Few phenomena in football are as difficult to explain as the late-developing goalscorer, a player who spends most of his career in the game's backwaters before unexpectedly bursting into the limelight with a sudden glut of goals.
Germany's Oliver Bierhoff and wide-eyed Italian goalgetter Salvatore Schillaci are two examples that immediately spring to mind. Unheralded journeyman strikers with unfashionable clubs, they both had to wait until their late twenties before claiming their rightful places on the global stage.
A similar story has been unfolding in Mexico, where Miguel Sabah has capped his late flourishing as a proven goalscorer by earning a place in the national side and reviving El Tri hopes of advancing to South Africa 2010.
The 29-year-old Cancun-born striker served his footballing apprenticeship with Guadalajara, making his debut in 2000. He failed to convince the Chivas coaching staff of his abilities, however, and spent more time on the bench than on the pitch, scoring most of his tally of 18 goals in 86 games as a substitute.
A transfer to Cruz Azul followed in 2006, a move that few Cementero fans welcomed. With Mexico internationals Francisco Fonseca and Cesar Delgado forming the front line, Sabah once again found his path to regular first-team football blocked. Fonseca's departure for Benfica changed all that, though, and the new man took his chance, scoring 11 times in that year's Apertura championship. The goals continued to come at a steady pace and in 104 outings for Cruz, Sabah struck 42 goals, making a vital contribution to their runs to consecutive league play-off finals. Yet, despite that record he was offloaded once again at the start of this year, this time to Monarcas Morelia.
Time for lift-off
Cruz Azul would soon have cause to regret that decision. While they languished at the wrong end of the table, the late-maturing Sabah embarked on a goal spree, hitting 11 in his debut season and another five in the current campaign. Attracted by his goalscoring instinct, Javier Aguirre called him up to the Mexico squad, prompting criticism from some sections of the national press, who complained that the Morelia man was not fit to wear the green shirt.
Not for the first time in his slow-burning career, Sabah answered his critics by hitting the back of the net. Despite sitting out the start of the recent CONCACAF Gold Cup, he ended the tournament as top scorer with four goals before capping his ascension to national hero status by grabbing the winner in last month's FIFA World Cup™ qualifier against USA, just two minutes after coming on. "It's the most important goal of my career so far and I wouldn't swap it for any other," said a jubilant Sabah afterwards. "I just hit it and it went in. I had my eye only on the ball and I pictured where I wanted to put it."
The Tricolor new boy is hoping to repeat that instinctive strike in Saturday's make-or-break match in Costa Rica. "Playing up front for your country is a huge responsibility," he acknowledges. "It's also a great source of motivation, though, and I'm going to keep on working hard to repay the faith people have showed in me."
Sabah knows only too well that an adverse result at the Estadio Ricardo Saprissa could deal a hammer blow to Mexico's aspirations. With that in mind, he is ready to win ugly if need be. "We have to win no matter what, and if we can't play good football then we'll have to try doing things a different way. We simply have to come away with three points."
Having overcome adversity on numerous occasions throughout his stop-start career, it would be no surprise to see the hard-talking Sabah punch holes in Los Ticos' rearguard on Saturday. His new legion of admirers certainly expect nothing less.