ON THE HILLY COUNTRYSIDE of Serra Riccò, deep inside the bowels of a parish church, Don Stefano Vassallo cracked a wry smile. After days of painstaking research, scrolling through copious archived documents, he had finally found what he was looking for.
The next day, he headed north from his Genoa commune to present his findings at the request of Massimo Moratti, president of Internazionale. His discovery regarded the migration of a certain Francesco Cambiaso, an Argentine migrant of Genoese descent.
In the late 19th century – as a consequence of a mass wave of European migration – Francesco made the transatlantic journey to the port of Buenos Aires, and it was here where he, his wife, and their family of 11 children settled. The peninsula’s population had been decimated after years of ongoing civil war and in the aftermath of its bitter conclusion, Italian and Spanish workers sought to rebuild the nation, whilst seeking better lives for their offspring.
Upon arrival, a transcript error meant the Cambiaso family name officially became ‘Cambiasso’ and it was here in Buenos Aires, decades later, that a young Esteban was brought into the world. The relevance of this document relates to Cambiasso’s eligibility to play for the Nerazzurri. The club had struggled to register the player back in 2004 following his transfer from Real Madrid due to a lack of space on their non-EU player quota. It was Vassallo’s seminal findings, however, that would act as the catalyst for Cambiasso’s claim to an Italian passport, thus completing his move to Inter.
Despite this historical occurrence helping to shape the career path of the youthful midfielder, it was another preceded family event that so nearly led him to forge a profession with his hands, not feet. In 1908, Esteban’s ancestor, Antonio, founded the Villa del Parque – a district of Buenos Aires where years later the GEVP basketball school would be built. Esteban’s father, Carlos, was a basketball fanatic and his mother Tita had an adoration for cestoball (an Argentine sport not too dissimilar to netball). “When I was just three-years-old, my parents noticed how much I liked basketball and they took me, along with my brother Nicolas, to the GEVP basketball school where our elder brother Frederick already played.”
Esteban spent his formative years carrying a ball wherever he went, hedonistically playing with his siblings whilst also learning tactics and plays in the garage from his mother, using stools to replicate opposition players. He was meticulous and studious from an early age and would spend hours observing and trying to replicate his childhood sporting idol, Michael Jordan.
The game of fútbol would have to wait until schooling before it snared Cambiasso’s heart away from baloncesto. By now, he had also been awarded the nickname Cuchu, after popular national television character Chchufilito on account of his skinny frame, blonde hair and warm-hearted nature. His coaches noticed Esteban’s aptitude for starting moves – acquired from playing point guard – and immediately sought to instill in him the art of the pivot role.
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Six years honing his new-found craft brought with them a place at Argentinos Juniors’ prestigious academy and mounting interest from Europe. Ajax were coming off the back of an historic campaign having been crowned champions of both the Netherlands and Europe. Manager Louis van Gaal had been notified of Cuchu’s talents and made clear his interest in taking the 15-year-old to Amsterdam. Worried about the drastic cultural shift at such a tender age, his family opted to hold out for a more logistical move to materialise.
And materialise it did, in the form of the game’s great behemoth, Real Madrid. Offered the chance to adorn the iconic Los Blancos shirt without any language barriers proved too good an opportunity to dismiss. So, bags packed, a young Cambiasso travelled to the Spanish capital. “A few months before I had also looked at Ajax but the Dutch culture was so different from Argentina that my family and I were scared. I made the decision to follow a dream: Real Madrid,” Cambiasso recalled in an interview with Marca. “At the age of 15 I found myself surrounded by the biggest stars and they treated me very well, especially Sánchez, Hierro, Redondo, Alkorta and Chendo.”
Two years brought with them 41 appearances and two goals for Castilla, yet cultural barriers or not, spending his adolescent years miles away from loved ones took its toll. Indeed, Cambiasso was unsettled, and was also lacking the level of competition his budding development craved. “I was given the chance to return to Argentina after two years in Madrid B because I needed more competition. Already in the first team, the politics of the moment meant that most of the side were made up of academy players and Galácticos, and I wasn’t either of those.”
He returned home to his native land, signing for Independiente and broke into senior football with immediate effect. Cuchu was lauded, his play inspired and he exuded confidence and composure well beyond his years. He would also regularly interact with iconic manager César Luis Menotti, always asking for advice as the midfielder passionately continued his quest for self-betterment. It became apparent that Cambiasso was far more than just another player of the beautiful game – he was a devout student.
He went on to taste his first silverware, beginning an addiction for excellence, claiming the Juventud de América twice with Argentina’s under-20 side and becoming a youth world champion in 1997. A transfer to River Plate followed as Cambiasso began to establish himself as one of his county’s brightest stars.
There was nothing extravagant to his game, his trickery seldom, but for the purists, spending a few minutes watching him orchestrate River’s midfield was all it took to convince them of his excellence. His movement was ergonomic, passing purposeful and command of a game impeccable.
As his reputation grew, so too did Real’s re-kindled interest, and this time Cuchu would take the opportunity with both hands. The 2002/03 campaign saw Cambiasso attain major titles, first winning the Intercontinental and UEFA Super Cups, before adding the coveted La Liga crown. Sitting at the base of midfield whilst rotating seamlessly with the maestro Claude Makélélé, the duo added much-needed balance to Madrid’s attacking flair.
