At Club World Cup, Barcelona meet an old saviour in River Plate’s Javier Saviola

Andy Mitten recounts the rapid rise of Javier Saviola's star at Barcelona, and its equally rapid fade ahead of a last, chance encounter in the Club World Cup final.
River Plate and former Barcelona player Javier Saviola shown at training on Friday ahead of the Club World Cup final in Japan on Sunday. Yuya Shino / Reuters / December 18, 2015
River Plate and former Barcelona player Javier Saviola shown at training on Friday ahead of the Club World Cup final in Japan on Sunday. Yuya Shino / Reuters / December 18, 2015

Barcelona will come up against a familiar face when they meet River Plate in the Club World Club championship final on Sunday in Yokohama.

The Catalan club had the highest of hopes when they signed Argentinian Javier Saviola from River Plate in the summer of 2001 for a then club record transfer fee of €35 million (Dh139.7m).

Hailed as the next Diego Maradona, the 19-year-old had scored a goal every other game for River Plate since making his debut at 16.

Known as “The Rabbit” for his ability to pop up in the box and finish from close range, the diminutive forward was the 1999 South American player of the year, the youngest player to win Argentina’s golden boot and he’d been the star at the 2001 Under 20 World Cup, with a record 11 goals in seven games.

Real Madrid had signed Zinedine Zidane that summer, but Barca had Saviola and, not without a hint of desperation, their fans believed he was going to be the greatest player in the world in the summer of 2001.

Read more: Richard Jolly on why Cristiano Ronaldo is deserving of the Ballon d’Or

Saviola’s signing came against a backdrop of managerial and presidential dissent at Camp Nou and a departing Pep Guardiola.

Real Madrid had just won the Spanish title and were about to lift another European Cup under Vicente del Bosque.

Barcelona had finished 17 points behind in fourth and only qualified for European football with a stunning Rivaldo hat-trick in the final game of the season against Valencia – knocking them out of the Uefa Champions League positions in the process.

With Luis Enrique driving the team, Saviola played up front with Patrick Kluivert and did well in his first season, scoring 21 goals under Louis van Gaal.

Again, the Catalan side finished fourth and the expensive signings of Fabio Rochemback, Sonny Anderson, Giovanni and Philippe Christanval did not sufficiently impress, though they did reach the Champions League semi-final where they were defeated by Real Madrid. Saviola did enough and fans saw promise in his 46-goal striker partnership with Kluivert.

Ahead of the 2002 World Cup, he was seen as Argentina’s most marketable rising star and featured in a Nike advert in a game refereed by Eric Cantona alongside Ronaldo (and there was only one at that point), Ronaldinho, Luis Figo, Francesco Totti and Roberto Carlos. He was A list, but his game did not mature to stay with football’s most feted names.

That first season was the high point of his time at Barca.

When the Dutchman was dismissed, Saviola struggled the following season under Radomir Antic.

Changes of coach did not help and when Frank Rijkaard signed Ronaldinho, Saviola was loaned to Monaco in 2004, leaving a creditable record of scoring 21, 20 and 19 goals in three seasons.

The move would be the first of seven in a decade as he played for Monaco, Sevilla, Real Madrid, Benfica, Malaga, Olympiakos and Verona before his return to River Plate in 2015.

When he returned to Camp Nou with Madrid, he was considered a fringe player (five goals in 28 games over two years) and avoided any of the hostilities Luis Figo had experienced.

While at Madrid, he played the last of his 39 games (11 goals) for Argentina in 2007.

He never hit the heights first expected, but Barcelona was not as stable on the football side before Rijkaard.

Still, he has played almost 450 games in a professional career which has taken in the top divisions in five European leagues including the Primera Liga, Serie A and Ligue 1.

Saviola returned to River in June, joining a club who had become Argentine and South American champions for the first time in 16 years under coach and former player Marcello Gallardo and Uruguayan sporting director Enzo Francescoli.

Saviola is usually used as an option from the bench in River’s 4-4-2 formation. They beat Japanese side Sanfrecce Hiroshima by a single goal in Tuesday’s first semi-final, with Saviola staying on the bench.

Now 34, it would be a great – though improbable – end to a career if he could make an impact in the final against his former team.

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Published: December 19, 2015 04:00 AM


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