Third Time Lucky
Carlos Tévez, his return from China and the struggle to win over the Boca fans again
What part does luck play in the career of a sporting idol? How much is about intuition and how much about opportunity? On the final day of the 2020 Argentinian Superliga season, River Plate could only draw with Atlético Tucumán, a result that meant Boca Juniors would take the title if they could beat Gimnasia y Esgrima la Plata. With 18 minutes remaining the match was level, but then Carlos Tévez shot from range, the ball folded back the hands of Jorge Broun, the Gimnasia keeper, and found its way into the net. There was a strange sense of everything returning to a familiar course.
Tévez turned 36 on February 5. He had returned to Boca for a third stint in 2018. The memories of his great youth, when he helped the club to the Copa Libertadores and Intercontinental in 2003 and the Copa Sudamericana in 2004, remained but the unconditional love that used to characterise their relationship had gone. When he had first returned, in July 2015, 60,000 had turned out at la Bombonera to celebrate his unveiling, but by early 2020 he would generate merely polite applause when he was substituted, yet again, midway through the second half of games.
The feeling among Boca fans was that at 31, when he could have continued in European football, Tévez had left everything to return home. He immediately helped Boca to a league and cup double, which not only aided the reelection of the club’s president, Daniel Angelici, in December, but helped deflect attention from the disgrace the following May when Boca were expelled from the Libertadores after pepper spray was fired at River players as they emerged at half-time of a last-16 superclásico. For a returning idol, conditions couldn’t have been more perfect: even that unveiling was broadcast live on Fox on a night when no football was being played.
Tévez made his debut on 21 October 2001, at the age of 17, against Talleres in the city of Córdoba. His difficult personal history was already well-known and reflected in his nickname ‘Apache’, which referred to the area of Buenos Aires where he had grown up: Fuerte Apache, a villa notorious for its drug gangs and violence. When he had come through at All Boys, he had gone by the surname of his biological parents – Carlos Martínez – but when signing for Boca as a 13-year-old he changed to Tévez, after his maternal aunt who had brought him up.
He made his breakthrough at an auspicious time. Boca were coached by Carlos Bianchi, the most successful coach in the club’s history. They had just beaten Real Madrid in the Intercontinental Cup and had a hugely talented core. Tévez became a star for his devilish dribbling and his offensive talent and was named South American Player of the Year in 2003, 2004 and 2005 in the vote organised by the Uruguayan newspaper El País.
There was controversy, and lots of it. In 2004, in the fabled Copa Libertadores semi-final second leg at el Monumental, he celebrated a vital goal against River by flapping his arms like a chicken, in reference to the gallinas nickname they acquired by repeatedly squandering good positions in big games. He was sent off and so missed both legs of the final, in which Boca lost on penalties to Once Caldas of Colombia. When the Argentinian Football Association threatened to prevent him playing against Milan in the Intercontinental Cup because it clashed with the Under-20 World Cup, he chanted against the Argentina national team in the dressing room. But largely, Bianchi was able to control him, at one point even leaving Tévez out of the side for several weeks until he had lost the weight he had gained over the holidays.
But all good players leave Argentina eventually and at the end of 2004, by which time Mauricio Macri had become president of Boca, the club received an offer of US$19.5m from Corinthians in Brazil. They were run by the investment fund Media Sports Investments (MSI), controlled by the Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky.
Operating as an intermediary in the transfer was an association of the powerful agents Fernando Hidalgo, Gustavo Arribas – a personal friend of Macri and, after he became president of Argentina, his head of intelligence – and the Israeli Pini Zahavi (HAZ).
Months later, MSI, who were based in the tax haven of the British Virgin Islands would be investigated by the São Paulo prosecutors office on suspicion of money-laundering, particularly relating to the transfer of Tévez and Javier Mascherano from Corinthians to West Ham United.
When the move to Corinthians was finalised, Macri’s main opponent at Boca, Roberto Digón, said he was “convinced” that Macri was behind HAZ and that he would take a cut from the deal. Macri himself maintained that he had believed Tévez would not leave until Boca’s 2005 Copa Libertadores campaign was over, given that it was the centenary of the club’s foundation but that the forward had been overwhelmed by an explosion of publicity after his Olympic gold in 2004, particularly given the economic circumstances in Argentina following the crash in 2001.
