x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Timing is everything

Marcotti's man Diego Perotti's emergence has been a gradual one, but the young Argentine winger has finally stepped out of his father's illustrious shadow.

Sevilla's Diego Perotti, right, had to take a step back in order to make rapid strides forward.
Sevilla's Diego Perotti, right, had to take a step back in order to make rapid strides forward.

Sometimes it's easy to forget that young footballers are children, not miniature versions of the real thing. And, equally, our sons and daughters are not scaled down replica versions of ourselves. Diego Perotti's father, Hugo, was a cult hero at Buenos Aires giants Boca Juniors. A ferocious, all-action striker, he was the exuberant force whom fans adored, as much for his passion and drive, as for his skill. Known as "El Mono" - the monkey - he took a young man by the name of Diego Maradona under his wing and, together with the legendary goalkeeper Hugo Gatti, led Boca to the 1981 Argentine title. Even though Perotti was born seven years later, he knew all about his dad's exploits, he had seen them on VHS and was determined to follow in his father's footsteps.

And so it was great pride when, at the age of 10, he joined the academy at Boca. It was an honour to tread the same pitches on which his father had made history. But not everybody saw it that way. Some of his coaches and teammates saw it as more of a responsibility, as something to live up to. They knew "El Mono" as a gritty, fearless centre forward, they wanted Perotti to be the same. Except they remembered "El Mono" in his late 20s, whereas his son, at the time, was barely a teenager. The pressure began to tell.

His first two years at the academy were tough. The insecurities boys that age live with every day began to affect him, as did the constant scrutiny. He felt as if whatever he did, his coaches were never happy. But the two seasons after that, things went from bad to worse. He was told he wasn't trying hard enough, he was not hungry enough, he was not strong enough. And, as a way of spurring him on, he was often forgotten on the bench. The ploy backfired. Young Diego grew more and more demoralised.

"I began to hate going to training," he recalls. "It's not that I didn't want to work hard or feared competition. It's just that every day became less and less fun. It felt like a job, which is fine if you are a professional, but I was 14 and I was not getting paid. My coaches weren't teachers, they did not care if I had issues or problems that any young kid would have. At that age, football must be fun. And I wasn't having any."

He hung in there fearing that he would disappoint his father. But one day he chose to simply quit and his father was supportive. "I had enough so I gave up football altogether," he says. "I spent a year as a normal kid, going to school, spending time with friends and family, reading. It was extremely refreshing and what I needed at the time." In short, he down-shifted. When he was ready, 12 months later, he returned to football, albeit in a very different context. "I figured I wanted to give it another shot, I wanted to play, but on my terms," he says.

"And I did not care at what level, I just wanted to give it a go." So he joined the second division side Deportivo Moron. After four years in the academy, he made his debut with a bang. At 18, he was arguably Deportivo Moron's best player as they lost the Apertura second division title in the last game of the season and then, came up short in the play-off in the Clausura six months later. By this point, Sevilla had him firmly in their sights and they signed him in the summer of 2007.

They figured it was best to bring him along slowly and they did, sending him to the feeder club, Sevilla Atletico. Again, Perotti hit the ground running, scoring five goals and playing a huge part in helping the side avoid relegation from the second division. He started the 2008-09 campaign with Sevilla Atletico, but was called up to the first team by February, establishing himself as an impact substitute.

His mesmerising twisting runs spread opposing defences, opening up space for striker Freddie Kanoute and Luis Fabiano and his creativity from wide areas quickly made him a fan favourite. The next leap came in pre-season, when he supplanted the home-grown starlet Diego Capel in the starting XI. It was a show faith from the manager Manolo Jimenez and one which he, thus far, has repaid handsomely. So much so that, last November, Maradona capped him for the very first time.

"At first, because my dad and Maradona are friends, it did not really sink in, I've known him since I was born," he says. "But then, it hit me. I don't know if I deserved the honour, but I know I will do everything I can to live up to it. And I think I can do it, because now I'm truly happy. Football is fun again. And I'm so lucky to have this be my job. If I had stayed at Boca, I'm fairly sure none of this would have happened."

Sometimes, to take a step forward, you first need to take a step back. sports@thenational.ae Mallorca v Sevilla, KO 1am on Sunday, Aljazeera Sport +2