After years in the doldrums Tenerife are on the rise and it's largely due to the emergence of a prodigiously gifted homegrown talent.
In recent times there hasn’t been much to shout about on the island of Tenerife when it comes to the football team. Their jubilation of gaining promotion in the 2008/2009 Segunda Division season to Primera was short lived, with the club spending a single year in the top flight. Worse still that relegation was met by another two back-to-back, with El Tete being sent to the purgatory of Segunda 2B. Few teams rarely make it out alive and when they do it’s a case of never being the same.
Finally however, there is something to shout about on the island.
“One of the best players I’ve seen at Tenerife in the last 30 years” bellowed out one of the well-known sports radio personalities in the region. The player in question is 20-year-old Ayoze Pérez, a young starlet that has emerged from María Jiménez, a town of just over 2,000 inhabitants in Santa Cruz de Tenerife.
Ayoze looks no different to many young Spanish players that come through the academy; the delicately styled hair, the dazzlingly coloured boots. What sets him apart is the boy comes from Tenerife. Over recent years the fans from have watched on enviously as bitter rivals UD Las Palmas have churned out talent after talent from their acclaimed academy. Most recently both Vitolo and Jonathan Viera made their big moves to Sevilla and Valencia respectively. On the 9th of March however in a game against Recreativo de Huelva, del Tete fielded a team of nine cantera products in the starting eleven. The mood on and off the field is changing, as the team, backed by all this homegrown talent, sits in a Segunda Division Play-Off berth.
Dragging them there is Ayoze, and imagine the satisfaction then, when the first in a series of defining moments on Ayoze’s rise to prominence occurred. 18,000 fans packed into Estadio Heliodoro Rodríguez Lopéz to witness their new star come of age – against none other than Las Palmas. A brace, plus an all-around defence terrorising display, made sure he was the toast of the town – rumour was before he went to bed that night, he had 384 messages on his WhatsApp. Word travels fast in those parts, clearly.
Since then he’s gone on to record 16 goals for the current campaign, and you’d have to go back to the 1987/1988 campaign the last time a Tenerife player, Víctor Celso, scored as many. The 20-year-olds ‘26’ shirt has been a high seller on the island too. Now when you walk down any of the main strips in Tenerife you can see Ayoze shirts mixed in with those of Cristiano and Messi.
Sesé Rivero, head of the cantera at Tenerife, believes Ayoze to be one of the best he’s seen in his nine years at the club. “He’s a reference for every single young player coming through” Rivero stated, before continuing on perhaps his finest product: “Organised, disciplined and hardworking – it makes me proud because we see in him the hard work of many years.” The old adage goes that the players from the islands like to party a little too much, and work not enough. Ayoze however, has shown no signs of living up to such a tag, instead proving to be quite the consummate professional despite his tender years.
Each setback and critique he received has been taken on the chin, and each training session has been treat with a fresh approach. A loan back to his local team, San Andrés, played a key part in his formation, as he weighed in with almost 40 goals in his second season at Juvenil level. A return to Tenerife followed, before he was finally handed his full debut in December 2012. It wasn’t until summer 2013 Ayoze truly got a chance to shine, as he formed part of Tenerife’s pre-season squad. Coach Antonio Cervera couldn’t ignore him any longer, and recently stated the player to be “the best I’ve ever coached.”
There has been no looking back in the second half of the 2013/14 season, with Ayoze finding the quality and consistency many had demanded from him to justify the hype. He has time and time again taken opponents apart – often on his own. Combining blistering speed, ability to play vertically and fine close control, it has been difficult to keep your eyes on the agile figure. Ayoze’s shown a versatility in his play too, alternating through playmaker, winger, second striker and out-and-out striker roles. That he found the clinical touch in front of goal really was the final dimension however. His ability to play on the shoulder of the last defender and utilise that pace and devastatingly sharp movement has played a considerable part in those 16 goals.
Frustration exists in Tenerife however the player hasn’t had his deal renewed by the club, and still goes home at the end of the month with only 600 euros. Basically, what a part-time waiter in Spain is earning right now. It means his €2m release clause is within easy grasp for many clubs, and those that have followed him most closely are at the top end of the scale. FC Porto, Valencia, Arsenal and Manchester City have all had him tracked throughout the season, with the Portuguese outfit perhaps best positioned. Valencia insist they have first option on the player however, who could prove to be yet another Spanish bargain.
No matter where he ends up however, Ayoze will always be the boy who kicked the ball against the walls of the Santa Cruz apartment blocks on his way to school. The humility his coaches and fellow professionals speak of, suggests Ayoze may well believe he is still that boy too.
By David Cartlidge
This article originally appeared in In Bed with Maradona