Bad is the new good. Bad is a state of mind and your ticket to survival. Ever Banega knows "bad". He understands it, he lives it. How could he not? Growing up in the Barrio Saladino, one of the toughest neighbourhoods in Rosario, Argentina, it was never far away. He played football with guys who taped knives inside their shorts "just in case" and others with wads of cash stuffed into their socks.
That was not what made him bad. But that is what helped him embrace "badness", turning it into his own personal weapon, albeit a double-edged one. The scouts at Boca Juniors loved the edge he brought to everything. "Banega is a nastier version of Rino Gattuso with the touch and vision of Andrea Pirlo," his president Mauricio Macri said, shortly after Banega made his debut at the age of 18. At the time, Macri was trying to sound out potential interest among Serie A clubs: some scoffed at his assessment. Banega made them eat their words.
In his debut season, he went straight into the first team, taking over the reins of the midfield and providing the steel and muscle to balance out the genius of the returning hero, Juan Roman Riquelme. Boca finished second in the Clausura championship, but ended the season on a high, winning the Copa Libertadores. But Banega was not done. A week later he was in Canada, drafted into the Argentina Under 20 World Cup squad.
He lined up alongside the likes of Sergio Romero, Federico Fazio, Sergio Aguero and Angel Di Maria, all of whom have since won full international caps, just like him. Argentina soared through the tournament and, while the headlines belonged to Aguero, many saw Banega as the man who held it all together. By this point, he was one of the hottest commodities in South America. Boca knew they could not keep him for long, but he promised he would stick around long enough to lead the side out at the World Club Championships in Tokyo later that year.
After all, few players his age combined quality and quantity the way he did. The only blemish? Bookings. Banega collected 13 yellow cards in his 27 outings for Boca. Way too many. "If he keeps getting booked, he'll get suspended and, if he's not playing, he's of no use to us," said Macri. It was meant as a warning but, evidently, the message did not get through. In October 2007, in the derby against River Plate, he was sent off for two nasty challenges in the first half.
Later that night, he was seen out clubbing in Buenos Aires. Boca were furious and demanded that he apologise to his teammates. "They can forget about an apology. This is who I am, this is what I do, if they don't like it, they can sell me," Banega said. He was banished to the youth team for a week before being called back. "I'm not here to educate Mr Banega, I'm here to run a football club," Macri said.
That January, he moved to Valencia for US$22 million (Dh80.8m). Things did not get off on the right foot (a compromising video, allegedly featuring Banega, surfaced on the web) and they soon went from bad to worse. The Primera Liga was a culture shock. He lasted 90 minutes just three times in the second half of the 2007-08 season. Valencia knew they had something special on their hands, but he needed a change of scenery to avoid the risk of burn-out.
So he was loaned to Atletico Madrid. Again, after a promising beginning, the wheels came off. He made just five league starts. The steel was still there, but with it was an undisciplined streak which rendered his efforts vain. The "bad" was showing all its ugliness, and Atletico sent him back in the summer. Cash-strapped Valencia tried to sell him, but found no takers at an acceptable price. And so they were stuck with him, for better or worse.
But then something strange happened. He flourished in his second tour of duty at the Mestalla. Maybe it was the realisation that it was time to put his career back on track. Maybe it was new manager Unai Emery. Maybe it was the fact that he learned to finally harness the "bad", just as he had done at Boca. Whatever the case may be, Banega has been one of the brightest central midfielders in the Primera Liga this year.
He is enjoying his football, he is creating for teammates and giving opponents nightmares. He is not quite Gattuso and Pirlo rolled into one, but he is not that far off. And he is still just 21-years-old. Maybe all that bad produced a heck of a lot of good after all. Athletic Bilbao v Valencia, midnight tomorrow, Aljazeera Sport +2