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Jan 9, 2011

Internacional superstar

Internacional de Porto Alegre may have been party to a piece of unwanted history in December, when they became the first team from one of the 'traditional' powers of South America and Europe to fail to reach the final of the Club World Cup in Abu Dhabi, but their fans were given something to celebrate, albeit as a small consolation prize, later in the month. On December 29, Inter's Argentine playmaker, Andres D'Alessandro - formerly of Wolfsburg, Portsmouth and Real Zaragoza - was named the South American Footballer of the Year for 2010.

The award left me with a slightly strange sensation, when I realised that D'Alessandro, at 29, is now something of a veteran of some standing in the continent's club football. That's because it alerted me to how long I've been watching Argentine football myself. I first picked up the habit in 2002, after being introduced to it by my then girlfriend, a River Plate fan.

Watching her team, D'Alessandro was the first player to really catch my eye. He's tiny, he's left-footed, he's got excellent technique, a great eye for a pass,and an ego that, were it a physical entity, would dwarf a small planet. He was, in short, the perfect stereotype of the Argentine playmaker.

Befitting that (at least post-Maradona) stereotype even more, sadly, he's never quite done what he might have done as a player, and that has a lot to do with the said enormity of his self-esteem. Whilst with River early in his career he won three Argentine titles and a World Youth Cup with Argentina. When he moved to Wolfsburg at the age of 22, the club made no secret of the fact that they expected him to slot straight in as a key player.

Initially, his confidence was a boon, and he had an impressive first season in Germany, but after he got a little too big for his boots during his second season he was farmed out on loan to Portsmouth for six months in 2006, where Premier League-watchers may remember his performances as he helped keep the struggling side in the top flight. Whilst there, his partner gave birth to a daughter, but it wasn't long before the young family had to up sticks again.

After Pompey he was loaned to Real Zaragoza where, although he did enough in his first season for the club to exercise their right to buy him from Wolfsburg for €3.5 million, he fell out with manager Victor Fernandez in his second year, and was sent back to Argentina, where he was reunited with his former River manager Ramon Diaz at San Lorenzo. After only half a year there, though, he made the relatively short move to Porto Alegre, to join Internacional in mid-2008 - the club he's now been with for longer than any since he left River.

The other strange thing - aside from making me feel like an old man, I mean - about this award for the man affectionately known as Cabezón ('Big Head') in his homeland is that it seems to have been made entirely on the basis of D'Alessandro's performances in the Copa Libertadores, in which he was superb, and culminating in man-of-the-match displays in not one, but both legs of the final against Chivas. Those displays were towering, but it has to be said they weren't quite matched domestically. Whilst he has had a good season individually, in truth D'Alessandro hasn't even been the best Argentine playmaker in the Brazilian league.

That distinction, officially at least, goes to Dario Conca, another former River playmaker (though he came through Tigre's youth system), who in 2010 drove Fluminense to their first Brazilian championship since 1984, and was for his troubles named Brazil's Player Of The Year. D'Alessandro didn't (quite) make the three-man shortlist, or the Team of the Championship. Conca, meanwhile, might be in line to become the first non-Brazilian to earn a call-up to the Brazilian national team - whether he accepts, of course, is another matter. This, along with both the Brazilian and continental awards going to creative midfielders from Argentina plying their trade in Brazil says something about the way the South American game has gone over the last few years.

Brazil's increasing emphasis on physical power and functionality at national team level isn't news, of course, and it's filtered down to the way young players are brought through at domestic level. Combined with Brazil's economic growth recently, especially relative to the rest of the continent, the result is that whilst the vast majority of players are still Brazilian, there's no shortage of attacking players from elsewhere in South America. D'Alessandro and Conca, the two award-winners, are the two most visible. Both of D'Alessandro's former clubs in Argentina - River and San Lorenzo - have talked about trying to bring him back to Buenos Aires, but it's highly unlikely any Argentine club will be able to put together a big enough offer.

One of the contenders for the South American Manager of the Year award might be in new employment rather more easily, though. Marcelo Bielsa will leave his job as Chile boss next week due to a major difference of opinion with the incoming president of the ANFP, the country's governing body, and the Argentine will interest a number of clubs at home and abroad. He came second, with countryman Alejandro Sabella (the former Sheffield United and Leeds player, and current Estudiantes boss) in third after his Argentine title win recently, and Uruguay manager Oscar Washington Tabarez taking first prize as a result of guiding his country to the World Cup semi-final.

D'Alessandro, then, succeeds countryman Seba Veron, the winner in 2008 and 2009, to give Argentina another 'King of the Americas'. It might be a surprising choice, but it's nice, at least, to see him relatively settled after a career which has too often been stunted by untimely moves around.

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