BY DAN WILLIAMSON
On June 6th Argentina will begin their Copa America campaign against Chile in Santa Clara, a suburb of San Jose, California. In the squad, alongside luminaries such as Lionel Messi, Sergio Agüero, Angel Di Maria and Gonzalo Higuain, is a certain Erik Lamela of Tottenham Hotspur.
When Gareth Bale swapped White Hart Lane in north London for Madrid’s Santiago Bernabeu in 2013, Tottenham Hotspur decided to replace him with, what appeared on the surface, quantity over quality. The critics may have been right. Of the seven players brought in only three remain: Christian Eriksen, Nacer Chadli, and Erik Lamela, who at approximately £30million was Spurs’ record signing, a record that stands to this day. Saying that, three out of seven isn’t a bad transfer record, given that even the most successful managers can count embarrassing flops amongst the gems.
Born in Buenos Aires in March 1992, Erik Manuel Lamela made his debut for River Plate in 2009, aged just 17. It’s not uncommon for promising South American teenagers to debut at such a tender age, given that players are often whisked away to Europe at the first sign of promise, leaving gaps in the team that are often filled by the next generation. Lamela’s first full season saw him make 34 appearances in a campaign that ended with the Buenos Aires giants’ relegation to the second tier, a major story at the time and one the fans of eternal rivals Boca Juniors refuse to let them forget. After joining Roma for £12million in 2011, he went on to make 64 appearances in two seasons, scoring 21 goals in the process.
Lamela, like most South American youngsters, arrived in Europe perhaps a little sooner than would have been optimum for his development. Due to the economic situation facing Argentina’s football clubs, and those across Latin America as a whole, young men are transferred across the Atlantic often before they are ready, either as footballers or human beings.
Neymar Jr. stayed at Santos longer than many expected, thanks to Brazil’s strong economic situation at the time. The result was that he was able to hit the ground running at Barcelona, and is now considered one of the best players in the world. Had he moved to Europe a few years earlier, he might not have adjusted as easily. Although he was only 21 when he moved, Neymar had clocked up more than 100 games for Santos, and scooped successive South American Footballer of the Year awards as well as appearing several times for Brazil’s national team. He was more than ready to make the trans-Atlantic voyage to superstardom. Lamela didn’t have that luxury, making the move to Europe aged just 19.
His first season at White Hart Lane wasn’t one to remember, but that is often the way with young foreign players as they attempt not only to adapt to an alien culture and language, but a completely new way of playing the game. His manager at the time, Portuguese Andre Villas Boas, remarked that Lamela “knows he isn’t producing half of what he can”. A back injury ended his first season, one in which he only managed 17 appearances. Jamie Redknapp, a former Spurs player himself, labelled him “not good enough” and accused him of not “living up to his billing” in his Daily Mail Online column. “I just hope they kept the receipt” added Redknapp. In defence of Redknapp – something I’d never thought I’d write – he wasn’t alone in his criticism of Lamela.
Villas Boas was replaced the following summer by Lamela’s compatriot Mauricio Pochettino. The new boss selected Lamela in the first game of the season, a massive vote of confidence for the youngster. The moment that really announced his arrival came in October 2014, when he scored a stunning rabona goal in the Europa League versus Greek side Asteras Tripoli. He managed 46 appearances in his second season, finding the net five times. Given the managers’ propensity for a pressing game and a relentless pace, Lamela showed that he certainly has the physical tools to cope with the demands of the English Premier League.
This season he finished with 44 appearances under his belt, and has added more goals to his game, scoring 11, as well as assisting ten. What might surprise some is that he has added bite to his undoubted flair and talent, with ten yellow cards this term, more than he managed in his first two seasons in England combined. Whilst yellow cards aren’t something that points to the emergence of burgeoning talent, the fact that he has played a full season and shown that he is more than capable of competing physically, points to his coming of age in English football.
Traditionally, English football, and by extension players from our shores, are deemed to be hard-working, robust and committed. Foreigners, on the other hand, and more specifically those from Latin or Hispanic countries, are often deemed to be “flighty”; good on the ball and full of flair, but generally of a slight build and not really “up for it” when the “going gets tough”. It’s easy to sit here and write this with the benefit of several years’ hindsight, yet it highlights the depressing English trait of ridiculing young foreign talent before they’ve had the chance to adapt to their new surroundings. Has the aforementioned Jamie Redknapp ever tried to live in a foreign country? Not that I’m aware of. Therefore, he should perhaps have a little more sympathy for people half his age crossing oceans to live and work in a pressure-cooker environment.
Tottenham eventually missed out on this season’s Premier League, their form collapsing in the last few games as even rivals Arsenal pipped them to second place. Despite this it has easily been their best season of the Premier League era. Once known as an entertaining cup team that lacked the steel to mount a title challenge, Spurs have arguably come of age under manager Mauricio Pochettino, and Lamela has been a key part of his plans.
It remains to be seen how much game time Lamela will enjoy during this summer’s tournament, given that he’s not started an Argentina game since September last year and has only made two substitute appearances in the last seven, but at least he can say he was there. A successful Copa America campaign for Argentina will also signify an excellent year personally.