x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Ignacio Scocco's long path to Al Ain

After an explosive time playing in Greece, the Argentine midfielder is ready to help Al Ain get back to their best, writes Thomas Woods.

Ignacio Scocco was the first of a quartet of impressive summer signings by Al Ain, along with Asamoah Gyan, Mirel Radoi and Yasser Al Qahtani.
Ignacio Scocco was the first of a quartet of impressive summer signings by Al Ain, along with Asamoah Gyan, Mirel Radoi and Yasser Al Qahtani.
After an explosive time playing in Greece, the Argentine midfielder is ready to help Al Ain get back to their best, writes Thomas Woods

Ignacio Scocco emerged from the same Newell's Old Boys youth set up as Lionel Messi, Gabriel Batistuta and Maxi Rodriguez, among a plethora of other famous names from Argentine football.

Yet while most of those stars have made their way to Europe's biggest leagues, Scocco, a tricky attacking midfielder with a rocket of a shot, has followed a different path, to the UAE, via Greece and Mexico.

"Nacho" Scocco rose to prominence as part of the Newell's senior team that won the 2004 Apertura title, along with Ariel Ortega and Fernando Belluschi, his best friend. It was the last time the Rosario club won a trophy.

Ortega, best known for butting Edwin van der Sar, the Holland goalkeeper, at the 1998 World Cup, was in the twilight of his career, but the two young stars were just starting out.

Belluschi, who was best man at Scocco's wedding, moved to Argentine giants River Plate in 2005 and then to Europe in a US$6.5 million (Dh23.85m) transfer to Greek side Olympiakos. And Scocco, after three seasons at Mexican side Pumas, soon joined his friend in Greece with a move to AEK Athens.

His time in Greece was eventful. He netted several long-range goals (making him the subject of video tribute compilations on YouTube) and won the Greek Cup last season. But a low point came after a 6-0 defeat to Olympiakos in March (Belluschi had moved to Porto by then) which handed their rivals the title.

After the game, three gas canisters exploded outside Scocco's home in Athens, while he, his model wife Melissa Pochettino, and their newborn daughter Eva were all inside.

They were not injured and the club said the perpetrators, reported to be AEK fans, would be "eliminated forever from the AEK family".

Scocco signed a three-year, ?3.6 million (Dh 19.3m) contract with AEK last November that would have kept him at the club until 2013. However, he also had a ?3m buyout clause in the deal.

And when Al Ain came calling in the summer, the Argentine, now 26, jumped at the chance.

"Any player will gather all information of the club he is about to move to and I have done that before I signed for Al Ain," Scocco said. "They are one of the leading clubs in Asia and I am here to help them win trophies."

Scocco was the first piece in the jigsaw as Al Ain, the Pro League's most decorated club, set about rebuilding the side after their worst ever season.

The nine-time league champions and Asian Champions League winners in 2003 finished one place above the relegation zone after struggling for the entire season with injuries and the exodus of their foreign players.

Marcio Emerson, the Brazilian forward, left half way through his two-year contract. Jorge Valdivia, the Chile international, who was arguably the league's best player in 2009/10, left two weeks before the season began, and Jose Sand, the Argentine striker and the top scorer in 2009/10, followed midway through the campaign.

The club's previous administration were accused of not acting in time to replace their stars. They called up Juma Saeed, a 19-year-old Ivorian forward, from their youth team, on the last day of the transfer window.

Brahima Keita, an Ivorian midfielder who arrived from Kuwait's Al Qadsiya, suffered an injury in the very first game.

And two forwards - Elias Ribeiro of Brazil and the Romanian Valentin Badea - both signed in the mid-season transfer period, also had injuries and missed most of the campaign.

Following the brush with relegation, the entire administration was replaced by one headed by Sheikh Abdulla bin Mohammed bin Khalid. And they got to work immediately with Scocco being their first recruit.

He has been followed by Mirel Radoi, the Romanian international midfielder, and Yasser Al Qahtani, the 87-cap Saudi Arabian forward, who were both signed from the Saudi Arabian club Al Hilal.

Asamoah Gyan, the Ghana international, joined Al Ain in a high-profile one-year loan from the English Premier League club Sunderland.

It is a formidable quartet and Scocco, along with Gyan, 25, and Al Qahtani, 28, break the mould of foreign players who are more often that not over 30 when they arrive in the UAE. Radoi, too, has only just turned 30 and turned out for his country at Euro 2008.

Scocco's Al Ain career got off to a stuttering start - he suffered a leg injury in a pre-season friendly tournament.

He featured in the club's 2-1 defeat to Al Wahda in the Etisalat Cup and scored the opening goal in the 2-1 home win over Dubai, but then limped off in the 65th minute and missed the last game, a 1-1 away draw with Emirates.

Cosmin Olaroiu, Al Ain's Romanian coach, who joined the club two days after Scocco, is focusing on getting his midfielder fit for when the real action starts in two weeks' time with the kick off of the league season.

"The injury is not serious but we don't want to take any chances by playing him in the Etisalat Cup games," Olaroiu said. "We have given him enough time to recover fully because we want to preserve him for the season."

Helal Saeed, Scocco's Emirati teammate, thinks it will only be a matter of time before the Argentine hits top form and shows his class.

"Not all players can adapt to the hot conditions so early in the season," Saeed said. "We need to give him more time and I am sure he will be an important player for us when the league starts from the middle of this month.

"Everyone in the club is very happy of Scocco's signing. He is an excellent team player and we all know his outstanding skills and abilities. I am sure he will combine well with the rest of the team to be a part of a winning formula."


* Additional reporting by Amith Passela