Tévez’s return in 2015 was also useful for Macri’s purposes. His huge popular appeal helped Macri’s man Angelici win Boca’s presidential election and then helped Macri become president of Argentina. Boca’s board, of course, stressed that Tévez had arrived of his own volition to play for his former club and that his transfer was essentially free. Opposition within the club calculated the cost of the transfer at US$14m – $5m for his contract, plus various slices of the players Guido Vadalá, Rodrigo Bentancur, Franco Cristaldo and Andrés Cubas.
At first at least, few Boca fans cared about the figures as they won the apertura and the Copa Argentina. But the following year things began to go wrong. Boca lost 4-0 to San Lorenzo in the Argentinian Super Cup, leading to the coach Rodolfo Arruabarrena being replaced by another club idol, Guillermo Barros Schelotto. Despite having played up front with Tévez, he did not gel with the squad and although Boca reached the semi-final of the Libertadores, they were eliminated by the humble Independiente del Valle of Ecuador.
It was clear that Tévez, in his 33rd year, was not the same player he had been when he left Argentina at 20. He was not only a different player, with reduced physical endurance, but he was also involved in numerous businesses, was worth a fortune, kept being invited onto television, played a lot of golf and had political contacts at the highest level.
In mid-2016, an offer came from Shanghai Shenhua: €40m a year for two seasons. That created a great dilemma: was it worth leaving the club of his heart, to which he had supposedly returned out of love? Wouldn’t that mean throwing away his popularity among Boca fans, who had celebrated his return 18 months earlier?
Wouldn’t this just reawaken all the old controversies? His frustration at a lack of starts under Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United? Refusing to come off the bench at Manchester City? Only reluctantly agreeing to play for Sergio Batista at the 2011 Copa América, playing in a sulk and missing the decisive penalty against Uruguay in the quarter-final shoot-out? Being omitted from the 2014 World Cup squad because Lionel Messi, Sergio Agüero, Javier Mascherano and others persuaded Alejandro Sabella that he would be a disruptive influence?
Barros Schelotto tried to convince him to stay, but Tévez went to China. He increased his demands – even insisting that he be allowed to take his friends along with his family – and the club accepted them. He knew his career at the highest level was coming to an end, and he knew he was sacrificing his status as an idol at Boca.
The move generated enormous interest. Argentinian television, for the first time, began broadcasting Chinese league games. But it did not go well. He played poorly,scored only four goals and soon realised he had made a terrible mistake.
“I regret how I went to China, not that I left,” Tévez said. “The reason was more than clear. We had won all the important matches with Boca, I needed to clear my head and in 2017 we wouldn’t play in the Copa Libertadores because we hadn’t qualified and I thought of going away for a year to rest my head – that’s how I felt.”
Later he was even more self-critical: “I regret having gone to China. It was one of the worst decisions I made in my career. I regretted it from the first day, but it was too late.”
In 2018, by then 35, Tévez decided to return to Boca, although the relationship with Barros Schelotto was broken. “Everyone knows that Guillermo and I did not get along well,” Tévez said. He hated being on the bench, while fans had come to see him as a mercenary.
“I think what broke my relationship with Barros Schelotto was when he found out from the press that I was going to China,” said Tévez. “When I returned, the deal was different. Anyway, he did not disappoint me. It wasn’t his fault. I was wrong. I should have talked to him directly.”
If he could understand Barros Schelotto, he understood the fans much more. “I thought it made no difference whether I talked to people or not about going because they were going to be angry either way,” he said. “But in China it didn’t go well either. And it was noticed that it was bad there because it is no coincidence that I have suffered muscle tears four times in a year.” ???
If that wasn’t enough, a historical event occurred. In 2018, for the first time, Boca and River faced each other in a Copa Libertadores final. After a 2-2 draw in the first leg, there was the scandal of the second at el Monumental with the attack on Boca’s team bus. That game was abandoned and, when the second leg was eventually played, in Madrid, Tévez was on the bench for a 3-1 defeat. Schelotto was replaced by Gustavo Alfaro for 2019.
“It is obvious that if I were not self-critical, I would not have got to where I got to,” said Tévez. “There was one Tévez before China and another after China. It was difficult for me to come back because they look at me with suspicion and everything became much more difficult and that affected my level. I always fought and put all of myself into leaving Boca at as high a level as possible, but the Tévez that people want to see has not yet appeared.”
