Edinson Cavani: The Master of His Own Destiny

by Ciaran Kelly

Even though he had previously sanctioned his sale from Sampdoria to Napoli in 2007, when the then newly-appointed Walter Mazzarri decided to sell Napoli’s hometown hero, Fabio Quagliarella, after just one season at the club following his club-record €18 million signing from Udinese, eyebrows across Europe were raised.

Despite the fact that Quagliarella was not the most potent goalscorer, scoring just 11 goals in 36 games for Napoli in 2008/2009, his dynamism, ‘rabbit out of the hat’ ability, work-rate and reliability when called upon by Marcello Lippi for the Azzurri made him one of Napoli’s prized assets. Remarkably, that is without even considering the fact that Napoli made an eventual, following an initial loan deal until the end of the season, €4 million loss in selling to Juventus in the summer of 2010. Also, when one considers that Quagliarella was replaced by a blunt Uruguayan who initially failed to consistently light up Serie A with Palermo, after finishing as top scorer at the South American Youth Championship in 2007, as an inside right forward, it seemed Mazzarri had made, at best, a risky move – regardless of Edinson Cavani’s signing initially being just a €5 million loan deal.

Eighteen months later, what has followed is nothing short of astonishing. The 25 year old Cavani, settling and thriving in a central striker position under Mazzarri, has finally given Neopolitans a worthy heir to the cult status and popularity of Diego Maradona. While the Cavani-Matador calzone pizza may pale in longevity in comparison to the ‘Holy Diego’ statues sold alongside those of the Virgin Mary or the surge in babies being called Diego after Napoli’s, and the South’s, first ever title win in 1986/1987, Cavani’s placid nature means that there is no chance of him bailing out on his contract a la Maradona, and risk his talent through substance abuse and despicable links with the Camorra mafia. So, therefore, Cavani, who of course has been undeniably aided by the service and unselfishness of Marek Hamšik and Ezequiel Lavezzi (have recorded 19 and 17 assists respectively in the eighteen months since Cavani’s arrival), could go on to have a more consistent and stable stint at Napoli, while still realistically unlikely to fire them to a Serie A title, or perhaps, could go on to do what Maradona could not achieve: a successful career post-Napoli.

Edinson Cavani was born in Salto, Uruguay’s second largest city, on 14 February, 1987. Coincidentally, Luis Suárez was born in the same city, just a month earlier in January, but given the city’s population (80,821 in the 1985 census) and Suárez moving to Montevideo, Uruguay’s capital city, at the age of seven in 1994, the pair did not become acquainted until they both played for Uruguay’s Under-20s in 2007. Growing up, Cavani’s footballing ability, encouraged by his hard-working parents who made sure that Cavani “always had food and clothing,” thrived in the urban surroundings and congestion of Salto. The fruits of the tight street pitches that Cavani played in as a child were later seen in his brilliant technique and mental strength (constantly played against older peers, who roughed him up), but, like Suárez, who joined Club Nacional, Cavani, too, moved to Montevideo after being scouted by Danubio.

Cavani did so at the age of 12 in 1999 and within two years of unofficial matches, signed his first official youth contract with Danubio, Montevideo’s most successful youth academy, who produced the likes of Álvaro Recoba and Diego Forlán in the years preceding Cavani. It was a tough decision for Cavani, with empty promises of new gyms being built specially if he stayed in Salto, but his father, Luis, who played football at an amateur level as a young man, saw through this and urged him to leave. Coincidentally, like Danubio’s prestigious alumni, Cavani, too, wore his hair past his ears, leading to the nickname of Jesus from his teammates over the years (augmented by Cavani’s devout Catholicism throughout his whole life), but his soon to be trademark knotty mane had more to do with his idolisation of Gabriel Batistuta.

Cavani’s love of Batistuta and following of the Italian league originated in the fact that Cavani’s grandparents, on his father’s side, emigrated to Marinello, some 140km from Florence and Batistuta’s Fiorentina, in Northern Italy and, somewhat fatefully, went on to work in Sicily. Their correspondence was partly what instigated Cavani’s dream of playing for a stable and top-level club in Europe one day. From this, Cavani made it his goal to try and better his brother, Walter, who was nine years older, and his achievements after the nomadic striker played across the world with, among others, the likes of Club Nacional (Uruguay), AC Ajaccio (France), Pachuca (Mexico), Peñarol (Uruguay), FC Inter (Azerbeijan), Club Guaraní (Paraguay) and Pelotas (Brazil). It did not take long for the first step, a professional debut with a top-level club, to occur: Cavani making the first professional appearance of his career for Danubio as an eighteen year old (Cavani’s physicality proving the draw, unlike gifted dribblers and wonderkids like Robinho ((18)) and Neymar ((17)) whose debuts drew media circuses elsewhere on the continent).

