From Alfredo ‘The Blond Arrow’ Di Stefano on the bench to Mario ‘The Bullfighter’ Kempes and Claudio ‘The Louse’ Lopez on the pitch, Valencia have always looked to Argentina for inspiration.
Now another Argentinian icon reckons Pablo ‘The Little Clown’ Aimar is ready to follow in his countrymen’s illustrious footsteps. And he’s not talking about the silly nickname.
‘Pablo is the only current footballer I’d pay to watch,’ says Diego Maradona of the former River Plate prodigy. ‘He’s been the best player in Argentina over the last couple of years and is even more talented than Riquelme or Saviola. He’s an adorable kid, too. The Valencia fans will idolise him.’
Rare praise indeed from a Boca Juniors fanatic.
‘It was a wrench leaving River,’ says Aimar, who at 1.70m and 62kg is in danger of getting sand kicked in his face if he ventures out to Valencia’s beaches, ‘but some all-time great Argentinians have played here and I had extraordinary references about the current set-up from Kily (Gonzalez) and Roberto Ayala.
‘I just hope things go as well for me as they did for Kempes and Piojo (Claudio Lopez).’
An abundance of panache in a slender body has provoked talk of the new Johan Cruyff. Hector Cuper is happy to get the first Pablo Aimar.
‘Pablo is a fabulously gifted player,’ says Valencia’s coach, ‘but don’t compare him with anybody else; he’s already too good for that. Whether playing off a striker or pulling the attacking strings behind theforward line, he has the talent to unsettle the best defences in the world.’
Despite those words of praise, Cuper is keen to play down unrealistic expectations. ‘Nobody should judge Pablo by his first few games; he’s not our saviour this season but a Valencia player for years.’
Naturally, the club’s œ13million investment in the 21-year-old is a long-term one, but Aimar’s impact needs to be of the here and now nature.
The Ches’ defence is of the take-no-prisoners variety. Unfortunately, their forward line boasts the flexibility of a chain gang. Despite his lack of match fitness, Aimar looked Valencia’s most dangerous player in the Champions League games against Manchester United. If he recovers from a groin strain he will relish the chance to run at Arsenal’s ageing defence in the Champions League quarter-finals.
Three days after his European debut against United, Aimar made his League bow at Las Palmas. Less than 10 minutes after appearing as a substitute he sealed Valencia’s 2-0 victory with a cheeky free-kick.
Despite that out-of-the-blocks impact, he has probably arrived too late to get the Ches back in the title race. And looking further forward, he needs more perceptive foils than John Carew, Juan Sanchez or Diego Alonso to take advantage of his subtle promptings.
If only the lightning-fast Piojo Lopez was still on Valencia’s books.
Despite hisphysical limitations, Aimar was always the boy-most-likely. His father Ricardo played for Newell’s Old Boys and Belgrano. His middle name – Cesar – is a tribute to Cesar Luis Menotti, who led Argentina to World Cup glory in 1978. The man who lifted that trophy, Daniel Passarella, was his early mentor at River Plate.
When River legend Enzo Francescoli retired in 1998 Aimar inherited the revered No 10 shirt from his idol. Francescoli’s European career never lived up to his achievements in Buenos Aires. Another River Plate No 10, Ariel Ortega, is proof that not everything Argentinian thrives in Valencia.
Aimar’s humble attitude is a good starting point. ‘I still haven’t proved a thing,’ he insists, ‘I don’t want people to look at me and say: ‘He never realised his potential.”
On the wider stage he’ll need to be patient too. With the likes of Juan Sebastian Veron, Diego Simeone and Marcelo Gallardo in poll position, Aimar’s Argentina career has been limited to late cameos so far.
The level head should help. On the violence that plagues Argentinian football, Aimar says: ‘Every day there are more and more things I dislike about the world of football. It’s far too turbulent.’
On the fruits of fame, he admits: ‘If I wasn’t a footballer, girls wouldn’t give me the time of day!’
And on being worth œ13m? ‘Don’t talk to me about money,’ he says, ‘to my family and friends I’m worth far more than œ13m.’ If he lives up to his vast potential, Valencia will second that emotion.
Club Valencia (Spa)
Born November 3, 1979, Rio Cuarto (Cordoba)
Previous club River Plate
International debut June 2000, v Bolivia
Honours World Youth Championship 1997; Argentinian opening championship 1999; closing championship 2000; Argentinian Footballer of the Year 2000