The making of Edinson Cavani
Posted on March 21st, 2012
Edinson Cavani was brought up to be hungry for more. As a boy playing for local club Nacional in his hometown of Salto in Uruguay, he was promised an ice cream if he scored the first and last goal in one of his team’s youth games. “We found a store 20m outside the ground,” he recalled to El País. “We went straight there with our parents. Me, I always got vanilla and dulce de leche.”
While it’s doubtful Cavani still indulges in the same post-match ritual, Chelsea will know ahead of their eagerly anticipated Champions League clash with Napoli that his appetite for finding the back of the net remains undiminished.
On Friday night, Cavani scored twice in an impressive 3-0 win away to Fiorentina. As he was substituted, he received the rare honor of a standing ovation from the home support at the Artemio Franchi. It meant a lot to a player who’d grown up admiring the “power, strength and speed” of Gabriel Batistuta.
He has become a figure of similar stature to Napoli. Yet rather than erect a statue in his name, a local pizzeria has made a calzone, the ‘Mozzarella Matador’, as a sign of their appreciation. Though grateful for the gesture, it isn’t to Cavani’s taste. “I’d like to thank them again for their creation,” he told La Gazzetta dello Sport. “But I prefer a lighter and simpler pizza.”
Cavani can of course have whatever he wants. Few places venerate footballers quite like Naples where shrines to Diego Maradona are still maintained.
In little over a season and a half, Cavani, an Athlete of Christ since his days at Danubio who wears the No 7 because it’s the “number of God” and christened his son Bautista because he likes biblical names, has converted everyone at San Paolo, even those who doubted he wasn’t The One for the club. Let’s not forget the resistance Napoli owner Aurelio De Laurentiis claims he faced from his board of directors on expressing an interest in signing Cavani from Palermo.
“I had already chosen him two years earlier,” he revealed. “But my more experienced colleagues said to me: ‘Really? Come on, Cavani isn’t good enough to play for Napoli’. Even though I’m a little stubborn I acquiesced out of respect and did nothing about it. Then two years later, I opened negotiations again and brought him to Naples. And it seems to me Cavani is doing rather well…”
Considering De Laurentiis’s reputation as a film producer not known for shirking the limelight, this, by his standards, was a relative understatement.
In his maiden campaign, Cavani broke Napoli’s single-season scoring record in Serie A, which had been held for 78 years by Antonio Vojak. He has found the net 55 times in just 77 appearances for the club, hit hat-tricks against Lazio, Juventus, Sampdoria and Milan, and is already among their top 10 goal scorers of all-time. His goal-to-game ratio is higher than any of them. It’s better than Careca’s and Maradona’s too. Cavani can genuinely lay claim to being the best striker Napoli have ever had in their history.
For that reason, De Laurentiis deserves credit for going with his gut instinct and believing in the player. Still, the people he listened to had justification for their reservations. There was never any doubt Cavani had talent, but he was called Botija for a reason. Botija means kid, but also refers to terracotta vase indicating a degree of physical fragility. And anyway, Cavani hadn’t given off the impression at Palermo that he’d ever be as prolific as he is now either. Played out wide, in deference to centre-forward Fabrizio Miccoli, Cavani registered a meager total of 37 goals in three seasons.
Throughout the spring of 2010, Inter were said to be seriously interested in acquiring his services, but they pulled out even after selling Mario Balotelli to Manchester City that summer. Only last month, following their elimination from the Coppa Italia after Cavani scored both goals in a 2-0 win for Napoli, their president Massimo Moratti ruefully mused: “There is always regret when a player you have followed for years does well.”
Hindsight of course can be as painful for some as it is pleasurable for others. But nothing in life is inevitable, though it does seem Cavani was always destined to become a footballer. Asked if he’d ever wanted to be an astronaut by Il Corriere della Sera he reminded the paper that his dad Luis made a career playing in Uruguay’s lower leagues and his first memory, aged three years old, was inside a dressing room.
“It’s in my blood,” Cavani said. “My father was a striker. He was one of those players who loved to be in the penalty area, but he also loved to sacrifice himself. He wasn’t a great player, but he made up for it with his commitment.” Cavani has inherited that work ethic: the grit and determination or garra that underpins Uruguayan football identity. Though he may look like a Botija, it’s “that desire, that athleticism,” which Napoli boss Walter Mazzarri believes distinguishes Cavani from other players.
He is not alone in holding that opinion. “Cavani is a striker, but he helps the team immensely,” Uruguay coach Oscar Washington Tabarez explains. “He is really altruistic. It was this kind of player that allowed us to play with three great strikers [at the World Cup and Copa America] without it penalizing us defensively.” Cavani doesn’t need telling to help his team out. “He tracks back to the full-back position, not just for show in front of his coach,” Carlo Ancelotti observed on Sky Italia. “He tracks back because he knows his team has need of him there.”
Given his tremendous efforts on the pitch for Napoli last season, Mazzarri was worried that he might be worn out, not least because he hasn’t had a summer off since 2009 due to his call ups to represent Uruguay at major tournaments. “More than the physical side of things, I was concerned for his psychological state,” he told Il Corriere dello Sport, “because for a striker, reflexes, freshness and instinct are vital.”
He needn’t have sweated over it. Cavani picked up exactly where he left off. His brace in Florence last week represented his 21st and 22nd goals of the campaign. El Matador, to paraphrase Ernest Hemingway’s book, continues to bring death not just in the afternoon but at night too. Chelsea are the next bull at the gate and as they prepare to enter the ring at San Paolo on Tuesday, they can expect to be given a runaround.
Once Cavani strikes, it’s nearly always fatal. The question is: can Chelsea escape unscathed?
This article first appeared on Fox Soccer