For Mauro Zarate, this was a different kind of international break. Nine Lazio players were called up to represent their countries in friendlies and World Cup qualifiers over the past fortnight, but the forward was not among them. Six years have passed since Zarate’s late strike against the Czech Republic won Argentina the Under-20 World Cup, yet he has still never played for the senior side.
As his team-mates prepared to join up with their respective national teams, however, Zarate too boarded a plane bound for the far side of the planet. Rather than boots and shinpads, he packed swimming trunks and flippers. To celebrate his 26th birthday, the player had decided to indulge in a mid-season mini-break to the Maldives.
Lazio had not granted him permission to do so. Indeed, Zarate had never asked. Instead he simply presented club officials with a sick note from his doctor which stated that he needed a few days off training to recover from a skin condition caused by “fatigue”. The cynics wondered what could possibly have brought on such a state. Zarate had been training apart from the first-team for months, and by most accounts not over-exerting himself.
Either way, Zarate was granted the time off and swiftly set out on his secret sojourn. He might have got away with it, too, if it weren’t for the fact that there happened to be a Lazio supporter on holiday at the very same resort. That fan put in a phone call to Rome’s Radio Sei, informing listeners that he had just seen the player snorkeling in the Indian Ocean.
Zarate returned to training on 22 March amid reports that the club would impose a fine as great as €400,000. Thus far, no such punishment has materialized. It has been suggested that Lazio are still compiling their evidence against the player; it might also be that there is more to this story than meets the eye.
What is known is that the player has since upped the ante, initiating legal action to have his contract with Lazio terminated. Zarate’s agent, Luis Ruzzi, confirmed as much last Tuesday, telling reporters that he had assembled “many documents” to support their case. He will argue that Zarate has been frozen out of training by Lazio and also denied the opportunity to leave the club, two acts that would effectively constitute a restraint of trade.
Lazio have been here before. In 2009 Goran Pandev had his contract rescinded after being forced to train apart from the rest of the team for several months. The player had sought a move away in the previous transfer window and successfully argued that the club was denying him the right to play as a punishment him for those actions.
Whether or not Zarate can win a similar ruling may depend on a tribunal’s interpretation of recent transfer negotiations. The player was thought to be on his way to Dynamo Kyiv in February (Ukraine’s transfer window does not close until the end of that month) but the move eventually fell through. Zarate has accused Lazio’s owner, Claudio Lotito, of raising the transfer fee after a deal had already been agreed. Others have claimed that it was Zarate’s demand for a release clause in his contract which scuppered the move.
Further details will doubtless emerge over the coming weeks, but in the meantime it seems more salient to ask how the relationship between club and player could deteriorate to the point that arbitration should even be required. It is less than five years since Lazio signed Zarate from Qatar’s Al Sadd, initially on loan. Back then Lotito hailed the new arrival as “better than [Leo] Messi”.
In his first season with the club, Zarate almost lived up to such hype, scoring 16 goals for a Lazio team which won the Coppa Italia. With superior acceleration, dribbling ability and a powerful shot from either foot, he possessed not only the flair to fire fans’ imaginations but also the ruthlessness to ensure his fancy footwork didn’t go to waste.
He scored twice on his Serie A debut, away to Cagliari, then notched a breathtaking goal in his first home game. The fans were smitten. They would only become more enamoured after seeing him find the net in a 4-2 derby win, and then later mock Francesco Totti. Zarate also scored Lazio’s only goal in the Coppa Italia final against Sampdoria, as well as converting his penalty in the eventual shoot-out victory.
Lotito duly paid the €24m required to make his loan deal permanent at the end of the campaign. It has been all downhill from there. Lazio changed managers over the summer, Delio Rossi getting replaced by Davide Ballardini, and Zarate struggled to replicate his previous season’s form. He was criticised by the manager for both his selfishness in possession, and for leaving the country without the club’s permission before they had formally broken up for the winter break.
Zarate’s brother, Sergio, who also serves as an agent to the player, reacted furiously to such comments. He demanded an apology from the manager, and said that if one was not forthcoming, then a decision would have to be made. “Lotito will have to decide who goes,” said Sergio Zarate, “[My brother] or Ballardini.” A month later, the manager was sacked.
