x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

The all-rounder strikes back

Marcotti's man Lucho Gonzalez took the long road to footballing success before his talents were recognised at the top.

Lucho Gonzalez has shone wherever he has played, most recently at Marseilles.
Lucho Gonzalez has shone wherever he has played, most recently at Marseilles.

We live in an age of specialisation. We reward those who excel in a narrow field, rather than those who are merely good at many things. No Renaissance Man here, to shine you need your specialist area. Football is no different. Heck, that's why too many coaches insist that their youngsters work on their strengths, rather than their weaknesses.

And maybe that's why the big boys from River Plate and Boca Juniors were not particularly interested in one Lucho Gonzalez when he tried out for their academies. The kid just did not stand out. It was not just that he was scrawny, he was simply unremarkable. He could play a little, of course, but there was no upside, no sense of what he might turn into. No outstanding facet of skill which he could one day turn into his meal ticket.

And so everyone passed and he ended up at Huracan, which is a little bit like a young footballer on Merseyside signing for Tranmere: it's still a shot at professional football, but not quite the big time. Huracan's heyday was in the 1920s and by the time Lucho joined they were a yo-yo club. In fact, they were relegated the year he made his debut, in 1999. With the coffers permanently bare, they sold off whatever they could and pushed the kids, Lucho among them.

He was a mainstay in the side that won promotion straight away and soon established himself as one of the better midfielders in Argentina. Of course, that wasn't saying much. Most gifted Argentine footballers bolted elsewhere as soon as they could and the critics suggested he was just another dime-a-dozen player who scored goals and shone in an increasingly youth-driven uncompetitive league. Which may explain why most were somewhat surprised when River Plate did sign him, in late 2002. A squad player, surely? Think again.

Lucho seamlessly fit in at the next level too, helping River to two titles. He wasn't the star, not with the kind of teammates he had. Fernando Cavenaghi was the powerful goalscorer, Javier Mascherano the defensive specialist in the middle of the park, Marcelo Gallardo the veteran creator, Marcelo Salas the inspirational striker: Lucho was just "a guy" who did a bit of everything. Nevertheless, he was still appreciated enough to win his first caps for Argentina.

For you see, the specialists may be the ones who stand out, but the purists appreciate the all-rounders too. And so did Argentina boss Marcelo Bielsa. Particularly after he starred at the Olympic Football Tournament in 2004, which Argentina dominated: six games, six wins, 17 goals scored, none conceded. The headlines, again, went to others - Mascherano, Gabriel Heinze, Carlos Tevez, etc - but it was Lucho who was voted co-player of the tournament by his own teammates.

The European scouts were still somewhat unconvinced, which is why, when Porto came calling in the summer of 2005, they only bought 50 per cent of his "footballing rights": an Argentine investment fund held the rest. But it did not take him long to conquer Portugal. In his first season, Porto claimed the domestic treble, in his second he was named captain and, by that point, had gained the nickname of "El Comandante".

All told, his four seasons at the Estadio de Dragoes would yield four league titles, two domestic cups and a Portuguese Supercup. Along the way he began drawing interest from the likes of Valencia, Real Madrid and Manchester United, which is why, in the summer of 2007, Porto made sure they owned him outright, purchasing the other 50 per cent of his rights for ?6.65 million (Dh30.9m). Last summer, Didier Deschamps, newly installed as Marseille manager, made him the centrepiece of his club's transfer campaign.

He persuaded the club to part with ?18m - rising to ?24m - a phenomenal amount for a 28-year-old from the Portuguese league. It proved to be money well spent, as Lucho helped his new team to the French title and the French League Cup: Marseille's first silverware since 1992. "I had a top priority - it was Lucho," Deschamps said last Wednesday. "It wasn't easy for him [in the beginning], but he's a player who turns a good team into a great one."

Deschamps could not have summed him up any better. That's what all-rounders do. A little bit of everything, depending on what the team needs. They are the ultimate team players which is why, more often than not, they're winners. As Marseilles illustrated by winning the French league on Wednesday. Perhaps next time scouts go looking for the "outstanding", they would be better served in trying to simply identify the "complete".

sports@thenational.ae