x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Bojinov is breaking out for Parma

Marcotti's Man After an uncertain past, the striker is once again playing with boundless energy.

Valeri Bojinov, centre, seems to have found happiness at Parma.
Valeri Bojinov, centre, seems to have found happiness at Parma.

As soon as they could, they got out. Pepa Bojinova and her long-time companion, Sasho Angelov, had dreamed of this day from the moment the Iron Curtain fell. Both had travelled, she as a basketball player, he as a footballer, and both knew there was a better world out here. Not just for them, but for her son, Valeri Bojinov, as well. They scrimped and saved and, as soon as they could afford it, sorted out passage from their native Bulgaria the one country that would take them: Malta.

It brought blue skies, the Mediterranean, an island people who were at first somewhat closed, but soon warmed to the young family who had come to build a new life. Bojinov played his first organised football on the island, at Pieta Hotspurs. Within a year, word of this precocious 14-year-old who romped around the pitch like a baby bull reached Pantaleo Corvino, Lecce's transfer guru. Corvino arrived on the island in 2001 with a cashier's cheque of ?15,000 (Dh73,600) and returned with the wide-eyed Bojinov.

From that point, things happened so fast they became quite a blur. Bojinov dominated at youth level and in January 2002 was called up to make his first team debut, becoming the youngest foreign player to play in a Serie A match at the age of 15 years and 11 months. Corvino took him aside the next day and said: "Did you enjoy that? Do you want more? If so, work hard, study and you'll be back here by the time you turn 18."

With that, Bojinov returned to youth team and the tutelage of Don Damiano Madaro, the Catholic priest who looks after Lecce's youngsters. Corvino wanted to see him in action with the first team but, at the same time, he had promised that, after the debut, he would return him to his schoolwork.Bojinov aced his exams over the next 18 months. His marks were so good that he actually skipped a year. He, too, had kept his promise to Don Madiano who told him on an almost daily basis that he needed a fallback plan in case football did not work out. By that point though, Corvino realised Bojinov was ready. And so, a full year before he had anticipated, he launched him in the first team. The following year, he went on a goal spree, scoring 13 goals by mid-season and Fiorentina came knocking with ?15 million.

Lecce sold him - how couldn't they? It was 1,000 times what they had paid for him - and he was an instant hit for La Viola. A knee injury effectively ended his season in April. That summer, Fiorentina signed Luca Toni and, when he returned, Bojinov found playing time hard to come by. Frustrated and angry, he turned on the club, criticising the manager and the chairman. It was the kind of mistake you might expect from a 20-year-old, but Fiorentina took a hard line: he hardly played in the final few months of the 2005-06 season and, in July, was sent to Juventus in part-exchange for Adrian Mutu. Juve had just been relegated to Serie B in the wake of the Calciopoli scandal. He was just the kind of youngster they hoped to build their renaissance around.

But, again, he went down injured and, by the time he returned, the club's strikers were scoring freely (not that this was much of a surprise, David Trezeguet and Alessandro Del Piero were up front for the Bianconeri). Amid the disappointment, he still had his admirers. Sven-Goran Eriksson took him to Manchester City, shelling out ?8.5m. Misfortune struck again: in his third appearance, the Manchester derby no less, he tore up his knee.

This time he was out for a year. When he returned in August 2008 he went down yet again, this time injuring an Achilles' tendon in the pre-game warm-up against Aston Villa. He was out for six months. He returned late in the season and scored his only goal for City in late May, against Tottenham. At least his Premier League career would not end with a big duck in the goals scored column. With lots to prove, starting with his fitness, he went on loan to Parma. For the first time since his Lecce days, he found happiness.

Teaming up with another precocious talent, Alberto Paloschi, Bojinov has been scoring and playing well, with the kind of energy he showed nearly a decade ago, when he first made his debut. Like his mother in 1989, he too has to get out. But what he needs to get out of is not a physical space. He needs to escape from the misfortune which has followed him since that first knee injury at Fiorentina. Maybe he has loosened the shackles at Parma and he will soon be running free again.

sports@thenational.ae