Saviola: We’re punching above our weight
Now 31 years of age, Javier Saviola has worn the jerseys of over half-a-dozen clubs, including such giants as River Plate, Barcelona, Real Madrid and Benfica. Currently enjoying his football with a Malaga side thriving in their first ever UEFA Champions League campaign, El Conejito is also a contented man off the pitch, thanks to having a first child (a little girl) on the way.
In a full and frank conversation with FIFA.com, Saviola touched on a host of issues, including his fine form since joining Los Boquerones, his impressive career, the greats he has played alongside and his personal satisfaction at having “left good memories at all my clubs”.
FIFA.com: Javier, despite Malaga’s season beginning under a cloud due to financial concerns, the team have been flying high. How did you all manage to keep the off-the-field issues at bay and focus on football?
Javier Saviola: The coaching staff did a really great job of getting all the non-sporting problems off our minds and helping us to keep focused on competing. They motivated us to only think about football and that, as well as the squad’s togetherness, were the two key reasons we came through all that.
Coach Manuel Pellegrini is very popular with the fans, but what’s he like to work with at close quarters?
He’s a coach who really communicates with his players, he’s a very straightforward person who says what he thinks. He wants his players to use the ball well and try to combine with their team-mates. He really likes good football and having him there is a huge boost for us players who like to get the ball down and play.
This Malaga team has certainly caught the eye thanks to its style of play and positive results.
We’ve assembled a very solid side and we’re managing to play nice football and get good results. It’s a shame we recently got knocked out of the Copa [del Rey] by Barça, but we are in the Round of 16 of the Champions League. Not many people expected us to get that far as we were in a very tough group, drawn alongside very experienced teams in [AC] Milan, Zenit [St. Petersburg] and Anderlecht. But we never hid and we always tried to play attractive football, the type people like to see. We’re in the top four in La Liga too, so we can’t complain. The team’s feeling good, feeling confident and so far things are going better than even we expected.
Are there any areas the team need to improve on?
We need to pick up more points away from home and play with the same intensity on our travels as we do at home. That’s perhaps the one thing we’re missing but people shouldn’t criticise us for that, because we’re still punching above our weight.
What’s your verdict on the upcoming UEFA Champions League tie with Porto?
They’ll be very tough opponents. I was fortunate enough to play in Portugal for three years and I really know what they’re about, how competitive they are. It’ll be a very tricky tie and we’ll have to be very focused right from the first whistle, and not make any mistakes. Let’s hope we can put in great performances like we did against Milan and Zenit and play the same way.
You were recently back at Camp Nou to take on Barcelona in the Copa del Rey. Is it special when you come up against a former club?
Yes, those games are special. I was there for a long time and I enjoyed some great experiences, some of the best in my career. It’s a real honour and a privilege to go from playing in Argentina to joining a club as huge as Barça. It was really nice to go back and see the people who, back in those days, helped and supported me so much, as well as some of my former team-mates. Going back to the Camp Nou was lovely.
Yes, those games are special. I was there for a long time and I enjoyed some great experiences, some of the best in my career. It’s a real honour and a privilege to go from playing in Argentina to joining a club as huge as . It was really nice to go back and see the people who, back in those days, helped and supported me so much, as well as some of my former team-mates. Going back to the Camp Nou was lovely.
This despite the fact that you signed for Real Madrid after leaving Barcelona. Why do you think you received a different reception than Luis Figo for example?
In my case, when I left Barça it was because my contract had run out. During it all I explained that I just couldn’t let the opportunity of signing for a club like Real Madrid go by, and I think people understood. That’s what this job’s like. At no point did I try to hurt Barça or criticise them at all. I think that’s why people reacted differently to me than they did to other players that left in different circumstances.
In a recent interview you said you’d not achieved more because you weren’t “nasty or selfish” enough. What makes you think that and do you feel a nasty streak is essential to be successful in the game?
I said that because I’m someone who’s introverted, who doesn’t put his feelings out there. And that’s worked against me, through not being able to express how I felt or by not speaking up with coaches in certain situations.
You’ve played for a number of top clubs in your career but do you have any regrets?
No, on the contrary. I’m someone who focuses on the positives. I’m an optimistic kind of player, one who believes he can still achieve things. I’m proud of the clubs I’ve played for, the friends I’ve got in the game and of the cities I’ve lived in. In footballing terms, I try to live for the moment as much as I can, because I know this is a short career and you have to enjoy every minute.
What are you most proud of?
Personally speaking, perhaps it’s the fact I’ve played for so many clubs and left good memories at them all. The fact I’m remembered as a good professional, as a great person. I think that gives me more satisfaction than anything else. It makes me happy that there are people around who have fond memories of me.
Over the course of your career you’ve played alongside some of the best players of the modern era, including Juan Roman Riquelme, Lionel Messi, Pablo Aimar and Ronaldinho. Which of them was most able to spring a surprise out on the pitch and who did you click with best?
I think that I had the best understanding with Aimar. I was with him at River and Benfica, he’s the player I had most affinity with and hopefully I’ll get the chance to work with him again in the future. We could find each other almost instinctively on the pitch as we just knew where the other would be, and he’s the one player I’d always want to have play alongside me. There were other team-mates that really wowed me too, such as Ronaldinho, [Hernan] Crespo and [Patrick] Kluivert. To be honest, I’ve played with some truly great players and I’ve learned a lot from them.
You also worked alongside Messi when he was just starting out, such as with Argentina at the 2006 FIFA World Cup Germany™. Was it already clear at that point just how good he’d become?
When we used to watch him in training he’d astonish us all with the things he could do: the speed he’d get his shots off, the pace he could run with the ball, how humble he was and the fact he had so much quality. He’s always had his feet on the ground, ever since he was a boy, and I think that’s really worked in his favour in the long term. But none of us imagined he’d come so far in such a short space of time. And there’s so much left! He’s so young and he’s already won the [FIFA] Ballon d’Or four times.
We heard that when he was a youth player he took a nasty blow to the face, and that you sent him a shirt. Is that true?
Yes. He’d only just started training with us [in the first team] and he got hit in the nose, so we decided to send him a shirt. Now it’s more likely I’d be asking for his shirt!
Don’t tell us you don’t have any of Messi’s shirts?
Yes, yes (laughs). Fortunately we managed to swap shirts in the last match [between Malaga and Barcelona]. Besides which, we’ve got on well ever since the 2006 World Cup. And like I say, over and above his footballing ability, he’s still as humble as ever.
Talking about that FIFA World Cup: you played spectacularly well in the group phase, only to be dropped for the quarter-final match against Germany [which Argentina lost on penalties]. Did you ever ask then coach Jose Pekerman why?
No, no way. I’d have loved to have been involved in that game because I had been having a very good World Cup, physically I felt very good and football-wise I was clicking with the squad. To tell you the truth, I was really keen to play in that match but the coach decided to go for someone else. I never asked him for an explanation, these things happen. After the game it didn’t matter anymore.
Finally, do you still dream of returning to the national squad one day?
Yes of course, you never lose hope when it comes to the national squad. I was part of the set-up for a long time and I played U-20 games, qualifying matches, a World Cup... but it still means a lot to me. I know it’s difficult because the squad is settled, the players are different [to when I was last involved] and there’s a new coach, but I’d always be willing to come back. But it’s true that, at this moment in time, I’m more focused on helping Malaga achieve their goals.