It has been a remarkable four months for Carlos Tévez and Javier Mascherano. First the Argentines demonstrated outstanding ability playing for arguably the most attractive team at the World Cup, and then they were the subjects of the most unexpected and controversial transfer of the summer.
I first met them in an east London hotel, shortly after their move to West Ham. Kia Joorabchian, the Iranian-born businessman who brokered their transfer from Brazilian club Corinthians and is now involved in takeover talks with West Ham, had arrived a little earlier with two new mobile phones. “These are for Tévez and Mascherano,” someone explained. “They’re still using their Brazilian mobiles and paying about £5 a minute for their international calls.”
Tévez, known to everyone as “Carlitos”, first explained his choice of 32 for his West Ham shirt number. “I don’t know why – I like 23, 32 is similar. Twenty-three because of Michael Jordan [the legendary basketball player’s number] I suppose.”
David Beckham reportedly chose the number 23 at Real Madrid for the same reason. Tévez does not seem pleased by the comparison. “Carlitos is the anti-Beckham,” a companion comments.
This is not just because of rivalry between Argentina and England. Short, dark and stocky, his face crossed by scar tissue from a childhood burn, Tévez is the physical opposite of England’s former captain.
The 22-year-old striker is one of the most skilful players to have emerged from Argentina’s youth squads in recent years. At 14 he joined the national youth side and his first trip outside Argentina was to Wembley for an under-16 tournament where he scored a goal against England. “It was a scissor-kick,” he says with a huge grin. “My first goal for Argentina”.
Mascherano was selected for the same youth side soon after. Together, they have been part of a generation known in Argentina as “Pekerboys”, groomed by coach José Pekerman, which won a number of youth world cups.
Last summer in Germany, Pekerman managed them for the first time as adults on football’s elite stage. The team’s displays of intricate passing along the ground, together with an assortment of nutmegs, back-flicks and pirouettes delighted the world but was not enough
to get them beyond the quarter-finals.
Tévez shone because of his relentless determination, speed and skill, while Mascherano, also 22, appeared born to play the holding role in midfield.
“Overall, in spite of the result, I think we all feel confident we did our very best on the pitch,” says Mascherano. “We played well and also defended a style of play which is what we set out to do.”
Tévez made his name at Boca Juniors and Mascherano at River Plate, Argentina’s two biggest clubs. In South America it is not uncommon for private investors to partially fund the purchase of a player with a view to recouping the advance with profit on top when a further transfer is secured. This helps clubs strapped for cash to strengthen their squads.
Tévez and Mascherano were transferred in this way to Corinthians, which is controlled by Media Sports Investments, formerly headed by Joorabchian. This method is new to the Premiership but according to Joorabchian, “their move to West Ham can be described as a sort of European version of this”.
The transfer, by which it is believed West Ham get the players at a bargain price but will barely profit from their sale, prompted much media speculation, and the club prefer that it is not discussed by the players.
When asked if, as rumoured, they would not remain in east London too long before moving to a bigger club, Mascherano says only: “We are looking to be here for a long time. It’s not nice to play in one country one year, another the next and so on. Not just football wise, but for your family, for everything.”
Tévez nods and adds: “I completely agree.”
The next time we meet is before training on a rainy morning, and they discuss what they know best: the game they love.
West Ham have endured a disappointing start to the season, culminating in Thursday’s exit from the Uefa Cup at the hands of Italy’s Palermo, and the pair admit they are struggling to adapt to the faster pace of the Premiership.
Mascherano says of the game in England: “It requires a lot of people attacking, a lot of players up front. And then, when the move is over, get back really quickly to defend. I think it’s a lovely game, really dynamic. End to end. But it’s fast!”
Tévez, who is a master of passing, one-twos and gambetas – an Argentine expression for dribbling and close control in order to beat your opponent – is still trying to come to terms with the long passes being hoofed up to him that characterise the English game.
They conclude that England’s wet pitches speed the game up and mean the ball spends more time in the air. But both feel confident that, given time, they will adapt.
Then manager Alan Pardew sticks his head round the door: “One more minute! They’ve got to train,” he says.
The duo giggle and get up immediately. Whatever cultural and language barriers they may be facing, they understand who is the boss.
As I leave the training ground, Tévez dribbles past one, two, three and a fourth team-mate in a serpentine run across the soaking pitch. Pardew can be heard shouting: “Bravo, Carlitos!”
How the manager must be hoping the pair soon show such form in the Premiership – and preferably tomorrow at Upton Park against Reading.