By Alan Feehely l @azulfeehely
In 1928, writer Ricardo Lorenzo Rodríguez, operating under the pseudonym Borocotó, proposed raising a statue to the inventor of dribbling in Argentina. He said it should depict “a pibe with a dirty face, a mane of hair rebelling against the comb. Intelligent, roving, trickster and persuasive eyes and a sparkling gaze that seem to hint at a picaresque laugh that does not quite manage to form on his mouth, full of small teeth that might be worn down through eating yesterday’s bread.
“His knees covered with the scabs of wounds disinfected by fate. Barefoot, or with shoes whose holes in the toes suggest they have been made through too much shooting. His stance must be characteristic – it must seem as if he is dribbling with a rag ball. If this monument is raised one day, there will be many of us who will take off our hat to it, as we do in church.”
The quote is from Jonathan Wilson’s Angels with Dirty Faces, his history of Argentinian football. It goes a long way to explaining the nation’s relationship with the beautiful game. This is a country that has birthed talent like no other, individualists who have thrilled spectators and played with a panache unmatched by peers. This is the country of Diego Maradona, Juan Román Riquelme and Carlos Tevez, men who play with an edge to their game that befits a style honed in the slums. These are characters of the pueblo, those who represent the common man.
Éver Banega is not on the same level as that trio, but there is no doubt that he is of similar stock. A midfield playmaker, he is blessed with an expansive range of passing and exquisite close control, as tenacious out of possession as he is skilled on the ball. His is a star that burned bright in the beginning of his career but never quite reached the heights he appeared destined for – a lack of discipline and erratic behaviour proving a natural counter-weight to God-given talent. Now 32, he will join Saudi Arabian side Al-Shabab at the end of the season, his career amongst the European elite seemingly ending.
Born in Rosario, Banega came through the youth system at Boca Juniors. He made his senior debut in early 2007, earning a standing ovation in a 2-0 defeat of Nueva Chicago less than a month later. His qualities were immediately evident, earning him comparisons to Fernando Gago, a former icon of La Bombonera. He settled into the side quickly, playing a part in their victorious Copa Libertadores campaign in his maiden season. He started both legs of the final, where Boca coasted past Brazilian side Grêmio 5-0 on aggregate. Riquelme stole headlines with three goals over two legs, but his younger midfield partner was quietly impressive himself.
“[Banega] joined Boca’s academy when the famous Jorge Griffa also joined the club,” said Argentinian football expert Peter Coates. “He was considered one of the brightest talents in Argentina. The Libertadores was a tournament that highlighted his ability in the position left absent due to Gago’s move to Real Madrid. Winning the Libertadores and then winning the U20 World Cup midway through 2007 made Banega a potential star.”
Banega was part of a golden generation of Argentinian talent. Following up from that U20 World Cup, he travelled to China for the 2008 Beijing Olympics as part of a squad that included Lionel Messi, Ángel Di Maria, and Sergio Agüero, and would go on to beat Nigeria in the gold medal match. By that point, Banega had left Argentina for Spanish club Valencia. He failed to settle in his first six months there, however, and spent his first full season in Europe on loan at Atlético Madrid. Upon his return, he agreed to join English club Everton only for visa problems to scupper the deal. He knuckled down to earn his place in Valencia’s midfield, eventually making 136 appearances for the club. He spent his final six months there on loan in Argentina with his local club, Newell’s Old Boys, before joining Sevilla on a permanent deal.
“The main problem with Éver was always the long periods of time he spent unsupervised,” said Valencia-based journalist Paco Polit. “He came to Valencia very young and was left to live on his own in a flat in the city, with nobody taking care of him and his family thousands of kilometers away. He often had problems with his diet, liked fast food a bit too much and was even recorded on a TV segment with his fridge full of beer and nothing else.
“This was a 19-year old kid pulled out of his environment and sent to a foreign country without people supporting him. His growth and maturation as a person also helped his maturation as a player. His indiscipline included arriving late [to training] a few times, but I don’t think he did it on purpose. You could compare him to [Ousmane] Dembélé nowadays – plenty of raw talent, but unreliable and unprofessional in many ways.
Banega was involved in a series of incidents at Valencia that tested the patience of his coaches and teammates. He was reported as turning up drunk for training and broke his ankle and leg after his own car rolled over it because he forgot to set the handbrake. During his rehabilitation phase for that injury, his Ferrari 458 Italia caught fire after short-circuiting. This followed incidents preceding his time at Valencia, including smashing up a Toronto hotel room with his teammates after winning the Under-20 World Cup and being recorded masturbating on a webcam while at Boca.
“I always wanted Banega to succeed because the few times he was ‘on’, he was one of the best midfielders in La Liga,” Polit continued. “Unfortunately, it seems only [Ernesto] Valverde managed to extract the full potential out of him in the six months he was at the helm in the 2012/2013 season. That Éver was already older, much more grown-up and more professional both on and off the pitch. It was unfortunate that the club decided it would be better off without him. His trip to Argentina was always going to be short-lived because his quality made him deserving of playing for a big team in La Liga once again. But this time, without the many slumps and mistakes he made during his years in Valencia.”
Banega won the Europa League twice in his first two seasons in Andalusia, playing some of the best football of his career. He spent 2016/17 with Internazionale before returning to Sevilla, where he’s been since. “In both of his spells Banega has had ups and downs, but ultimately he will be remembered fondly at Sevilla for his quality and the magic he brought, as well as the success he had in the Europa League,” said Seville-based scout Kevoni.
“Banega played an important role [in their European success], proving a vital player due to his vision and skill and the fact that he was usually paired with more defensive-minded midfielders like [Grzegorz] Krychowiak, [Vicente] Iborra, [Stéphane] Mbia, and [Steven] Nzonzi,” he continued. “He evolved from an attacking midfielder to a more box-to-box playmaker, meaning he drops deep to start attacks and distribute while also going forward and playing through balls. He’s so good at passing and turning away from pressure, and he’s a capable set piece taker too.
“Most fans saw the departure to Inter coming given Éver’s contract was expiring and he had put in such good performances with Sevilla – [they] have always been a club where the best players usually leave. His return was great news as all Sevilla supporters knew the quality he brought and he proved just as good as before. The upcoming move to Al-Shabab was a bit surprising and caught most supporters off guard given it was agreed in January. Most knew he was likely to leave given his contract expired at the end of the season, but it was a surprise he would go to the Middle East instead of returning to Argentina like he said he would.”
Coates is circumspect regarding Banega, believing Argentina’s consecutive Copa América final losses in penalty shootouts against Chile, in 2015 and 2016, weigh heavy. “Like all from his generation, [his international career] will be overshadowed by the failure to win anything. 65 appearances is not to be sniffed at, and on occasion Banega has shown his potential for Argentina, showing a good relationship with Messi, but he has failed to really hold down a spot due to inconsistency.
“He probably has failed to live up to his potential because he has always been considered just below the elite level. Indiscipline in the early years of his career – just see his problems at Valencia – probably put teams off, but his performances in Sevilla’s Europa League-winning sides showed what he could do.”
Banega has featured in several of Sevilla’s games since La Liga restarted after its Covid-enforced break, looking sharp as his team continue to push for a Champions League place. It will be a shame to see him leave Spain – his guile and obvious talent has proven an effective foil to a well-drilled and physical Sevilla team. He may not have reached the heights of the global game, with omission from Argentina’s 2014 World Cup squad serving as a particular lowlight, but he’s certainly contributed a perhaps unmatched degree of imperfect entertainment. True to the inherent nature of the pibe, one could even say.