The Still Point
Can a player like Javier Pastore make it at a club like Paris St-Germain?
It was, for a few seconds, the epitome of pastorisme. Stuck near the left corner of the pitch in the middle of three Chelsea players, the leggy Argentinian managed to keep control of the ball, wait until César Azpilicueta fell to avoid him on the goal-line, brush off Frank Lampard and finally devastate Petr Cech by sneaking the ball in from an impossibly tight angle.
During the press conference held just after the match, Laurent Blanc, the Paris St-Germain manager, said of the golazo scored by his part-time playmaker, “It’s talent, pure talent only.” Watching the game on television, Leonardo, the former director of football of the Parisian club, said a few days later in Le Parisien, “I cried when I saw it.” Javier Pastore’s third Paris St-Germain goal was a hit on YouTube, but it ended up counting for nothing. Six days later, Demba Ba’s 85th-minute goal gave Chelsea their ticket to the Champions League semi-finals. Compared to Pastore’s tightrope walk, the Senegalese striker’s goal was barely more elegant than a sea lion struggling to balance a ball on its nose. But Ba’s goal was the crucial one. And José Mourinho’s manic run to join his players’ celebration showed that style rarely matters in the time of money. Useless and awesome: these are the words used by commentators to describe Pastore’s football. But since he joined Paris St-Germain in June 2011, the Córdoba-born footballer has been mostly seen as useless or awesome, rarely both. It is an unusual kind of artist who so divides opinion.
On the one hand are the pastoristas, who celebrate a great misunderstood genius, and on the other hand are the pastorephobics who lament an annoying, nonchalant, overpriced aesthete, poorly adjusted to competitive football. As Leonardo recalled while trying to defend the player, he was the first to believe in the Paris “project”. When he signed, the new Qatari owners had little to offer except money to make up for the lack of trophies, history and results. Since then, Pastore and the €42 million paid to Palermo have remained as the symbol of the indecent money injected into the club to help it become “one of the biggest sports brands in the world” and helped the process of putting a small Arab emirate on the global sporting map. The fact that Paris St-Germain have since spent much more money to purchase Thiago Silva, Edinson Cavani and Lucas Moura doesn’t really matter: Pastore, and Pastore only, seems to carry the burden of the original sin.
Lucho Gonzales, the former Marseille midfielder who experienced the same public criticism in France, expressed in So Foot magazine in 2012 the essence of this sentiment. “Me and Javier, we are the kind of players that don’t exist without the others. In France, when a player arrives in Ligue 1, everybody puts pressure on him, especially if the club has spent a lot of money like they did for me or Javier. I can’t judge if Pastore was worth 40 or 45 million, but it was the price asked by Palermo’s president and the price accepted by Paris’s president. Basta! With all that money, some people expected Pastore to get the ball, pass four or five opponents and score. That’s the problem in France.” Now mostly used as a late option when Paris St-Germain are not easily crushing their Ligue 1 opponents, Pastore seems to be satisfied with a cameo role in the egocentric shadow of Zlatan Ibrahimović. He told France Football, “I still feel important here,” a few days after the Champions League first leg against Chelsea. Maybe it was because Laurent Blanc never lost faith in him. Even last autumn, after a series of disastrous performances in Ligue 1 that were marked by vociferous roars of disappointment from the Parc des Princes terraces, the coach protected him from the public and allowed him go back to Argentina for a week to rebuild his confidence among his family. “He does amazing things in training,” said the manager at around the same time, trying to support him and keep him afloat. After that, although he never stopped praising Pastore’s talent, he publicly asked for more consistency. That is a word that doesn’t seem to be part of Pastore’s football vocabulary: he is a player capable of misplacing a 20-yard lateral pass one moment and then bursting through a double curtain of defenders the next.
On the pitch, ‘El Flaco’ – ‘the skinny one’, as the Argentinians nicknamed him – often looks like Bambi on the frozen lake; a mix of fragility and clumsiness that could turn at any moment into pure grace and smooth fluidity. For dedicated pastoristas, he’s more than a player. He’s not far from being a philosophical concept, a footballing ideal or image of what football should stand for, one of those rare players able to remind you what football meant to you when you were young. Between lovers and haters, the stylistic rift goes even beyond football and “my type of player is” statements. It’s a theoretical quarrel that encapsulate his ups and downs, the player he is and the player he could be. If he was playing basketball, he would probably be labelled with polite contempt as a ‘playground’ point guard: a show-off with poor statistics.
Pastore never planned on writing his name on top of the mathematics columns of football: his influence just cannot be translated into numbers of goals or assists. Or as the experienced French coach Claude Le Roy put it, “The important pass is not the assist, it’s the one just before.” Pastore is the player of the one before. He’s the player who gives the ball that allows the assist. Characteristically, the only goal he has scored for the Argentina national team counted for nothing as it was against Catalunya at the Camp Nou in December 2010, in an unofficial fixture not recognised by Fifa.
At 24, he’s one of the most elegant creators in the world, but there was little chance of him making the 2014 World Cup. Diego Maradona, perhaps unsurprisingly, was more appreciative of his allure than was his successor, Alejandro Sabella, who never selected him. He admitted in the French sports daily L’Equipe that “Javier is a playmaker with huge talent. But we play with a particular system and Javier has a different profile than the players we have.” Sabella didn’t have to remind us that, with players such as Lionel Messi, Kun Agüero, Gonzalo Higuaín, Ezequiel Lavezzi and Ángel Di María, he is not short of offensive talent. The problem with Pastore is the classic one of how and where to use players who can’t be trusted in a system based on zonal discipline, if you have neither the guts nor the inclination to build the system around them. Ángel Cappa was the first and maybe the only one to ‘understand’ Pastore. The experienced Argentinian coach led Huracán to second place in the clausura in 2009. His first decision was to take an 18-year-old Pastore off the bench and put him in charge of the dazzling football he was looking to produce. In a joint interview given with the player to So Foot magazine in December 2011, Cappa cleared up the conundrum Pastore has been since he arrived in Paris. “Javier needs more freedom,” he said. “He needs to be able to go where he wants to go. He’s the kind of player who knows exactly how to position himself on the pitch. In a way, he can’t be confined into a specific zone. He has a sharp consciousness of what’s happening on the pitch: very few players have it. Xavi and Andrès Iniesta have it. If Javier had more freedom, he would be the same kind of player.”
Pastore’s role models when he was a youth-team player were Kaká and Juan Román Riquelme. In Paris, he looks like the underrated player that Riquelme was at Barcelona under Louis van Gaal. Too slow, too soft, too stylish? “When the Spanish club bought Riquelme, I didn’t understand,” Cappa said, “They took him for his qualities and the first thing they told him was that he had to stop being Riquelme, he had to play differently. Javier will play wherever his coach asks him to play but nobody will change the way he plays. It’s like asking him to become short and blond.”