Named as part of Pele’s FIFA 100 in 2004 (a list of the 125 greatest living footballers) Javier Saviola being just 22 at the time was the youngest on the list, he was destined for big things. At the time “El conejo” had scored 60 goals in 144 appearances for Barcelona, an impressive return when considering he was part of a struggling Barcelona side as a second striker, and behind a club legend in Patrick Kluivert. Move on ten years and things didn’t really go to plan, but it wasn’t the sudden decline we see with many talented footballers, it was altogether a more sad affair with a player who never fully achieved what perhaps he could have. Instead Saviola was a player who showed his outstanding talent for the biggest clubs on the planet yet never quite got the chances he should.
It began at River Plate where a youthful Javier began his career making his full debut for Los Millonarios at the age of just 16. He went on to score 45 goals for the club by the time he was 19 at which point Barca came calling. £15 million later and the young Argentinian was at the Nou camp, which is when his reputation took off as one of the most promising players of his generation. Despite Barcelona going through a relatively tough patch during his early spell as a starter, coming 4th, 6th and then 2nd in his three seasons at the Nou camp, though Saviola still shined while the rebuild began in Catalunia.
BUT, in 2003 Frank Rijkaard came to bring Barca back to the top, a mission he did not see long time partners Saviola and Kluivert to be a part of. As a result Kluivert was sold and Saviola loaned out. Though not just once but twice, first to Monaco where he became a regular scoring 11 goals in Ligue 1, and secondly back to La Liga with Sevilla where he replaced Julio Baptista, where in the process he won the UEFA cup. However despite his efforts these performances could not gain him a place in the Barcelona team. Having just won the Champions league and La Liga Samuel Eto’o and co were not going to be replaced easily. As it were Saviola was recalled for the 2006-07 season due to injuries and yet again impressed scoring 10 goals in just 24 appearances, of which only 5 were starts.
Though yet again with the coming of Thierry Henry from Arsenal, Saviola found himself surplus to requirements. It was here Saviola left to join arch rivals Real Madrid. Though this was a move to a very prestigious club where he doubtless had a great time playing with the best players in the world and making a lot of money, he sadly once again did not feature that much for the first team, instead being limited to substitute appearances and cup games. With his return being just 5 goals in 28 appearances between 2007 and 2009. Where yet again players like Raul, Van Nistelrooy, Robben and Sneijder were all ahead in the pecking order. The period can in some ways be seen as the end of Saviola being a worldwide name who was deemed world class.
After the arrival of another in Klass Jan Huntelaar, 2009 saw Saviola leave for what proved to be his most prolific spell in Benfica in the Portuguese Primeira Liga. For just 5 million euros Benfica got a pacey striker desperate to prove himself and he did in some fashion, scoring 39 goals in three seasons with the club. Saviola yet again became a regular, winning both the league and Taça da Liga in his first season, during his time at Benfica Javier re-established himself as a striker to be reckoned with, fitting into a role out wide, which is when La Liga once again came calling in the form of Malaga. Through their new found monetary power Malaga signed many experienced players and came 6th. A successful year passed before another move, this time Olympiacos where he won the Domestic title as well as making a long awaited return to the champions league. Another year and its Verona who come calling, though this time its a less successful spell, and after leaving this summer, he is back at River Plate.
However the Verona season sticks out for one reason, and that is that for the first time in his career Saviola wasn’t successful. Despite playing for just one year at 5 different clubs, he always scored, which is why the case of Saviola is so peculiar. He has managed to produce depite the upheaval of moving every year and without fail. So why isn’t Javier Saviola still deemed to be one of the best?
He has been incredibly unlucky, at almost all the clubs Saviola has graced he has been behind a great striker or been usurped by one. A player who fits behind a spearhead always tends to have talented competition, but Saviola has had rougher than most. From Kluivert at Barcelona, Nistelrooy at Madrid, to even the likes of Shabani Nonda at Monaco and Kanoute at Sevilla lesser players but at the times better options for their respective clubs. Javier was never fully comfortable as a club’s prime attacking threat and as such never quite reached what maybe he could have. Which includes his exploits for the Argentinian national side, where he was part of a generation that included Batistuta and Crespo in his youth, to Tevez and Messi in his prime. There was just never space.
“El Conejo” is back where he began now at River Plate which maybe is for the best, but there is no doubt he has left a legacy of admirers back in Europe who will think about what could have been. However for those who argue that he never made it because he wasn’t good enough, just take a look at this and maybe watching some clips of young Saviola will change your mind.