It is quite unusual for Forgotten Idols to feature a player who has only recently retired. It seems, however, very apt for a man who was once the world’s most expensive teenager. Little more than Fifteen years ago, it seemed that Barcelona had unearthed a gem in Javier Saviola. This very same player, who Lionel Messi once looked up to, now finds himself coaching in the Andorran league.
It seems strange to think that a career that promised so much, ultimately delivered a fraction of what was expected.
Born in Buenos Aires in 1981, his obvious talent soon caught the attentions of Argentina’s biggest clubs. He joined River Plate, who spotted him playing for local side Parque Chas. So advanced was Saviola that he made his first team debut in at the age of 16. In his first season, 1998-99, he scored six goals from 19 appearances. His lightning quick pace, lethal finishing and predatory instincts had earned him the nickname El Conejo (the rabbit). It didn’t take too long for him to earn another one. The “new Maradona” label has been given to many a young promising Argentine footballer over the years. Saviola wouldn’t be the first, or last.
The Argentine Primera Division used to have two sections per season, the Apertura (opening) and the Clausura (closing). This is a practice still held in many Latin American football divisions, but Argentina abandoned it in 2012. In 1999-00, Javier Saviola hit 19 goals to help River Plate win both of the league championships. As a result, he became the youngest player to win the South American Footballer of the Year. Aged only 18 at the time, it is a record that still stands to this day.
His second season saw him hit 20 goals, although River would not repeat their title triumph. It was still a season of personal triumph for Saviola. He was then selected for the 2001 FIFA Youth World Cup, despite having made his full international debut months earlier. Eleven goals by the River Plate forward saw him crowned Player of the Tournament, in addition to being top scorer. Argentina won all seven games to lift the trophy for the fourth time.
Saviola had already alerted several European clubs to his talents, but his success at the tournament prompted Barcelona to make a move for him. His transfer fee of £15 million made him the world’s most expensive teenager at the time.
At the time of Saviola’s transfer in the summer of 2001, Barcelona were going through a tough time. Real Madrid had kicked off their Galácticos era by enticing Luis Figo from the Nou Camp, and had just added Zinedine Zidane for a world record fee of £47 million. Barcelona, having watched Madrid romp to the La Liga title, had only just qualified for the Champions League.
Paired with Patrick Kluivert, Saviola had a great first season, netting 21 goals. They once again finished 4th in La Liga, but made it to the Champions League semi-finals. They were, however, to endure further heartbreak at the hands of their most bitter rivals. Real Madrid inflicted a 2-0 home defeat on Barcelona, and went on to win the final in Glasgow.
In spite of being in red hot form, Argentina coach Marcelo Bielsa stated that the 2002 World Cup was too soon for Saviola. When they did not progress from the group stage, this looked like quite a foolish decision. Fresh from a summer’s rest, the young striker returned to Barcelona for what would be a nightmare season for his club.
Louis van Gaal had returned to the Nou Camp for a second spell in charge, but was sacked in January 2003 following a poor start to the league season. His decision to let club icon Rivaldo leave for AC Milan had not been a popular decision. He was replaced by Radomir Antić for the rest of the season. Barcelona finished in sixth place, their worst La Liga position in 15 years. Saviola still managed to score another 20 goals, in spite of the club’s on-field problems.
The Rijkaard Era
In the summer of 2003, Frank Rijkaard was surprisingly appointed as manager. Given that just a year earlier, Rijkaard had led Sparta Rotterdam to relegation, this raised a few eyebrows. Despite this, there was a new sense of optimism when Barcelona landed Ronaldinho from under the noses of Manchester United.
After a poor start, which saw Barcelona hovering just above the relegation zone, Rijkaard turned it around. Scoring goals had been a problem in the early part of the season, but Ronaldinho, Kluivert and Saviola hit a rich vein of form to steer Barcelona to second place. This run included a 2-1 victory at the Bernabéu, and they finished five points behind champions Valencia.
In spite of having scored 60 goals in three season, Saviola found himself surplus to requirements at the Nou Camp. When Cameroon striker Samuel Eto’o was brought in from Real Mallorca, Saviola began the first of two loan spells.
Champions League runners-up Monaco were in need of another forward, as Fernando Morientes had returned to Real Madrid. With Saviola informed that his playing time would be limited, despite Kluivert having been given a free transfer, the Argentine headed for Ligue 1 on loan for the 2004-05 season.
At the Stade Louis II, he scored 11 goals in all competitions, but Monaco failed to hit the heights of the previous season. They finished third for the second consecutive season, but their Champions League campaign ended in the first knockout round. Saviola’s transfer was not made permanent, and he returned to the Nou Camp.
In his absence, Barcelona had flourished under Rijkaard, winning their first La Liga title in six years. There was still no room for Saviola, as Swedish star Henrik Larsson was Eto’o’s back up. It meant that the Argentine striker, with the following year’s World Cup in his thoughts, would be loaned out again.
