Courtesy of a clinical brace struck past Juventus goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon on 6 January, Argentinian striker Mauro Icardi has seen his standing evolve from an up-and-coming youngster to a realistic attacking option for Sampdoria.
A Rosario native like compatriot and friend Lionel Messi, the talented forward is also, like the four-time FIFA Ballon d’Or winner, a product of Barcelona’s youth system. At the age of nine, Icardi was brought to Europe by parents intent on escaping Argentina’s economic troubles and joining their eldest son Franco, who was already based in the Canary Islands.
Between 2001 and 2008, Mauro Icardi exhibited remarkable goalscoring abilities as part of the youth teams of modest Union Deportiva Vecindario in Gran Canaria, hitting the back of the net no fewer than 384 times and piquing the interest of major European clubs in the process.
As the promising prodigy turned 15, he was met with enticing offers from numerous big-name outfits, but would eventually opt for La Masia, Barcelona’s renowned youth academy, a decision that was due in part to Messi’s presence at Camp Nou.
The young South American continued to demonstrate a keen eye for goal in Catalonia, netting 38 times for Barça’s U-17 and U-19 sides over a two-and-a-half year period, during which time his qualities were universally lauded. Messi took him under his wing, passing on invaluable technical pointers, while Pep Guardiola and Tito Vilanova kept close tabs on his progress under youth team coach Oscar Garcia Junyent.
School of life
Unfortunately, Icardi’s athletic build did not correspond with the style of play and formation employed by the senior side at the time, a situation that led to him becoming weary of waiting and requesting playing time in vain. “I decided to switch clubs, because I didn’t really feel that they had enough confidence that I would one day be included in the first-team line-up,” he told FIFA.com.
“But I should stress that, as well as being the best place in the world to learn how to be a footballer, La Masia also taught me a huge amount about life. Messi looked out for me there, and we became good friends,” he continued.
In January 2011, Sampdoria were the first club to swoop when the opportunity arose to take the Argentinian attacker on loan, in a deal that included an option to acquire his services on a permanent basis for €400,000. Icardi adapted to his new surroundings extraordinarily well, learning to read and write Italian within four months.
As well as being the best place in the world to learn how to be a footballer, La Masia also taught me a huge amount about life.
“Sampdoria were the ones that fought hardest to sign me, and that was a real confidence boost. They gave me the chance to play in an equally demanding league, and I’ll always be grateful to them for that,” he said.
After an initial season of bedding-in, he was handed his Serie A debut away to Roma in September, and followed this up in November by scoring his first goal for the club in the Genoa derby. “I was hopeful that things would move as quickly as they have,” he said, adding, “I knew it would be difficult, as the competition for places is intense, but I always believed I had something to offer.”
But his most memorable contribution thus far to the Genoa-based club’s campaign undoubtedly remains his unexpected double versus Juventus. “It was an incredible feeling,” explained the 19-year-old front man.
“Since I was a boy, Buffon has always been something of a legend in my eyes. At the end of the match, he even came up and congratulated me. I don’t think I’ll ever forget that afternoon at Juventus Stadium.”
This sparkling performance led to comparisons being drawn with Gabriel Batistuta and Fernando Torres in the Italian press. “If only that were the case,” he stated modestly. “Batistuta in particular was a role model for young people back home, not just for his talent but for his personality too.
"It’ll be hard to follow his example – I’ve got a lot of hard work ahead of me in training, but I’m going to try my best,” continued Icardi, who describes himself as a centre-forward capable of offering more than the archetypal ‘fox in the box’. “I like to vary things, go on long runs, drop deep to get the ball and also help out my team-mates when we’re under pressure.”
Having established himself in Argentina’s U-20 side, Icardi, who also holds an Italian passport, chose to politely rebuff recent attempts to persuade him to commit himself to his adopted country rather than the nation of his birth.
“I said no, simply because I feel Argentinian,” he explained. “As far as I’m concerned, the national team is extremely important, both at youth and senior level. It’s going to be tricky to secure a place in the squad for the World Cup in Brazil, because Argentina currently have some of the best forwards on the planet. But my dream is to pull on the Albiceleste jersey, and I’ll do it one day.”
Rather than extol the virtues of his compatriots, however, he professes great admiration for two other South Americans plying their trade in Serie A. “I really like Napoli striker Edinson Cavani who, as well as scoring an avalanche of goals, runs himself into the ground for his team, and Roma defender Leandro Castan, who has huge potential.”
With just a month to go before his 20th birthday, Icardi is in the process of fulfilling his own significant potential. “I’m still pretty young, and I need to improve every aspect of my game,” he said. “But I have my feet firmly on the ground. I’ll keep working away and doing what I do best: scoring goals, for Sampdoria and for their marvellous fans.”