It was July 2001 and following a disappointing season for Spanish giants, FC Barcelona, they decided to open their cheque books once again. The large spending just a year earlier on the likes of Marc Overmars and Emmanuel Petit had not brought the club the glory they craved and so the dice was re-rolled. The signing of Javier Saviola made headlines across the world for two huge reasons. The first of those reasons was that his £15 million price tag made him the most expensive teenager in the world. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, Barcelona had signed the new Diego Maradona.
The comparison to the Argentine magician had been made before, much like England fans are always looking for a new Lineker, Gascoigne or Charlton, the South Americans wanted another saviour. That high expectation had landed squarely on the shoulders of Saviola and it was easy to see why. Like Maradona, he was small in size and by the age of 18 was already racking up plenty of admirers and accolades, just two years after making his professional debut.
Saviola spent the first three seasons of his professional career with River Plate, scoring 45 goals in 86 appearances for the club. His goals guided the club to the 1999 Apertura and 2000 Clausura championships. In 1999, at just 18 years old, he was named South American Footballer of the Year, Player of the Year of Argentina and was even the youngest ever player to win the Golden Boot (top scorer award) in the Argentine Primera Division, a record that was previously held by Maradona himself. Breaking 20 year old records that were held by a national hero is bound to shine a spotlight on you, but Saviola seemed to be taking it all in his stride.
If Barcelona were not 100% convinced that Saviola was a world class player in the making, then his performance at the 2001 FIFA World Youth Championship will have persuaded them. Argentina won that tournament and Saviola won both the Golden Boot and Golden Ball (best player award) for the tournament. Just days after the tournament ended, Saviola followed in the footsteps of Maradona and was unveiled as Barcelona's new big money signing. He was just 19 years old and the whole world was watching.
After scoring 11 goals in seven games at the FIFA World Youth Championship, Saviola arrived at the Nou Camp with high confidence and a knack for scoring goals. His first season was a successful one as he managed to score 17 league goals in 36 appearances, just one goal fewer than strike partner, Patrick Kluivert. His second season was a little less rosy and he started slowly. Although he performed well in the UEFA Champions League, his return of just 13 league goals, again scoring less than Kluivert, was a disappointing return. Not all the blame can be placed on Saviola however. Barcelona were in turmoil and sacked Louis Van Gaal part way through the season and a sixth place finish in La Liga was their worst performance since 1988. Saviola had played under three managers in just two seasons at the club, with a fourth manager arriving in the Summer of 2003.
Frank Rijkaard was the man tasked with turning the fortunes of Barcelona around and although Kluivert was starting to play less and less under his fellow countryman, Saviola was still playing second fiddle, but this time to Ronaldinho. The 14 league goals that he scored in his third season with the club was one less than Ronaldinho, meaning that the young Argentine had been the second top scorer at the club for three seasons in a row. In the Summer of 2004, Rijkaard stamped his authority on the team and deemed Saviola and Kluivert surplus to requirements following the arrival of Samuel Eto'o. Interestingly Eto'o scored more league goals in his first two seasons with Barcelona (51) than Saviola managed in three seasons (44).
Although he may have proved to be less prolific than many people would have liked, clubs were still keen to sign Saviola. He spent the next two seasons on loan with Monaco and then Sevilla and although he won the UEFA Cup during his time in Seville, his goalscoring threat was weaker than it had ever been before and he did not manage to reach double figures in league goals for either club. The signs that Saviola would not live up to hype that had initially surrounded his career were starting to become glaringly obvious and for anyone that was unsure, the next few years would prove it to them.
Still just 24 years of age, he returned to Barcelona for the final year of his contract. A season littered with substitute appearances and a few starts in the Copa del Rey made it clear that his face did not fit in a Frank Rijkaard team that had won back to back La Liga titles whilst he had been out on loan. Barcelona were beaten into second place in 2006/07 meaning that Saviola was never able to lift the La Liga title with them. Maradona also failed to achieve that feat although his spell at the club was much shorter.
What came next was something surprising, puzzling and any other synonym of those words you can think of. Real Madrid opted to sign Saviola, despite signs that his potential was fast turning into something that pundits would reminisce about rather than believe he could fulfill. His international career was over by 2007 and he spent two seasons with Real Madrid where he made just 17 league appearances. One has to question why he decided to go to Barcelona's arch rivals where Raul and Van Nistelrooy were clearly going to dominate the playing time. It is admirable and understandable that athletes back themselves to raise their game and produce on the big stage but Saviola had never really set the world alight in Barcelona and yet here he was trying to displace a club legend and one of the most predatory goalscorers in the world. Perhaps he always knew he would spend most of his time on the bench but the contract and destination was too good to turn down?
Due to his lack of playing time, you can be forgiven if Saviola's time in Madrid totally slipped your mind. After his unsuccessful spell with the club he went on to play for Benfica, Malaga, Olympiakos, Hellas Verona and finally ending his career back at River Plate. It seems that throughout his career there was always a manager who felt that they may be the one to get that form he displayed in his early career out of him and into the European game. The rise of Lionel Messi arguably helped to divert any negative attention away from Saviola throughout his career, after all, why would Argentina fans waste time bemoaning the unfulfilled potential of one player dubbed the next Maradona, when they were witnessing the emergence of the best player in the world?
For a player that was once the most expensive teenager in the world and achieved so many positive things in his early years, it seems a great shame that he was not able to grow into the player he could have been. His career was not a story of a sudden and dramatic fall from grace but rather a slow and painful demise that, in the end, not many people really cared about. He played for many clubs, each one a little less prolific than the last, and his form, whilst it occasionally showed flashes of brilliance, was never good enough to propel him into being considered one of the best in the world. The story of Saviola proves that a young player can break records, win silverware and earn plaudits all over the world but that provides absolutely zero guarantee that they are going to be your countries next legend. They may slowly peter out eventually find themselves in footballing obscurity as an assistant coach for a club in Andorra.
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