Erik Lamela is 29 years old.
There is something almost cruel about this sentence, which seems less like a statement of fact and more a dispatching of judgment. How is Erik Lamela only 29 years old? From wunderkind, to flop, to functional cog – from starlet to shithouse, sometimes all in one game – he seems to have led more footballers’ lives than possible before the age of the 30. He is now moving to Sevilla in a swap deal that sees the 20-year-old Spanish winger Bryan Gil headed to Tottenham in exchange for Lamela and cash.
Once the brightest bright young thing in Argentine football, in 2004 Lamela was offered a contract by Barcelona when he was 12. Ultimately his parents reasoned it was better for them as a family and Erik as a player to stay in Buenos Aires and continue to develop at River Plate where he made his first team debut in 2009 at 17. Lamela was one of the few bright spots for Los Millonarios between 2009 and 2011, scoring four goals in the season River were infamously relegated for the first time in the club’s history. He finally got his move to Europe in 2011, to Roma, where he scored 19 and chipped in with 12 assists in just two seasons in Serie A. The Roma faithful were crestfallen at his departure as the man Francesco Totti tapped as his successor headed to the Premier League to replace Gareth Bale at White Hart Lane. Eight years later, news of his departure elicits bittersweet bemusement among the Spurs faithful among whom he has become a cult hero for his spikiness and occasional exploits of ridiculous skill rather than for consistent brilliance.
In truth, it’s been a terribly rough few years for Lamela, which have seen him sidelined for 837 days since joining Spurs in the 2013-14 season. Professional travails aside, he was also left emotionally distraught when his younger brother, Axel, had been paralyzed from a swimming pool accident in December 2016. Lamela’s anni horribiles are all the more heartbreaking given that when fit for a run of games he often plays at a level befitting his early promise only to be interrupted by yet another injury. Football is nothing if not fickle.
It has become a football cliché that a player’s reputation grows exponentially when he is not playing. No one is rated more highly than an injured or suspended player whose team seems to be suffering in his or her absence. As if the missing ingredient to success had always been the magic combination of attributes of the wounded –an itchy phantom limb on the collective body of the team. Because of Lamela’s undeniable talent and the fact that he has been stuck on the hamster wheel of permanent comeback, Spurs fans have given him the benefit of the doubt even if the wider viewing public and punditocracy might have written him off. He is not alone here. There is a chorus line of players whose injury-wrought careers meant they never really touched the ceiling their promise warranted. One of Lamela’s midfield nemeses, Jack Wilshere, who is also 29, comes to mind. If not for brittle knees and ankles who would doubt that Wilshere would be leading England to a thrilling European Cup final this summer instead of looking for a club in the doldrums of free agency? The dreams and expectations we foist upon the young end up dying on the physio’s table. That said, the physical demands of the game – the capacity to stay fit or emerge stronger from setback – are as much a part of the business of being an athlete as technical ability. And here is maybe where Lamela and Wilshere diverge. There’s a reason Lamela is going to Seville while Wilshere is looking for a club after being cut by Bournemouth.
Can we find another vocabulary to describe a career like Lamela’s that doesn’t fall back on clichés about unfulfilled potential? This is difficult, to be sure. The careers of footballers are often narrated in the context of a legacy told in linear fashion. River Plate has a heritage of hot-housing brilliant playmakers. Step forward Enzo Francescoli, Ariel Ortega, Pablo Aimar. Lamela’s die was cast. He would be part of this tradition or he would be an also-ran. Look back at the video of a 12-year-old Lamela playing keepy-up on the streets and video games at home with his family and you see innocence contrasted with terrible expectation of a nation (always already) looking for a new Maradona.
Instead of dwelling in this narrative of disappointment we can revel in Lamela’s rebirth and perseverance. Maybe a different – not worse, not better – player has emerged from his choppy tenure in North London, the setbacks leading to transformation rather than stasis. There is certainly something to this. Once a willowy show pony who stood out for his speedy gambettas from the right wing or as a number 10, Lamela is now a rather imposing, muscular midfielder not dissimilar in physique to Cristiano Ronaldo, if not as hulking. The flicks and the tricks are now more regularly accompanied by mettle and press. At the beginning of the 2020-21 season, Lamela led the Premier League in fouls committed – a testament to his commitment if not his aggression. Lamela’s added heft and agro have not sapped him of his gracefulness though. He is still a beautiful player to watch. When squaring up to defenders, Lamela shapes his body almost in an demi plie ballet pose – perfectly upright, head help high, toes pointed out slightly. He maintains this slightly odd, balletic posture as he runs, which means he can simultaneously shield the ball while he bursts past defenders. Exhibiting the street skills honed on the potreros of his youth in Buenos Aires, he often teases opponents by moving laterally while rolling the ball under his foot. No one loves a ball roll more than Erik Lamela. It’s impossible to know what kind of career Lamela would have had absent his streak of time on the sidelines, but his trajectory and development at the age of 21 hinted at a brilliant attacking talent. His injuries, no doubt, contributed to the emergence of a far more industrious player, who still has the odd rabona in his locker. In any case, Sevilla are getting a player. Someone at 29 who has experienced and come out the pitiless contingencies of a footballer’s life with scars and perhaps something new to offer. And if nothing else, I’m sure they’ll love the ball rolls.