Claudio López: the little giant who remains one of his generation’s most underrated forwards

Claudio López: the little giant who remains one of his generation’s most underrated forwards

It was a brisk October evening in Rome when Claudio López, making only his seventh start since his £35m move from Valencia, raced onto a nonchalant Dino Baggio through ball in the dying embers of a game in which Lazio had destroyed Shakhtar Donetsk and fired a low, whistling shot past Yuriy Virt in goal. As he wheeled away in celebration, leaping into Giuseppe Pancaro’s jubilant embrace, the relief that flooded the Stadio Olimpico was almost tangible. 

For Lazio fans, it was the statement of intent they had been waiting for since they had signed the talismanic Argentine from Valencia the summer after their first Scudetto victory in 25 years. With that victory, the gateway to the elusive and lucrative Champions League had been opened, and Claudio López, their marquee signing, had beaten the likes of Gabriel Batistuta and Hernán Crespo to a unique accolade – the first Argentine to score a hat-trick in Europe’s premier club competition.  

With the charismatic yet pragmatic Sven-Göran Eriksson at the helm, and financed by Sergio Cragnotti, Lazio were expectant. The dominance of AC Milan and Juventus in the 1990s had shifted, and a glittering side supplemented by South American jewels such as Crespo, Marcelo Salas and Juan Sebastián Verón could now boast Claudio López, arguably European football’s finest left-forward, amongst their swollen ranks. 

Just why, then, isn’t the industrious forward from Estudiantes venerated to such the same degree as his contemporaries?

In the late-90s, Argentina were a national side positively quivering with talent. From Roberto Ayala and Javier Zanetti at the back, through a midfield that boasted Fernando Redondo, Diego Simeone and Ariel Ortega, to a rampant forward line of Batistuta, López and Crespo, La Albiceleste were considered one of the finest prospects in world football. For their countrymen, the 1998 World Cup in France was almost a formality. 

However, for a country steeped in footballing tradition that had enjoyed success at the 1978 and 1986 World Cups and which could lay claim to 14 Copa Américas, it was a testament to the ability of the 90s generation that they were considered by many the most exciting and complete batch of them all. Yet, for all their talent, they are remembered with misty-eyed wistfulness. The nearly men. When they should have breezed through in ’98, they were undone by a moment of magic from Dennis Bergkamp. In 2002, in this generation’s final fateful throw of the dice, they fell at the first hurdle.

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Despite winning 55 caps for Argentina across an eight-year international career, including 12 appearances in 1998 alone, López is the name from this fabled crop that everyone forgets. Where Batistuta was hammering home volleys from ludicrous angles, Ortega was mesmerising defenders with his limitless stepovers, Verón was dictating play with his metronomic passing, and Ayala was masterfully marshalling his troops before battle, López was the unassuming workhorse whose fusion of industry, athleticism and skill should have elicited greater recognition – not just with Argentina but throughout a career where he so seldom found himself in the limelight his talents deserved.

When Claudio López first traversed the Atlantic in 1996 to join then perennial middle-table stalwarts Valencia, you’d be forgiven for thinking Los Che had put their faith in a dud. The raw and often inconsistent forward registered only three goals in his maiden campaign, and with the sacking of fellow compatriot Jorge Valdano, few would have betted on López sticking around once Claudio Ranieri arrived. 

However, over a profitable three-year period, López would fashion a reputation as one of the world’s finest left-forwards, transforming from a diligent yet indecisive, athletically-gifted footballer into a supreme specimen that would help propel Valencia from mid-table obscurity to regular botherers of the top three.   

Nicknamed El Piojo (The Louse) due to his ability to constantly irritate defenders, López helped Los Che mount a sustained offensive on multiple fronts, as they went in search of their first piece of silverware since their Segunda División title in 1986/87. From three goals in his debut season, his tally rose to 12 in his second year as his pace and direct running proved a huge asset to Ranieri’s brand of football.  

But while López was forging a prodigious reputation in the south-east of Spain, his performances for Argentina were less remarkable. Despite providing the endeavour to Ortega’s artistry and the pace to Batistuta’s power, El Piojo found himself unable to replicate the kind of form for Valencia that saw top European suitors begin to circle the Mestalla.

Unfortunately for López, a wretched barren spell reached its nadir on the grandest stage of them all at the 1998 World Cup in France, as he laboured through 259 minutes of play without a goal contribution, until his 17th-minute strike against the Netherlands in the quarter-finals. Argentina would crash out, despite their high pre-tournament expectations, and López returned to Spain for pre-season with the club’s sights set firmly on domestic success. 

On a personal level, the 1998/99 season would prove to be a watershed campaign following the disappointment of his World Cup travails. Such was López’s lethality in front of goal that he finished third in the hunt for the Pichichi with 21 league goals, behind only Raúl and Rivaldo, with the added caveat of taking far fewer penalties than his competitors. 

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With their forward seemingly making amends for his lacklustre World Cup showing, Valencia mounted a serious challenge on both a domestic and European front, vanquishing Atlético Madrid in the 1999 Copa del Rey final – courtesy of a López brace – tasting success in the barely-organised chaos that constituted the Intertoto Cup, and, perhaps most crucially of all, securing the coveted fourth Champions League spot on the final day of the season.

With this triumph would come Valencia’s first ever foray into Europe’s premier competition since its re-branding in 1992, and it would be a venture that would take them all the way to the final. Seemingly more secure under the stewardship of noted defensive-minded coach Héctor Cúper – in reality, Valencia conceded the same amount of league goals as they did during Ranieri’s tenure – Los Che powered their way to an all-Spanish final, with López scoring five goals along the way, including two in the knockout stages, and perhaps none finer than his sumptuous over-the-shoulder volley against PSV. 

