When Corinthians made Carlos Tevez the most expensive player to sign for a South American club in December 2004, the sceptics were out in full force. Could an Argentinean settle in Brazil? Would a player that had become desperate to leave Boca Juniors because of the intense spotlight he was cast under in Buenos Aires, find the Sao Paulo media any more manageable? Would he be able to cope with the colossal burden of expectation and inspire Corinthians to the success its supporters demanded?
Eleven months on from his arrival at the Parque Sao Jorge and his critics have been answered conclusively. On Sunday, Tevez delivered yet another masterclass performance, scoring three goals as Corinthians trounced reigning champions Santos 7-1, to maintain their six-point advantage at the summit of the Brasileiro standings.
For Santos, a club that has struggled since losing Robinho - the 2004 competition’s Player of the Season - to Real Madrid, it was their record Brasileiro defeat. But with Robinho gone, a new star has emerged from his shadow to assume the role of Brazilian football’s principal headliner.
Tevez’s treble at the weekend moved him on to 18 goals for the season – three short of Paysandu’s Robson, who currently tops the league’s goals chart. When asked about challenging for the top goalscorer honour, he played down his desire for personal triumph; “It’s not important to me,” he remarked. “I just want to help Corinthians become champions.”
But a greater honour awaits the 21-year-old. The Golden Ball, awarded to the tournament’s best player, has had some notable recipients in recent seasons and with the 2005 campaign in its latter stages, Tevez is the firm favourite to join recent winners Kaka, Alex and Robinho on the esteemed list.
Tevez’s decision to join Corinthians provoked widespread curiosity. Popularly considered the most talented Argentinean to have emerged since the retirement Diego Maradona, the Boca Juniors ace had been courted by PSV Eindhoven, Atletico Madrid and Bayern Munich, and had even been linked to English Premiership big guns Chelsea.
His menacing combination of rapid acceleration, immense strength and unpredictable flair accounted for his regard as one of South American football’s most exciting talents, but what had set him apart from other prospects of his generation, was the quality of his end product. During the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, Tevez drove Argentina to glory. He scored eight goals in six matches to finish as the top scorer and a series of outstanding performances earned him the tournament’s Best Player award.
After declaring his intention to quit Boca and subsequently flirting with a transfer to Europe, the youngster disappointed his elongating list of suitors from the Old Continent by agreeing to a lucrative contract to join the Corinthians revolution.
Not all plain sailing
Tevez has suffered setbacks since swapping the colours of Boca Juniors for those of the Timao. In his first few months at the club, the aggressive forward was involved in heated verbal exchanges with team-mates Dinelson and Carlos Alberto and in April, he engaged in a training ground fistfight with reserve defender Marquinhos.
Off-the-field “Carlitos” has too attracted defamatory headlines. He was fined for wearing a Manchester United shirt at a press conference and also incurred criticism for claiming females were unfit to officiate at football matches in the country.
”Best striker in the world”
But as the year has progressed, the Argentine’s popularity among his colleagues and the Brazilian media has grown. Whilst admitting that he is “happier and a better player” since joining Corinthians, the modest forward has repeatedly played down his own importance to the side. But senior figures within the Brazilian game have been forthcoming in praising the all-action front runner.
“He’s got to go to the World Cup because he’s not only the best striker in Argentina, but the best striker in the world today,” enthused Corinthians gaffer Antonio Lopes. “If I was the coach of Argentina, I’d have him in my first team without a shadow of a doubt.”
And Brazil coach Carlos Alberto Parreira is too an admirer; “Tevez is showing why they paid US$20 million for him,” he commented. “He’s such a talented player who makes a real difference.”
For Tevez’s adoring supporters, his name has already been inscribed alongside that of Rivelino, Socrates and Marcelinho Carioca, in the club’s shrine of greats. With the Brazilian season approaching its conclusion, all that now remains is for “Carlitos” to ensure he makes it an all-conquering debut season, by helping Corinthians to the Brasileiro and Copa Sul-Americana titles.