Of all the reasons to like a footballer or to wish them every future success, “because he’s really unlucky” is one of the more unusual. We normally like a player because they’re a star for our club or because we admire their style of play, but sometimes allegiances and preferences are secondary. Sometimes a player has a backstory so compelling that everything else fades into the background.
There are some that have been through so much that it’s hard not to feel that they deserve success – that for them to experience anything other than endless glory would be a cosmic injustice. Atlético Madrid’s new signing Ángel Correa is one such player.
In 2013, Correa emerged as one of the most exciting youngsters in the Argentine Primera División. That statement doesn’t carry the same weight it once did, but the then eighteen year-old’s performances for eventual champions San Lorenzo were so impressive that he was almost immediately linked with the likes of Barcelona, Manchester City and Arsenal.
Lazily billed as ‘the new Agüero’, Correa has little in common with the Manchester City striker besides nationality and a stocky build. Correa is a two-footed, persistent and wonderfully creative second striker with an innate awareness of space and a keen eye for a killer pass. He’s an assister rather than a finisher, though his shooting is far from shabby. Of all the aspects of his game, the most striking is his maturity on the ball: watching him lead opponents on a merry dance across the huge Nuevo Gasómetro pitch, it was hard to believe he was a boy playing against men.
What makes him particularly suited to Diego Simeone’s Atlético is that he’s as effective without the ball as he is when it’s at his feet. Like the majority of Argentines, Correa has been shaped by the post-Bilardo doctrine that every player must sacrifice everything to stop the opponents winning. No-one can leave the pitch with any dignity unless he has run himself into the ground, fighting for every ball as if it were the last. He should cope with Simeone’s famously demanding training sessions pretty easily.
The first time Correa caught my attention was during a San Lorenzo home game against Boca Juniors in November 2013. For the uninitiated, San Lorenzo vs Boca is a Buenos Aires derby and Buenos Aires derbies are not fun matches to play in or to watch. The rivalries are intense and the pressure to perform is off the scale. It’s not unheard of for groups of fans to show up at players’ houses after defeats threatening to do serious damage unless results improve.
Put simply, these are not the games in which to play pretty football: you keep things simple, get the job done and go home. At least, that’s what you normally do. The first thing I saw that day was a baby-faced kid taking the ball on the halfway line, backheeling it between his marker’s legs and spinning in behind him to dribble down the pitch. It was a magnificent piece of improvisation and one that ensured Correa had my undivided attention for the rest of the match.
He played brilliantly, scoring the game’s only goal and propelling San Lorenzo towards the title that put them on the road to their first ever Copa Libertadores triumph in August, which in turn has taken them to Saturday’s Club World Cup final against Real Madrid. It’s a shame that Correa won’t be there to help his old teammates against Carlo Ancelotti’s Galácticos, but the economic reality of contemporary South American football meant he had little choice but to leave.
Atlético finally completed the signing of Correa last week after he successfully recovered from surgery on a heart tumour that was discovered during his medical. Of course, the detection of the tumour was a massive shock, but it wasn’t exactly a surprise. Bizarre as it may sound, it would probably have been an even bigger surprise had a serious problem not been found during his medical.
What makes Correa’s story especially compelling is that it isn’t just a tale of extraordinary talent rising to the top of the game. It’s also one of a nice, normal kid overcoming every kind of conceivable adversity. Despite everything he has achieved, he has a legitimate claim to being the world’s unluckiest footballer.
The first twelve years of Ángel Correa’s life were spent in a slum outside Rosario. Conditions were miserable and his family had next to nothing. Correa’s father died when he was ten and his older brother passed away shortly after he left for San Lorenzo aged twelve. Unsurprisingly, the losses hit him hard.
At the same time, Correa found it difficult to adapt to his new life in Buenos Aires. He is to this day painfully shy – former teammate Pipi Romagnoli described him as “almost mute” – and he found it tough to fit in with the other kids and dedicate himself to becoming a footballer.
He made the occasional trip back to Rosario just to keep on an even keel, even though his home contained reminders of what he had lost wherever he looked. He says the love shown by his San Lorenzo teammates – whom he says became more like brothers – was what helped him through the most difficult period of his life and spurred him on to succeed.
“More than anything I think of my dad,” he told Olé in 2013. “The day I got [my first] goal was just after his birthday. He died when I was ten. I remember him and my brother, all the things that I’ve been through.”
Even as his career took off, Lady Luck continued doing her utmost to knock him down. In January 2014, just after he had won his first professional title, his step-father passed away. At the start of June, days after San Lorenzo agreed a deal for his transfer with Atlético, the tumour on his heart was discovered. In an instant, Correa went from thinking about the move of his life to fighting to save his career.
“For me, it was the worst injury a footballer can have. I had to start again from zero,” he said during his first interview as an Atlético player. “It was really strange because I felt 100% when I was playing in Argentina and I came to Madrid and they found that. Luckily, the operation went well.” Given everything that’s happened to Correa in his short life, ‘luckily’ is perhaps the least appropriate word he can use.
Finally, however, it seems like he’s out of the woods and at the perfect club to take his talents to the next level. It would be unfair to expect anything from him at this stage – he’s still just a teenager with a year’s professional experience under his belt – but it’s impossible not to wish him all the best. Goodness knows the kid deserves it.
By Rob Brown
This article originally appeared in In Bed with Maradona