Alfaro declared immediately that Tévez, even at 35, would be at the heart of his squad. Soon after, Netflix began to broadcast the series Tévez, el Apache, which told the story of his life. It generated a following rarely seen in Argentina. Little by little, applause for Tévez began to break out not only in la Bombonera but in other stadiums across the country.
Boca achieved good results. They were defensively sound, but not so good going forward and Tévez began to feel that he lacked support on the field, even though his coach continued to champion him in press conferences. Tévez began to be rested for some games. With all that had gone on since 2015, though, he remained silent. Then came the first superclásico since the final in Madrid. Alfaro left him out.
“After a good start to the season, I played poorly in two or three games and he decided to drop me,” Tévez said. “We had a talk and I gave him my opinion that I needed him to support me. But he made that decision and I respected it and kept going. I don’t know if I was a time bomb on the substitutes’ bench, because there were several games like that and I always put on a good face to help the squad, but on the day of the game against River I couldn’t stand it because I only found out in the dressing room that I wasn’t going to play. I told him I felt that I had been disrespected and he ended up apologising to me.”
Tévez did not start against River in the first leg of the Copa Libertadores semi-final, coming on after 55 minutes. “We needed to score two goals and were almost without forwards and I was on the bench,” said Tévez. “I was sure he was going to let me on, but it was too late. Our relationship had broken before, when he took me out of the team after always declaring that I would be the team’s flag, the banner. It turns out that was not so.”
Another year at Boca ended in frustration and with uncertainty about what would happen in the future. In addition, in December 2019 there were more club elections. This time, Tévez’s friend Angelici could not run again for regulatory reasons, while Macri was struggling in his campaign to be re-elected president of the republic.
At Boca there was confusion. Two idols of the club, Arruabarrena and Barros Schelotto, had failed, and an experienced manager in Alfaro had not been able to bring titles either. How could the club progress?
Tévez, shortly after turning 36, issued a warning. “If it’s not Boca, I have more desire to retire than to play elsewhere. I’ve already said it: in Argentina, I am not going to play for another club that is not Boca.”
Then there was a political issue. An opposition deputy, Rodolfo Tailhade, claimed that Tévez and his former strike-partner and coach Barros Schelotto had been involved with a company owned by President Macri that invested in wind farms and was being investigated by the Justice Department. Tailhade was “surprised by the level of resources” the player invested: it’s alleged Tévez and Barros Schelotto between them contributed US$18m of $25m.
“This,” Tailhade said, “confirms that Macros was gathering friends to do great business. He is the only person who can bring together characters who are from football and from Boca. In the case of Tévez we are speaking of a multi-million dollar investment.”
Tévez acquired 10 per cent of the shares of one of the companies participating in the business, Sideli SA, created by Sideco, which was owned by Macri’s family. He made a US$9m profit on a $10m investment in wind farms which were obtained without any prior bidding and through a network of companies. This has been investigated by the Argentinian authorities. Was this, some wondered, the return of a favour to whomever had made possible his opaque move to Corinthians 15 years earlier?
But not everything ended there. 2020 dawned amid black clouds. Tévez had thrown in his lot with the macrista leadership at Boca but they were defeated in elections. Then a new football director was appointed, the greatest recent idol of the Boca fans, greater even than Tévez: Juan Román Riquelme.
Could he carry on playing for Boca? Riquelme had been the idol of the young Tévez but over the years, as egos grew, their relationship had deteriorated.
“The first time I joined the professional team in 2001, there were three groups at Boca,” Tévez said, “those led by Martín Palermo, Riquelme and the Colombians. When dinner came and I entered the room, I didn’t know which table to go to and it was Riquelme who said to me, ‘Come, sit here'. And I sat next to him. It was as though he sponsored me. I was wearing number 20 on my shirt and we all went crazy to take a picture with him.”
Riquelme and Tévez, two icons in Boca’s modern history and only six years apart in age, had rarely occupied the same space. Soon after Tévez made his debut for Boca, Riquelme left for Barcelona, but returned to win the 2007 Libertadores, by which time Tévez had departed for Brazil and then the Premier League. In 2014, in conflict with Boca’s leadership and already a veteran, Riquelme played out the final stage of his career at Argentinos Juniors, helping them return to the Primera. It was the following year that Tévez returned from Juventus. Only with the national team – at the Confederations Cup in 2005, the World Cup in 2006 and the Copa América in 2007 – had they really played together.