In Cavani’s debut season in 2005, he scored seven goals in fifteen matches and then went on to near-replicate this admirable conversion rate with five goals in fifteen matches as Danubio won the 2006 Apertura. Although it was tempting to stick around and try and help Danubio qualify for the 2007 Copa Libertadores, scouts were already circuling to watch the best of South America’s young footballing talent at the 2007 South American Youth Championship in Paraguay. Among those on show to thousands of European scouts were Arturo Vidal and Alexandre Pato, and it is no coincidence that their respective moves to Bayer Leverkusen and Milan were instigated by the tournament in January. The same fate would befell Cavani, who finished as the tournament’s top scorer with seven goals in nine games, as Uruguay finished 3rd but missed out on qualification for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. Milan, Cagliari, Boca Juniors, Real Madrid and Juventus were all interested but owing to his grandfather’s time in Sicily, Cavani plumped for the ambitious Palermo on 31 January.

After gaining match fitness and taking the vacant number seven shirt, Cavani was included in the squad for the 11 March match against Fiorentina by Francesco Guidolin. With the score at 0-1 and Palermo down to ten men, following Cristian Zaccardo’s dismissal, Cavani was brought on in the second-half and on 71’, picked up the ball on the right edge of the Fiorentina D from a poor headed clearance. With barely a second between when the ball was headed and when it reached the nearby Uruguyan, Cavani unleashed a perfectly-struck volley that was a near-carbon copy of Marco van Basten’s in the Euro ’88 final against the U.S.S.R – but for the fact he was not closed down. Still, it was an astonishing goal, barely minutes after he had come on, and was the perfect way for Cavani to introduce himself to Europe. Cavani went on to replicate the feat of a goal on his debut in his senior international debut against Colombia, a friendly, on 6 February at the Estadio Centanario, Montevideo. Coming on for Diego Forlán, Cavani netted a poacher’s effort on 78’ to lead a late fightback from 0-2 down.

However, Cavani’s time at Palermo never took off consistently: he had to battle with the favoured Fabrizio Miccoli and Amauri for a starting berth, but even when Amauri left for Juventus in 2008, Cavani was deployed, ineffectively, on the right of a forward three; and, incredibly, Cavani played for five (Guidolin, Stefano Colantuono, Davide Ballardini, Walter Zenga and Delio Rossi) different managers in his three-year spell and few of them seemed to rate the Uruguyan like Guidolin did. Yes, Cavani had a great 2008/2009, helping Palermo qualify for Europe for the first time, under Rossi but he was nowhere near as indispensible and popular to the Italian in comparison with the likes of Simon Kjær, Mattia Cassani, Federico Balzaretti, Antonio Nocerino and Miccoli. From this, Cavani’s placid nature, biding his time as an unnatural inside forward but generally failing to utilise his obvious physical and skilful hold-up qualities on the flank, ironically counted against him and despite signing a new five-year contract with Palermo in April 2010, Cavani was loaned to Napoli with a view to a permanent move in the summer of 2010.

With a record of 21 goals and 4 assists in 129 games (22% strike-rate) for Palermo, it seemed, bizarrely, to many that Napoli had acquired an incredibly unorthodox and ineffective luxury player. In tying up the deal before the World Cup, though, Napoli had pulled off a mini masterstroke as even though Cavani scored just one goal, in the 3-2 third-place playoff defeat to Germany, in six matches, he performed admirably and his great work-rate, teamwork and discipline on the right of a dream frontline alongside Suárez and Forlán was summed up in:

When one wears the Uruguayan national strip, inasmuch as its within my reach to do so, I’m willing to do whatever task is required.

As the central frontline figure, though, Cavani has exploded at Napoli and scored two goals, including a brilliant thunderbolt, on his debut against Elfsborg in a Europa League qualifier. He followed this up with a goal away to Fiorentina on 29 August, before a goal on his home debut against Bari on 12 September, and a fifth goal in four games was capped in the 2-1 victory over Sampdoria on 19 September.

