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May 21, 2008

Tevez gets a crash course in survival

"If it doesn't kill you, it will make you stronger," our grandmas used to say. The saying would perfectly fit the merchandising of Manchester United's Carlos Tevez. It would be the perfect epitaph to underline his face on T-shirts, flags and scarves. Here's a brief biography of a man who survived childhood amid the bleak landscape of poverty and violence, and managed to turn that negativity into a badge of courage on the soccer field.

In his case, there also is something else: The inhibitions that come to those who are born in the shadows of the inner-city ghetto, instead of restraining him and deepening, only to see him shoved into the spotlight, those same tribulations from which he freed himself, thanks to his talent with the soccer ball, turned him into a miracle of adaptation.

Tevez feels at home anywhere in the world. In countries such as Brazil and England with a soccer culture so diverse and so contrasting, he manages to preserve the flame of his feisty brand of soccer and playground-flavored, crowd-pleasing style. And he makes everyone fall in love with him in the process.

If it weren't for this small detail, Tevez might be just another story line in Latin America, where it is not unusual for players to learn their trade in the muddy streets of shantytowns.

Tevez was born in a suburb east of Buenos Aires known as Fort Apache. It's an area of cloned and precarious buildings, the background of the photographs that illustrate the police reports in local newspapers.

Tevez has said more than once that in the games played in the thick air of that suburb, he lost all fear. He also lost his best friend -- not on the impromptu soccer battlefields, but to police bullets. In that suburb, the soccer ball is much more than an instrument of eventual upward social mobility -- it is a crash course in survival. Tevez laughs when he hears of the opulence of the game's superstars, a category in which he now fits.

With a camera-friendly personality, Carlitos walks the walk of a celebrity. He models for the best brands of sporting goods. He is the life of his news conferences, thanks to his professional and methodic behavior combined with his uncanny sense of humor, which remains in spite of the fact that he now is an icon. One of his trademarks is the wrinkled, cracked skin of his neck, damaged by a bad burn, an indelible testimony to a domestic act of negligence when he was just a baby.

When he made the roster of Argentina's national youth soccer team, Tevez was offered free cosmetic surgery. However, the treatment would have kept him away from the field for several months. For Tevez, it was too high a price. With more wisdom than resignation, he thought that perhaps the profile of "Apache" (the moniker an Argentine commentator had pinned on him) could use that extra rough look. He cared so little about it.

At 24, he paid the price of fame with a strident love affair. He paired with a predictably curvy vedette, and together, they fed the tabloids for an entire summer. He later returned to the certainties of his high school sweetheart.

A rare mix of warrior and virtuoso, Tevez played in the youth leagues of a second-tier, inner-city club named All Boys. He later went to Boca Juniors, where he was idolized from the outset and where he won four titles, including the Intercontinental Cup.

At the same time, he was one of the main players on the team that won Argentina's first Olympic gold medal at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens. All signs pointed to a future in European soccer.

But a rather murky piece of business by the MSI Company landed him in the most hostile territory an Argentine player can find himself: Brazil. On a powerful and demanding team, Corinthians, with a passport that inspired anything but sympathy, with no knowledge of the Portuguese language, Tevez hit the fields ready to show his ability could also shine in a country with such an exquisite tradition of soccer. His strength and charisma only grew in hostile territory. He became champion and harvested devotion among Brazilian fans.

The same magic formula allowed him to escape unscathed from his short stint at West Ham, a trade that for any other player would have been a setback too hard to swallow.

After overcoming some rather erratic managerial dealings, Tevez once again was able to profit from adversity, ending up in Manchester, another piece of land where Argentines do not enjoy the best of reputations.

With his understated simplicity (his audacity is only an intuitive gesture), Carlitos played the successful libretto that had worked so well for him at other latitudes. In his first season, he stormed the fields with the poise of a veteran, a nimble fish in rough waters in which speed, precision and aerial play are the keys to success.

And when the time came to do the victory lap around Old Trafford, he draped himself in the Argentine flag, in a rather perplexing but unambiguous diplomatic gesture.

So here we are today, awaiting the final game of the Champions League. The clash is to take place Wednesday in Moscow, on a soccer field that, for Carlos Tevez, is just another soccer field. So far, but so near, Fort Apache.

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