Tévez’s close relationship with the board of directors at that time and with President Macri kept them apart. Riquelme’s relationship with Macri had been strained from 2001 when he asked for a pay rise. Macri rejected his demand and, when Riquelme scored a goal in the superclásico at la Bombonera, he ran to the middle of the pitch, cupping both ears, as if to show whose side the fans were on. (He claimed that he was mimicking the Italian puppet Topo Gigio for his daughter.)
After Riquelme left Boca as a player in 2014, he became a staunch opponent of the same board of directors. When in December 2015 the opposition won and ended 24 years of macrismo, it seemed unlikely that Tévez would stay. When he then left for China, Riquelme was critical. “On the field he was an idol,” Tévez replied, “but off it he leaves a lot to be desired.”
Riquelme’s reply was characteristic, the equivalent of rolling the ball under his sole. “I knew Carlos from a young age,” he said, “and he seems to me like a good boy. I won’t say more than that."
The former Colombia defender Jorge Bermúdez, a friend of Riquelme and a teammate in the Intercontinental-winning side, now his right-hand man on the club’s football council, was more inclined to add fuel to the fire. “People are very clear that Tévez left Boca for an economic opportunity,” he said.
When Tévez learned that the opposition had won the 2019 club elections and that Riquelme would become football director, he began to talk about retirement. “A player never prepares for this,” he said. “You can have a project whether as a journalist, manager or coach, but you are never prepared to say that you don’t play professional football anymore. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been playing football to fulfil my dreams, but football takes a lot of time from your family and I want to recover that. That will be the first thing I will do.”
But when it was least expected, the story turned around in 2020. As soon as he took over as football director, Riquelme declared:“Boca fans love Tévez very much and I think he can still give a lot to our club. He has to regain the joy of playing football as we do in the barrio. I want Tévez on the team, always.”
A few days later, the new leaders discovered that the player’s contract did not expire at the end of 2019, as had been said, but in mid-2020. In the first meeting between the two, differences were smoothed out leading Tévez to hail Riquelme as “the greatest idol in the history of Boca”, saying that he would be “the first soldier” in the new campaign under the coach Miguel Russo.
“Our fight was hard because we hurt the fans a lot but two idols like us have to be in the same boat and fight together as we are doing now,” Tévez said later. “What I said to Román was that it hurt me that he said things about me when I went to China, and that River played better than us.”
They also agreed on the position he would occupy on the pitch. Under Alfaro, Tévez had had freedom to roam across the attack, although he had never had much support and was far from his best, but Riquelme and Russo agreed it was better for him to play close to the opposition goal, where he could be more effective without having to go back and hunt the ball, make the play and put his body under needless strain. They even positioned Franco Soldano alongside him to do silent physical work and generate space.
“Today I want to work against the two rival central defenders,” said Tévez. “My whole body hurts, but I have to deal with them. Today I understood that the Tévez of before is not going to return, but that I can be a centre-forward. I have to make a difference there. It is a process that I have to assimilate. Years go by for everyone.”
The rumours that Boca were about to sign the veteran Peruvian striker Paolo Guerrero vanished. “I am very happy with him,” said the new president Jorge Ameal. “I have not changed the discourse, because what I was saying is that he was badly influenced by the people who told him to get into political issues and I was against it – but he has to finish his career at Boca.”
The Superliga resumed at the end of January, with seven games left to play. When Boca drew the first 0-0 at home to Independiente and River beat Godoy Cruz 1-0 in Mendoza, the die seemed cast. Boca were three points behind and River were an opponent who, under Marcelo Gallardo, had become used to winning.
But Boca won each of their final six games, with Tévez scoring six times to bring his total for the season to nine. The last of them, the one that beat Gimnasia 18 minutes from time at la Bombonera, was the most valuable.
Tévez had thought about giving up football. He’d lost his special place in the hearts of fans. But in two months he won it all back. As Riquelme drank mate in the directors’ box and Maradona sat on the opposition bench, the setting seemed perfect. Tévez was happy again.His resurrection was complete.