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Unfortunately, this was not an opinion shared by club president Florentino Pérez whose acrimonious sale of Makélélé after his request of a pay rise brought about a period of decline. The obdurate Pérez did not see the benefit of the deep-lying midfielder and lambasted both Makélélé and Cambiasso for their “lack of technical ability and pace.”
Another two years in Spain had drawn to a bitter end and once again Cambiasso was on the move. It is here where Inter and Moratti made their move. The Lombardy outfit had been long-term admirers of Cambiasso and negotiated with Madrid about a possible transfer when their Brazilian jewel Ronaldo moved in the opposite direction. At the time, the deal wasn’t feasible but now thanks to the tireless research of Vassallo, the Argentine of Italian decent was officially unveiled as an Inter player.
He arrived into a side of familiar faces. Inter had a strong Argentine core and Cambiasso felt right at home, teaming up with international compatriots such as Javier Zanetti, Nicolás Burdisso, Julio Cruz, and Juan Sebastián Verón.
The club embarked on an era of unassailable dominance, powering their way to five consecutive Scudettos. Having witnessed the decline of Carlo Ancelotti’s Rossoneri and the Old Lady’s dramatic fall from grace in the face of the Calciopoli scandal, the Nerazzurri were enjoying unrivalled success, the type of which had not been seen since the days of Helenio Herrera’s reign.
Cambiasso played at the fulcrum. A commanding warrior whose craft, guile and industry first helped Roberto Mancini break Italy’s duopoly, before elevating José Mourinho’s men to conquer Europe. “I won the treble with Cambiasso,” said a gleeful Mourinho to The Independent back in 2015, “he belongs to my golden team.” He commandeered the pitch much like a prize conductor leads his orchestra, each player dancing to Cuchu’s masterful beat. His presence was their baton, the ball their metronome, and cunning yet deadly counter-attacks their symphony.
Despite his success largely emanating from domestic football, if one were to pinpoint the perfect microcosm of Cambiasso’s career, it would be his hand in one of the greatest goals the World Cup has ever witnessed. In a group game against Serbia at the 2006 tournament, Argentina put together an awe-inspiring 25-pass move that culminated in Cuchu finding the back of the net. “A monument of geometry” was how El Mundo chose to describe it, and Cambiasso was at the epicentre of play. The fact the game is remembered for that magical goal – as opposed to it marking Lionel Messi first-ever World Cup goal – spoke of its artistry.
Incredibly, four years later, after Inter’s superb treble-winning season, both Cambiasso and Zanetti were omitted from Diego Maradona’s Albiceleste squad. The team lacked solidity at right-back and a deep-lying midfield passer, which inevitably cost Maradona the chance to immortalise his Argentine legacy as a manager, and furthermore, his job. National greats such as Ossie Ardiles chastised the coach’s lack of team cohesion and top-heavy approach by stating: “It is a team game, and it is the team that always comes first, not the individuals.”
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After the disappointment of not playing on football’s grandest stage, Cambiasso returned to a very different Inter. The winds of change had begun to take effect as Mourinho exited for Cuchu’s old suitors, Real. After such an unprecedented campaign, the team regrettably regressed. Spanish tactician Rafa Benítez replaced the outgoing Mourinho but didn’t even make it to Christmas.
Brazilian legend Leonardo was Benítez’s successor who, despite inspiring an instant upturn in form, again proved to be an underwhelming appointment. Three managers in the next two seasons was an indication of the unsettlement at the club. Cambiasso, though, remained a stalwart, helping teammates and managers alike, but when longstanding club president and close friend Moratti was not re-elected, he decided to bring the curtain down on an illustrious decade in Milan.
Needless to say, global interest in the now all-encompassed veteran was rife, however, Cambiasso’s personal allure had always been for the English game. He was somewhat of an Anglophile, intrigued by the lifestyle and enamoured by the football. So, rather than enjoy the relaxing confines of Major League Soccer, he put pen to paper on a year’s deal with plucky Premier League newcomers, Leicester City.
It was a woeful start to life in the east-midlands as the club found it’s self languishing at the foot of England’s top-flight for almost the entirety of the campaign. Cambiasso, however, remained sanguine. He had forged a reputation on English shores as a leader on and off the pitch, a pass-master, and fierce competitor. “For me, winning a cup or winning the league with another team is the same now as having the possibility to save Leicester in the Premier League.” Speaking to the BBC with conviction, he truly believed they could stay up, and as a result, his teammates took notice.
An incredible run of seven wins from their last nine fixtures was enough to cement the Foxes’ league status for another year and put together the blueprint which would eventually lead Leicester to the Premier League’s summit just 12-months later. The Blues had fallen head over heels for the man they called “magic”, his character had transcended sport and the city became infatuated by his charm. Unfortunately, this was not enough for him to renew his contract as Cambiasso packed up his box of tricks and headed for Greece.
Olympiakos is where Cuchu lived out his Indian summer, helping the Piraeus-based club win back to back Super League titles. Now 37, he has decided to call time on a glittering career and start training towards his coaching badges – a natural step for one of the game’s greatest modern-day students. He has genuine passion and admires many current mangers with differing methodologies, not least Zinedine Zidane and Diego Simeone: “They both convey authenticity and that generates credibility, the most important characteristic to be a leader.”
An under-20 world champion, treble winner and national treasure; how divergent his story might have been if the Cambiaso family tree wasn’t so rich with Italian history. For now, it’s fair to say he can take a step back, safe in the knowledge that he has created his very own history, an heirloom of stories that will echo throughout eternity.