There is nothing glamorous about him. His body, hunched and taut, is soaked in a different kind of perspiration, a dirty, greasy sweat, not the type Cristiano Ronaldo is wetted by, and uses like a de facto hair gel. This man’s hair falls in lank, ebony strands over his face and down his neck, stroking the knotted, rippled scarf of scars that he wears.
He scurries like a frenzied animal, like a pit bull chasing a rabbit; you can almost hear him panting through the television cameras. He plays with the furious intensity of a desperate man, in love with the fight, revelling in the trauma of the athlete. He runs and runs until his lungs scream in pain. Their howls are met and embraced by the writhing squalls of the crowd, who love him. For now, they thank God that El Apache is their’s.
And yet, he’s a nomad. Throughout his career, Carlos Tevez has appeared for seven different clubs. He’s never really felt like a comfortable fixture at any of them but Boca, more like a disparate ruffian genius who through pure talent alone has been dragged into the light and onto the pitch. His trail is signposted with the caustic remains of soured relationships, with half-buried triumphs to which it feels he was, at once, both central and marginal. Though perhaps most tellingly, he is – as a player – mourned by a cavalcade of fans whose admiration seems to transcend traditional cross-club boundaries and normal grudges.
This is a player who, after one season’s work, now gets an obligatory ovation at Upton Park; a player who many Manchester United supporters consider one-third of their club’s finest attacking triumvirate of the last decade. Even at Manchester City, the Tevez years are remembered with a sort of rose-tinted fondness, a veil through which the destruction gets filtered out, and, like remembering an old relationship, only the affectionate memories remain.
In 2015 Juventus made a cheery return to the Champions League final. The Turin club ended a 12-year absence from the ultimate stage of Europe’s biggest tournament, and with them, Tevez walked assuredly and contentedly. Finally he seemed at ease and was playing well. The Old Lady soothed the Argentine’s pugnacious existence with a gentle caress; she whispered “tranquilla, mio figlio”. But it wouldn’t – it couldn’t – last.
Tevez’s life began with a moment of great anguish. The scars that wreathe his neck and chest were formed by a spilt kettle of boiling water that he pulled down over himself as a child. He was hospitalised for two months. Such a harrowing event marks a person, inside and out, and gives them a permanent badge that invites pity, a badge that Tevez has spent the rest of his life trying to wrestle off.
Was it this that instilled his fighting spirit, the responsibility he assigns himself to work harder than anyone else, to chase every dying hope, to leave it all on the pitch? Tevez was asked about his childhood in the lead up to the 2015 Champions League final: “I wouldn’t change my childhood in Fuerte Apache for anything; it made me who I am today. I always carry that with me in the present. It’s a period in my life that I will never forget.”
Read | Juan Román Riquelme: the dream comes first
He made his debut for Boca Juniors alongside Juan Román Riquelme, an Argentine icon and a player of impossibly languid creativity. Riquelme built his legend on seeing – and often playing – the game in slow motion, punctuating his treacly movement with a flick here, a nutmeg there, and hush now, as I waft the ball into the top corner from 40 yards away.
Riquelme was an upright duke, reclining back slightly, gliding between defenders almost apologetically, a contrite ghost floating through the corridors and occasionally through the walls of his castle. He was, obviously, a stark contrast to Tevez’s incessant, open-mouthed scrambling. Tevez’s first season at Boca was Riquelme’s last before he went to Europe. They crossed paths only briefly, two attacking forces outside of one another’s paradigms. Tevez spent almost four seasons at Boca and left as one of Argentina’s most luminous talents.
He was bought for a record fee by Brazilian titans Corinthians, sitting on a $20m pedestal of expectation. Almost immediately there was an uneasy sense. Asked in an interview how long he planned to stay at Corinthians, Tevez was strangely impassive: “I do not know. I think to finish my contract. I have no great ambition that I go to Europe.”
As it turned out, that $20m fee bought Corinthians – at just over $500,000 a match – 38 matches with Tevez on the pitch. He won the league title with them and was voted the best player in the Campeonato Brasileiro. But there was something wrong, and Tevez’s relationship with the Corinthians hierarchy had been worn down irreparably by what Tevez spoke of as “broken promises”.
“I decided to leave Brazil because the club has promised many things to me and they didn’t do them,” he said, after leaving the club and returning to Buenos Aires. “I kept on playing but now I decided to leave Brazil because my family has suffered a lot.” He also gave a nod to the faithful. “But I don’t have any problem in playing for Corinthians. I would do it only for the supporters. If they want me to go back I will, but many things would have to change.”
They wouldn’t, and Tevez would leave Corinthians only a season after he had arrived. It’s at this point that Tevez’s story takes a wild, exciting turn, one that would lead him across England, leaving behind him a scorching trail of rancour.
Tevez entered the arena of European football under circumstances that have now been deemed illegal by the sport’s governing body. On 1 May 2015, FIFA put into place a ban on third-party ownership, a mechanism that FIFA itself describes as “the circumstances in which a physical or legal person who is not a football club invests in the economic rights of a professional player, potentially in order to receive a share of the value of any future transfer of that player.”
Read | When Tevez and Mascherano went to West Ham
In 2005, the Premier League had rules which called into question the transfer of Tevez and his countryman Javier Mascherano to West Ham United. At the time, it was Rule U18, which prohibited any Premier League club from entering into a contract with a third party that gave it “the ability materially to influence its policies or the per