However, a season that promised so much sputtered to a lugubrious end as Valencia finished third in the league, were humbled 3-0 in the Champions League final by a rampant Real Madrid, and could only make it to the semi-finals of the Copa del Rey they had claimed a year prior. López’s 70th-minute goal during a 2-1 victory over Real Zaragoza on the final day of the season would be his last, for it was with tremendous reluctance that the talisman departed Spain for incumbent Italian champions Lazio for a fee of €35m. 

After four years in Valencia, López had found a home in Europe. Valencia weren’t the biggest or most glamorous team, but they had climbed the ranks of LaLiga, forcing themselves past the bouncers and through the door to Europe’s elite VIP bar, where they rubbed shoulders with AC Milan, Manchester United and Bayern Munich.

While they were humbled on their first appearance in the Champions League final, they weren’t escorted from the premises by UEFA’s grim-faced bouncers. A third-placed finish in 1999/2000 ensured they would return, but they would do it without López. 

The Argentine, who had cost Valencia precisely nothing to acquire, was snapped up by Lazio, the latest entrants to the exclusive club, who had sweet-talked the bouncers and pushed their way to the front of the bar. It was only Lazio’s second ever season in the Champions League, but they boasted a side capable of winning the tournament. 

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The incumbent champions had been steadily growing in might throughout the 90s, finishing inside the top three on two occasions, as well as clinching a Cup Winners’ Cup and two Coppa Italia. Bankrolled by business magnate Sergio Cragnotti, their success was founded upon the systematic signings of talent on the way to the top; Marcelo Salas, Pavel Nedvěd and Siniša Mihajlović had all arrived in Rome by 1999. 

Following their first Scudetto victory since 1975, the spending accelerated. Crespo and López both joined in the summer of 2000 for a combined fee of £70m. But Lazio were intent on utilising the same formula in buying players established at other reputable European clubs.  

Whereas Batistuta and Crespo had been raw, plucked straight from the veins of South America’s richest footballing mines and crafted by the jewellers of Florence and Parma, López was already a cut and polished gem who had glittered with coruscant upon the turf of the Mestalla, but whose lustre seemed to falter once in the deepening shadows of the Stadio Olimpico.

His first season in Italy was to be underwhelming, as a forward line that should have been capable of wreaking devastating destruction was hobbled by long-term injuries. Of their five forwards – Crespo, López, Salas, Simone Inzaghi and Fabrizio Ravanelli – only Crespo managed to reach double figures in terms of league goals. The only glimmer of joy for López in that dismal maiden campaign was his hat-trick against Shakhtar. He would end the league season goalless and with a single assist to his name.

The disappointment in Rome was compounded even further for López in that, without him, Valencia finally clinched the LaLiga title in the 2001/02 season. In the two years since his departure, Los Che had reached a second consecutive Champions League final and won the league by seven points. Meanwhile, López had endured an injury-ravaged opening campaign with Lazio, before seeing Cragnotti embroiled in a financial scandal which resulted in the club being placed into the care of financial caretakers. 

Haemorrhaging its top stars, Lazio’s Serie A challenges were thwarted. López, whose hopes were never quite fulfilled by Valencia, now found himself on a sinking ship. Without the firepower it possessed at the turn of the millennium, Lazio turned to López to bear the burden of a whole team’s ambitions. Despite approaching 30, he still delivered. 

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His pace, ever one of his greatest assets, remained intact, and ably supplied by the likes of Dejan Stanković and Stefano Fiore, he plundered a league-best 15 goals in Italy, as well as firing them to an unlikely UEFA Cup semi-final appearance. Even then, his early away goal at Porto was not enough as Lazio capitulated 4-1 on aggregate.  

López would form something of a potent, if not quite prolific, partnership with Bernardo Corradi, but it would become apparent that as Lazio themselves were waning, so were the talents of their Argentine. In his final season in Italy, he only managed four goals across all competitions as Lazio crashed out of the Champions League group stages and languished in sixth in the league. A Coppa Italia win over Juventus would prove some consolation for López, who would depart i Biancocelesti in the summer for Club América.

By this point, López’s international career had sputtered to a halt without a goal in nearly three years for his country, and his time in Europe finally came to an end. As the noughties lurched on towards a period of re-establishment for Real Madrid and Barcelona as the dominant clubs in Spain, and where the Calciopoli scandal in Italy would soon be revealed in all its insalubrious ugliness, the fabled Argentina of the late-90s had been dismantled.

Batistuta was earning a final paycheque in Qatar, where he annihilated the league goalscoring record in emphatic fashion; Ortega was banned from football for four months after breaching his contract with Fenerbahçe; Redondo had retired from the sport following a torrid time in Milan where he could only register 16 appearances in four seasons; while even the relative youngsters, Crespo and Veron, were witnessing their careers suffering near-obliteration following ill-fated moves to the Premier League. 

Yet, López slipped quietly back across the Atlantic to little fanfare. It is a cruel quirk of irony that, despite playing for Valencia and Lazio during the most successful years for each club, he wouldn’t collect his first league winners medal until the age of 32 when his 14 goals helped Club América to the Liga MX Clausura in 2005. 

For a player with the ability and attitude that López possessed, it seems wholly unfair that he would go underappreciated for much of his career. From leading a Valencia side into its most lucrative period in history to shouldering the dying carcass of Lazio during its financial implosion, there were always more glamorous footballers, but there were few quite so deserving of recognition as Claudio López. 

By Josh Butler @Joshisbutler90

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