The soap opera that is the English Premier League kicks off Saturday. If you are looking for a player who best captures its melodramatic quality ahead of the new season, you would be well advised to bypass newcomers Eden Hazard, Shinji Kagawa and Santi Cazorla to focus on Manchester City's Carlos Tevez.
With his inimitable skill, abundant wealth and poisonous petulance, few players are better qualified to act as poster boy for the contradictions at the heart of the world's most watched league. He's a turbulent talent who has expressed a repeated desire to leave a club that has also reportedly tried to dispense with his services, only to discover his exorbitant wages, rumored to be $49,000 a day, leave them fused at the hip.
This oddball stalemate came to be only because the negative energy Tevez supplies off the field contrasts starkly with the relentless spark he provides on game day. As he showed with his thunderous Community Shield goal against Chelsea, the frenetic striker launches himself at the opposition with the acceleration of a stray cat leaping out of a swimming pool. Last season, the Argentinian qualified as both the Premier League's most ungrateful talent, and its most menacing. No player bettered the 4.2 chances he created every 90 minutes on the pitch or managed more than the 2.1 shots he fired on target. In the irresistible, gaudy theater of English football, Carlos Tevez stands out by playing both hero and villain at the same time.
His past 12 months have been a long-running saga of self-destructive behavior. Tevez's theatrical refusal to warm up as a substitute during a 2-0 loss to Bayern Munich last September caused an emotional coach Roberto Mancini to pronounce the striker's career was "finished" at Manchester City. The relationship between club and player, which had been falling apart for some time, spiraled downward amid a battery of disciplinary hearings, fines and lost bonuses.
Tevez did not sit around to suffer trial by tabloid, defying team orders by bolting home to Argentina. While his teammates toiled through their Premier League campaign, the only shots their striker-in-exile mustered were on the golf courses of Buenos Aires, keeping his name in the sporting headlines by sniping at Mancini, whom he accused of treating him "like a dog."
A disobedient display of this magnitude would typically earn a player a speedy exit. With both Milan clubs and PSG rumored to be lurking, a move seemed imminent, but City, holding out for a reported $62 million for the player, could not agree on a valuation. Its bitter striker was left in limbo.
After five months of rumors and accusations, this footballing Cold War thawed once the Mancunians' title ambitions began to wilt in the end-of-season crucible. First, Sergio Aguero lost his touch, then Mario Balotelli lost his head. Tevez's frustration and Manchester City's desperation suddenly created the perfect alignment of self-interest.
As soon as Mancini switched his principled stance for a pragmatic approach, Tevez returned to the fold, bearded of chin and chubby of tummy. The only world-class athletic talent he appeared to resemble was John Daly. Despite this added girth, he trotted onto the field at the end of March and contributed to a pair of late goals which sank Chelsea in a come-from-behind victory.
Over the course of the season's last six games, the former outcast found the back of the net four times, providing the team with the jolt it needed to clinch its first title in 44 years. No less an authority than Balotelli proclaimed Tevez to be his "hero" (praise undermined only slightly when the Italian proceeded to discuss his own need for a psychologist with the media).
In typically impolitic fashion, Tevez quickly frittered away the little favor he had curried during the club's title-winning parade by holding aloft a tasteless "RIP Fergie" banner, forcing an embarrassed City to issue a hurried apology for his "significant error of judgement."
By his own low standards, Tevez has enjoyed a relatively quiet summer, cropping up in a quirky cameo to caddie for countryman Andres Romero during the British Open, and assuring the media he was ready to rededicate himself to City's title defense. "The truth is that I finished the season very happy in England," he said. "I am feeling good, I have no desire to be thinking that I want to leave."
Despite this statement, Manchester City fans will be forgiven for wondering exactly what the next 12 months have in store for their volatile striking talent. Will he provide the aching distraction of a sour malcontent or the buzzing threat of a goal-scoring pest?
Tevez has always been a tough player to decode. He avoids interviews and despite spending six years in the Premier League, can barely speak English, admitting to the Guardian, "I just can't get it into my head. I'm learning hardly anything, truth be told. I don't go out much." Despite this, he manages to make himself understood when need be, such as when he called former Manchester United teammate Gary Neville a "boot-licking moron" in 2010.
The superlative record of goal scoring Tevez has compiled throughout his career has been matched only by an ability to catalyze controversy at almost every opportunity. From his earliest days, Tevez has defined himself as a man who did not so much wear out the welcome mat as attack it with napalm.
A complex history
After coming of age amid the brutal poverty of the Fuerte Apache slums in Ciudadela, near Buenos Aires, this three-time South American Footballer of the Year commanded global attention by leading the scoring as Argentina won gold at the 2004 Olympics. But it was the contract he proceeded to sign with his business representative Kia Joorabchian that transformed Tevez's career, shaping it into a restless catalogue of lucrative, expedient decision-making.
