In sport, as in life, it rarely pays to mock the afflicted. During Manchester
City’s Premier League celebrations at the end of last season, a refreshed-looking Jack Grealish was caught on video joking that key to their title-winning comeback against Aston Villa was getting his teammate Riyad
Mahrez “off the pitch” because “he played like Almirón”.
Jack is such a lad. He’s also a £100m signing who often finds himself seated
on the bench for City. The talent is there, the temperament requires attention.
Miguel Ángel Almirón, meanwhile, is the toast of Newcastle. While Grealish has one league goal to his name this season and four in total since joining the champions, Almirón has scored five in October alone.
“Playing like Almirón” suddenly looks like something to be envied. And playing for Newcastle United now comes with an oil-rich benefactor, just like playing for City.
Abu Dhabi has the Premier League title. Qatar bought the World Cup hosting rights. Saudi Arabia is throwing billions at already rich but insatiably greedy golf professionals. However, the kingdom knows that football is king and has for some time been discussing with Fifa president Gianni Infantino a world club tournament that would dwarf the Champions League in financial terms.
This is a kingdom where money trumps patience. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman gained British government support when his consortium bought out Mike Ashley in the £300m takeover of the Magpies. And despite Europe’s supposed Financial Fair Play restrictions, the transformation up north is happening quickly.
Almirón is not a Saudi purchase. He was there before the buy-out, and his journey is a more traditional tale of South American talent overcoming poverty to eventually blossom on the continent of Europe.
The man we see now – still quite slender and still with those puppy eyes appearing to not quite believe that he belongs – is being coached, coaxed out
of shyness by an English coach who worked his own way up through the divisions with Bournemouth.
Eddie Howe knows the value of hard graft allied to natural skills and the daily drip-feed of instilling confidence into players.
I doubt that Howe has ever been to the shanty area of Asunción, the capital city of Paraguay where Almirón was born into a family where his mother and father worked day and night to keep their large family above water. Even if Howe had seen the poverty, he cannot have experienced the rejection that the adolescent Miguel Almirón suffered.
Club Nacional, the big club in his neighbourhood, rejected him on sight. A 14-year-old waif, he was “too lightweight” to wear their shirt. Club Cerro Porteño, the poorer relation, took a chance. But even there it took one man, the U-17s coach Hernán Acuña to look beyond the spindly youth and see that the kid had talent, especially in the left foot.
That is the “gift”, an older man’s vision of what might happen if a boy is built up, both physically and mentally into his potential. Acuña lost his youngster when Club Atlético Lanús, the Argentine club close to where Diego Maradona was born and bred, took Almirón and built an Argentine championship-winning side around the still slight, but smart and work-possessed 21-year-old.
The next stepping stone, hardly an established route to riches, was Atlanta United in the USA’s Major League Soccer. Almirón arrived for a league-record fee and became, by all accounts, the star of the American game. Newcastle, then under Rafa Benítez, took a £21m punt (the most Newcastle paid for a player in the tight-purse era of Ashley) that a player nearing mid-career could bridge the gap between American and English standards.
It has taken a while, taken the managerial carousel from Benítez to Steve Bruce to Howe, to bring out the best of the now 28-year-old Almirón. To make a man out of the boy Hernán Acuña spotted in Asunción.
A man whose talent, and finally belief, still belies his appearance. As the tropical thunderstorm broke in London last Sunday evening, Almirón looked a lightweight against Tottenham Hotspur. Even soaked to the skin, his 5ft 9ins (1.74m) would not have scaled more than 10st (63kg).
But what control, what beauty, what mesmeric movement the Paraguayan showed as he brushed off a challenge by Ryan Sessegnon and then sped past Clément Lenglet before shooting the lights out of Tottenham goalkeeper Hugo Lloris.
Swift, low, fast and instinctive. In another world, Grealish would go back to his social media feed to acknowledge how foolish and how wrong he was to mock another player.
Some suppose that Grealish’s comment motivated the Newcastle midfielder into the scoring spree of his lifetime. More likely, Miggy Almirón, prompted by his club manager and by the visible encouragement and teamwork all around him on Tyneside, is doing that for himself.
Talent is born. Teamwork is coached. Desire and confidence make the difference. And all the money in Arabia, never mind the portions of it
invested in Newcastle and Manchester, cannot simply buy results.
One month from now, Grealish may be a World Cup player, more than likely a benchwarmer. He has something intuitive that can change a game, and that most English players lack. The difference is that Latin Americans like Almirón have it in abundance.