer transfer window, I'm guessing that club management are finally resigned to letting him go for nothing at the end of the season. The other option, a new contract - which Saviola reportedly wants - doesn't look too possible right now, as I wrote above, but who knows what can happen between now and next June?

This whole saga has been extremely frustrating for those of us who want Saviola to be an option for the Argentinean NT, because he can't do that if he's not playing regularly for a club. He managed to have a good World Cup after a mediocre club season, and his striking partnership with Crespo is still the best we have. Plus, it's always annoying when the career of someone with so much obvious potential and talent is stalling because of a stupid combination of factors.

Edit: to clarify a couple of things regarding Saviola's contract.


john said...


It still makes me wonder why is Saviola situation is that complicated. But based on your latest posting I must say the problem is not on the pitch but off it.

The Barcelona directors are not acting in the name of sportsmanship but personal feud. Why because he wouldn’t take a pay cut? Fine maybe that might be acceptable. But because he went to the Olympics?

I think everyone should realize that the chance for a footballer to get to the Olympics might only come once in a lifetime, as it is Under-23. Many players, who went to the Olympics, also went on have great success later on. For example Romario (former Barca players).

If people don’t realize this, than it is best that FIFA pulls out the football event from the Olympic programme, just to please people like Beguiristain.


linda said...

If I recall correctly, the sticking point about the Olympics situation also came about because he'd been on international duty before that as well.

It's kind of like how Valencia had a running feud over releasing Aimar to Argentina because Ayala insisted on playing every game for Argentina, including 'less important' games like the Olympics, the Copa America and so on and got injured while being away for a month.

This happens a lot with Argentinean players, because so many of them are passionate about playing for their country no matter what. A lot of players from other countries put their club first (like Claude Makelele, Stilian Petrov etc), but not Argentineans.

Raul said...

Clubs, like Barcelona, Real Madrid, Inter, to name a few want Argentine players because we produce some of the finest footballers in the world. If sporting directors are upset with Argentines playing in the national team they do not understand that the passion of the game for us [Argentines] is not club football but is "la seleccion" the national team.

Big example to show this look at Gonzalo Higuain, he could have made a great business arrangement and a lot of money out of playing for France like David Trezeguet; instead he chose the harder road Argentina. Something that he knows there is a lot of competition, he has guys like Tevez, Saviola, Crespo, Aguero, Milito, Palacio to compete for a spot in the squad.

European clubs need to realize that Argentine players will always chose Country over club.

I love Saviola and I respect him alot. He is a beacon of determination. The reason he went to the 2004 games to sit at the bench was because he loves Argentina, the reason he stayed at Barcelona despite all the odds was because he wanted to earn himself a spot; which he clearly has. 11 goals in 10 games.

Barcelona are going to lose him and I am glad, Real Madrid are keen on an offer for June on Free Transfer, that partnership Gago, Robihno, Higuain, and Saviola would be true fast paced attacking football, and will save Capello and Real Madrid.

linda said...

Raul: I support Argentina, so there's no need to tell me what the Albiceleste shirt means to the players. I admire guys like Heinze who are willing to put Argentina first.

(Although, remember, even Redondo refused to play for Argentina while playing for Real.)

However, the real issue with Saviola at club level (and not just with the technical director) was always his large salary and his refusal to take a pay-cut when club stawarts like Puyol did to fit into the new wage system. I'm not saying it's Saviola's fault - popular opinion blames his agent - but that's the issue. That's still the issue.

As for him going to Real Madrid...I wish Gago and Higuain well at Real, but what's Saviola going to do at Real? Who's going to sit on the bench? Raul? Not a chance. Van Nistelrooy? No way. Higuain? Sort of defeats the purpose of having so many Argentineans at a great club if they're not playing. For Saviola, what's the difference between going to Real to sit on the bench and staying at Barca to do the same thing? He'd probably rather go to Espanyol (as loathesome as that idea is to me), stay in the city of Barcelona and start every week. Unless, of course, it's the same old 'bigger salary' talking...

Also: is Capello going to be there next season? I'm not so sure.