Still Zarate’s performances did not improve. He finished the season with just three league goals in 32 games, and was later chastised by Lazio’s new manager, Edy Reja, after showing up at preseason training 5kg heavier than his usual playing weight. The forward scored nine goals in 2011-12 but even his sublime moments appeared increasingly isolated in a sea of anonymous performances.
Lotito was left wondering what could be done with his once prize asset. Zarate’s performances were not only hurting Lazio but also the player’s market value. When Zarate’s deal was made permanent in 2009 the newspaper La Repubblica had confidently predicted that: “Lotito is assured a profit if he ever sells the player, given that his fee is sure to be over €30m.” Now he might have accepted half that amount.
It was with such economic considerations in mind that Lazio agreed to send Zarate to Inter in the summer of 2011. The Nerazzurri paid €2.6m for a season-long loan, with an option to buy for €16m at the end of the campaign. At the time it seemed like a good deal for all parties, offering the player a chance to revive his career, Lazio the possibility of recouping most of his initial transfer fee and Inter a wide forward who could operate in new manager Gian Piero Gasperini’s 3-4-3.
Once again, however, Zarate fell short of expectations. Despite being offered a €15,000 assist bonus by Inter—a ruse to counter-act his perceived selfishness—he finished the campaign with just three in all competitions, as well as three goals. The Nerazzurri did not take up their option, and Zarate returned to Lazio.
The whole episode might be seen as a metaphor for the player’s frustrating career. Zarate could argue that he was scuppered by events beyond his control – Inter sacking Gasperini after just five games. Others, however, would point out that the player did little to fight perceptions that he simply didn’t care enough about his work. Zarate developed a reputation for loving the nightlife in Milan, and was caught partying in a nightclub just hours after Inter’s defeat to Udinese.
That Zarate is talented has never been in doubt. The son of one professional footballer and brother of three more, as well as the grandson of a Chile international, Zarate grew up around the game and was acknowledged from a young age as the most talented among his siblings. He made his debut for Vélez Sarsfield at the age of just 17 and three seasons later, in his first campaign as a regular starter, was named joint-top scorer of the Apertura tournament with 12 goals in 16 games.
It is also true, however, that he has always possessed a petulant streak. On one infamous occasion with the Vélez Sarsfield youth team, Zarate’s coach is said to have left him on the bench as a punishment for not passing more. Upon being introduced as a second-half substitute, the player won possession deep in his own half and ran the length of the pitch, beating several opponents before rounding the goalkeeper. He then stopped the ball on the goal-line, and left it there, running back towards midfield. As he did, he shouted over to his coach: “Now you put it in.”
But where Zarate could get away with such an egotistical approach in youth football, the harsh reality is that he can’t at this level. He is a good player, one whose technique and close control are well above average even for Serie A. But he is not the phenomenon that he was once made out to be. He is no Messi, nor even—to cite a player known to adopt a similarly selfish approach at times—an Arjen Robben.
If Zarate were ever to truly devote himself to the service of his team-mates he would certainly be a valuable asset to a side such as Lazio. Instead, he finds himself back on the margins. He and his agents will seek to blame Lotito for that fact, but the club’s latest manager, Vladimir Petkovic, painted a rather different picture in December, when he claimed that the player had “removed himself” from the squad by allegedly failing to respond to a call-up for Lazio’s game against Inter.
Even the supporters who once adored Zarate have now turned against him. “Wherever he goes, Mauro [Zarate] will be loved and appreciated by the Lazio fans,” said Ruzzi as the team resumed training after this season’s winter break. Those supporters responded with a banner which read: “The true champion is humble. He goes and collects the balls when training with the reserves. He doesn’t cry on Twitter, and he reduces his wages. He does not cling on to an overly generous contract. Zarate: get lost.”
Close attention will be paid to the player’s situation over the coming months. His talent is such that plenty of clubs might register an interest should Zarate succeed in freeing himself from his Lazio contract. Tottenham and Liverpool have been linked in recent weeks – though it is wise to be wary of such stories at a time when it is plainly in the agents’ interest to ‘generate’ speculation about their client.
It would also be wise for any potential suitors to think long and hard about why it is that Zarate has not yet achieved the success that was anticipated of his career. And why things should be any different if they sign him.