First, the striker surprised the domestic media by ditching local club Boca Juniors in a South American-record $22 million blockbuster move to Brazilian power Corinthians, a bold yet unorthodox decision for an Argentinian star. Despite the occasional fistfight with his new teammates, and the fractious rapport he enjoyed with the rabid Brazilian fans upon arrival, Tevez proceeded to blast 29 goals in 47 games. Rather than bask in adulation, he chose to withdraw his services abruptly and decamp to Premier League cellar-dweller West Ham in the company of international teammate Javier Mascherano.
Why two world-class players would mysteriously decide to slum at a relegation-embattled east London club was partially explained by the revelation their arrival violated Premier League regulations. The two players were technically "owned" by third-party companies, including Joorabchian's. Distracted by the complex controversy, Tevez initially struggled to make the team, but then found his rhythm, rattling off six goals in nine games as if on a one-man crusade to preserve the club's topflight status.
On the last day of the 2006-07 season, West Ham still needed a point to avoid relegation. Traveling to Manchester United, the tireless Tevez drove home the only goal to trigger delirious scenes. West Ham were saved and in just 19 league games, Tevez, aka the "Argentine Cockney," had cemented his place in club lore.
Confusion continued to surround Tevez's legal status. West Ham were fined for fielding him, Joorabchian took his case to the courts, and FIFA was even compelled to intercede before Joorabchian engineered a two-year loan deal to take Tevez to United. Rotating the Argentinian with Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney and eventually Dimitar Berbatov, United unfurled a sophisticated, fast-paced passing game to snare back-to-back league titles and a Champions League trophy.
Despite the glory and his growing reputation as a "big-game player," Tevez appeared increasingly unhappy. The lack of playing time he received in Sir Alex Ferguson's squad rotation system caused him to publicly express his frustration. Writing in his autobiography, Gary Neville attributed Tevez's discontent to insecurity, suggesting "He'd been upset by the signing of Berba [Dimitar Berbatov], and Carlos is a player who needs to feel the love. He's not someone who can play one game in three and be happy."
The disillusionment Tevez experienced at Old Trafford was sufficiently potent to propel him on to his next jarringly unexpected journey, across town into Manchester City's arms. No player had directly transferred between the local rivals since 1999 and the move has rarely been braved by a star in his pomp. As a result, City celebrated the Argentinian's arrival with all the triumph of a spoil of war. Its "Welcome to Manchester" billboard campaign was rewarded with a goal glut, and the gift of the captaincy as Tevez's effervescence and work rate compensated for the lack of tactical discipline Mancini typically craves.
But as City's squad became bloated with world-class attacking options, the pattern of disengagement that had played out at United repeated itself. First Tevez began to grumble and handed in a transfer request. Then his representatives weaved rumors of homesickness, depression and even a possible early retirement from the game. By September 2011, their gripes contributed to the removal of his captaincy, causing Tevez to undermine a generation of the Manchester Tourist Office's good work by lambasting the city as a place where "it always rains," everything is "small," and "there are only two restaurants."
Cue the implosion at Munich, and the ensuing five-month-long golf vacation in Argentina, through which the striker learned just how few suitors have the financial muscle to match City's transfer valuation and ingest his $343,000-a-week salary. The player had become a victim of Joorabchian's deal making and peerless ability to drive him to the top of football's financial food chain in just four moves.
Can Tevez settle down and avoid becoming a distraction for the first time in his career? As Manchester City seeks to defend its title while mounting a real Champions League challenge, it certainly will hope so. Wary of the onset of Financial Fair Play, the club has been unusually inactive in the transfer market. Its squad contains a logjam of striking talent including Emmanuel Adebayor and Roque Santa Cruz who, like Tevez, City has overpaid for, and therefore is struggling to move.
A frustrated Mancini has been unable to pursue a viable Tevez replacement such as Robin van Persie and so has set his temperamental striker a low bar instead, telling journalists, "I don't think I can change Carlos," the manager said. "I just want respect, for me and for the club."
Mario Kempes, 1978 World Cup winner turned ESPN soccer analyst, believes the coach will see a different Tevez this year. "He has to change, because he has already made all mistakes he could've made, and he knows that. By having [Sergio] Aguero on his side he'll feel more comfortable in the club, knowing they should both be starters up front. Tevez has reflected on his past actions and won't commit the same mistakes."
City fans will think back to April's 6-1 rout of Norwich and pray Kempes is right. The forward's torrid movement proved undefendable as Aguero scored twice and Tevez bagged a hat trick. To celebrate his third goal, the recently returned Argentinian trotted to the corner flag and mimed a golf swing, an impudent reminder that few can match his ability to create and destroy in equal measure.
Roger Bennett is a columnist for ESPN, and with Michael Davies, is one of Grantland's "Men In Blazers." Follow him on Twitter: @rogbennett.