Sevilla needed a replacement for Real Madrid-bound Júlio Baptista. They were only too happy to take Saviola on a season long loan. He scored 15 goals in total, often keeping the likes of Luís Fabiano and Frédéric Kanouté out of the team. Sevilla’s season overall was a memorable one. There was the disappointment of finishing fifth, missing out on a Champions League place by virtue of the head to head record of Osasuna in fourth. This was offset by a victorious UEFA Cup campaign, in which they thrashed Steve McLaren’s Middlesbrough 4-0 in the final.
Saviola represented Argentina at the 2006 World Cup in Germany, before their quarter-final elimination by the hosts. After playing in three of his country’s five games, and scoring once, he returned to Catalonia. Barcelona had enjoyed a magnificent season in Saviola’s absence. They had won La Liga finishing twelve points clear of Real Madrid, who they thrashed 3-0 at the Bernabéu. They topped this off by winning their second Champions League trophy, beating Arsenal 2-1 in Paris.
For the 2006-07 season, Saviola decided to stay at the Nou Camp for the last year of his contract. It was a mixed season, as he played 24 games and scored ten goals, but most of his appearances were from the bench. Barcelona failed to retain either the La Liga or Champions League titles. The 2006 Supercopa de España, a 4-0 win over local rivals Espanyol, remains the only trophy Saviola won in his time at the Nou Camp.
When his contract at Barcelona expired in the summer of 2007, Javier Saviola joined Real Madrid on a three year contract. It seemed a strange move for him to make, and not just because he moved from their arch rivals. Although he signed a very financially lucrative deal, it looked obvious that he would not be an automatic choice. Madrid had a plethora of attacking options at the time, with their main striker being Ruud van Nistelrooy. They also had the likes of Raúl, Gonzalo Higuain, Robinho and Arjen Robben.
Over the space of two seasons, Saviola made thirty appearances in total, most of them as a substitute. He scored five goals in his time there, unable to make himself a first team regular. His lack of playing time also harmed his international aspirations. He never made a single appearance for Argentina after leaving the Nou Camp. He did, however, win his first La Liga title in 2008
Unlike with a certain Luís Figo, who had left Barcelona for Madrid in 2000, there was little animosity towards Saviola (or pig’s heads thrown) when he returned to face them. Unfortunately, as most predicted, his role at the Bernabéu was little more than that of a backup striker. His appearances became even more sporadic when Dutch striker Klaas-Jan Huntelaar was signed in January 2009. When Portuguese giants Benfica bid €5million for his services later that year, Saviola brought his short spell in Madrid to an end.
Saviola took little persuading to make the Estádio da Luz his new home in the summer of 2009. With the World Cup in South Africa a year away, playing regular football was the only way he would get back into the Argentina squad. He settled into the squad immediately, and was soon scoring on a regular basis. He particularly impressed in the UEFA Cup, scoring against Liverpool and notching two against Everton.
In his first season, Saviola netted 19 times in all competitions, and helped steer his new club to a Primeira Liga and Taça da Liga (league cup) double. He struck up an impressive partnership with Paraguayan striker Óscar Cardozo. Between 2009 and 2012, the pair struck more than 100 goals between them.
In 2011-12, Spanish forward Rodrigo returned from a loan spell at Bolton Wanderers, and provided Saviola with competition up front. It would prove to be his last at Benfica. Cardozo was first choice striker, so his place was not in threat. By contrast, Saviola had been appearing more from the bench towards the end of the campaign. His final goal for the club came in the 2012 Taça da Liga final, the winning goal against Gil Vicente.
The last few years of Javier Saviola’s career were spent in a bit of a journeyman fashion. Between 2012 and 2015, he spent a single season each at Malaga, Olympiakos and Verona. His spell with the Greek giants was the most successful of these, in 2013-14. His two goals in the Champions League group stage saw Olympiakos qualify, ironically at the expense of his old club, Benfica.
In 2015, Saviola returned to his homeland, joining his first club River Plate. He spent six months back at the club, and picked up a Copa Libertadores medal, despite being an unused substitute in both legs of the final. In January 2016, he left the club after failing to score a single goal in thirteen appearances. A few months later he announced his retirement from professional football. He is currently the assistant manager at FC Ordino, who play in the Andorran Primera Divisió.
Javier Saviola – the Last Word
It seems hard to believe that a player once labelled the “new Maradona” disappeared off the radar. When he burst onto the scene with River Plate, and in his first few years at Barcelona, he looked like a future Ballon d’Or winner. When he retired, it barely made a headline.
The career of Javier Saviola could hardly be considered a failure. After all, he scored more than 200 goals over eighteen years. In that time he played for some of the biggest clubs in the world. It’s quite surprising, however, given the impact he made when he first made the world aware of his talents, that he didn’t achieve more.
For previous instalments in the series, click the links below.
Part 1: Dejan Savićević Part 2: Stefan Effenberg Part 3: Guiseppe Signori
Part 4: Miguel Ángel Nadal Part 5: Darko Pančev Part 6: Oliver Bierhoff
Part 7: Nuno Gomes Part 8: Mark Hateley Part 9: Andrei Kanchelskis
Part 10: Jari Litmanen Part 11: Gianluca Pagliuca Part 12: Predrag Mijatović