Cavani continued to inspire in 2010/2011: coming on against Cesena on 60’ with Napoli losing 1-0, setting-up two goals and scoring another in a 4-1 fightback on 26 September; netting a pivotal winner in the 97’ against Steaua Bucharest, which meant that Napoli progressed into the knockout stage of the Europa League, on 10 December; and scoring three brilliant hat-tricks against Juventus (including, admittedly, an inadvertent scorpion kick) on 9 January, Sampdoria on 18 January and Lazio (Napoli were 2-0 and 3-2 down at separate points in the game) on 3 April. From this, Napoli were left with the possibility of catching Milan and winning their first Scudetto for fourteen years, but their challenge unravelled in the 26 May defeat to Lecce where Cavani was sent-off for a second booking for sarcastic applauding – which summed up his end of season frustrations, following his failure to score in seven of the final ten games of the season, and also meant that Cavani, ultimately, lost out to Antonio Di Natale in the race for the Italian Golden Shoe. Cavani’s achievement, though, was admirable and unprecedented for Napoli: his 26 league goals, 33 in all competitions, outrank both Maradona (won the Serie A Golden Boot with 15 in 1987/1988) and Antonio Vojak (22 in 1930/1931 was Napoli’s highest ever in an individual season) for the club’s unofficial Golden Boot .

After the glory of the Copa América,  Uruguay’s first tournament win for sixteen years, Cavani had started an astonishing 84 games out of the 93 possible for club and country from August, 2009 to July, 2011. Therefore, the knee injury, isolated from Chilean contact, he suffered in the group stage of the tournament against Chile was inevitable and symptomatic of the incredible workload and rise the then 24 year old had undertaken since moving to Italy. Cavani, though, has remained unperturbed and has continued his blistering form in 2011/2012: scoring 18 goals in 25 matches (a personal best 72% strike-rate) and providing inspirational performances against Milan (3-1) on 18 September and Manchester City (2-1) on 22 November. Still, while the world was waxing lyrical about Cavani and Napoli’s possibilities, the Uruguayan was typically calm, long-sighted and realistic after the Milan win:

I want to share this joy, this happiness, with the fans but now we must think about Wednesday, about Chievo {which Napoli went on to disappointly  lose 1-0}, a tricky away game. Was this win a sign for the rest of the league? Maybe, but it’s a long season.

However, it has not been all rosy for Cavani in Naples. Even though one in three men owns a firearm in Uruguay and Cavani read up on the life in the South before his moves to Palermo and Napoli, nothing could have prepared him or his team-mates for events in recent months. The Camorra are believed to have been behind a series of cynical and tactical burglaries: the houses of Cavani and his agent, Claudio Angellucci, were raided; Hamsik’s wife, Martina Franova, had her BMW car-jacked in November; and Ezequiel Lavezzi’s girlfriend, Yanina Screpente, had her Rolex seized in a mugging. The Camorra, like in the 1980s, want to ride on the back of Napoli’s success but have little interest in the club for the right reasons – having deserted Napoli when times got desperately tough as a bankrupt Serie C side in 2004. The Camorra ‘merely’ want a share in the club from Napoli’s owner, Aurelio De Laurentiis, in return for protection, but De Laurentiis is adamant, and evidently deluded, that Napoli will not let the threats and burglaries affect them:

Naples is no more violent that Milan or Rome, which I would call the real crime capital of Italy. I would like to tell her {Yanina Screpente} that during a recession, she shouldn’t go around with a Rolex on his wrist.

Having fathered his first child, a son, in March, 2011, the 25 year old Edinson Cavani may yet decide that the stability and metropolises of Paris, Manchester, London or Madrid may yet appeal to his family. After all, the Uruguyan has recently flirted with both the English and Spanish leagues, saying that he “liked that there were more tactical spaces” in Spain and that he “really liked” English football. Also, having had an uncharacteristic angry confrontation with Walter Mazzarri after the 3-1 defeat to Roma on 19 December, Cavani may yet see beyond Napoli and Italy to achieve his ambitions.

However, even with inevitable bids from PSG, Manchester City, Chelsea and Real Madrid, the love Cavani has received from Naples has been nothing short of remarkable and Arch Bishop Crescenzio Sepe’s belief that “God serves himself by having Cavani score goals” suggests that Cavani’s destiny may yet be fulfilled at Napoli: to match, or maybe even eclipse, Diego Maradona’s incredible legacy in Napoli’s history.

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