Not everything comes naturally to Juan Iturbe. Verona’s Argentinian playmaker has a way of making things look so straightforward on the pitch, bewitching his opponents with the simplest of touches or flicks. Since joining the club on loan from Porto in the summer, he has started three Serie A games and twice been named as Gazzetta dello Sport’s man of the match. Already he has two goals and an assist to his name.
Some things, however, remain a daily struggle. Asked by Sportweek magazine what had been the most challenging aspect of adapting to life in Italy, Iturbe did not hesitate. “Not eating pasta and pizza in the same meal,” he said. “[The club] banned me from doing it…”
The line was doubtless delivered with a grin. A smile never seems to be far from Iturbe’s lips these days, his mischievous sense of humour rendering him an instant hit with his new colleagues. In less than two months with Verona he has pulled so many practical jokes that even he cannot remember them all. “My team-mates say I seem like a Neapolitan,” he added. “In the changing room they always say that I have la locura – the madness – that Neapolitans are supposed to have.”
If he had been born a decade earlier, then Iturbe would doubtless have drawn comparisons with the greatest of all honorary Neapolitans. For many years it was the fate of any creative young Argentinian talent to be hailed as the “next Maradona”. These days, though, the meme has been updated. Iturbe has instead been dubbed the “next Lionel Messi” – just like Erik Lamela, Javier Pastore and Pablo Piatti all were before him.
Such comparisons pass the lazy sight test. Iturbe, like Messi, is short, explosive, possessed of rare close control and likes to run at his opponents. Although he has been deployed on the right of a three-man attack by Verona so far, he tends to drift inside and might be more naturally suited to playing through the middle in a deep-lying role.
But that is about as far as you could go. Messi, lest we need reminding, played 50 games for Barcelona last season and scored 60 goals. Iturbe has so far played a grand total of 54 senior matches in his entire professional career, finding the net a modest 10 times.
The Verona player is not fond of the comparison. More to the point, he is sick of being reminded of it in every interview he conducts. Iturbe considers Messi as one of his footballing heroes, and told Gazzetta dello Sport last month that his greatest dream was to one day play a one-on-one game against his idol.
But while he is proud to say that Messi congratulated him on his performance after a friendly between Argentina’s senior national team and the Under-20 side before the 2010 World Cup, Iturbe remains acutely aware of how little he has achieved. “I can’t think about running,” he says, “before I have even learnt to walk.”
Iturbe has been accused of doing that more than once before now. His professional career began when he joined Cerro Porteño in Paraguay at 16 years old, but barely nine months later found himself frozen out of the first-team squad after refusing to sign a full contract. It was suggested – fairly or otherwise – that the player was already getting too big for his boots.
The stand-off lasted for almost a year, before eventually being resolved with a short-term deal in March 2011. Iturbe would return to Cerro Porteño for four months before being sold to Porto – amid reports of competing interest from Manchester United, Barcelona and Real Madrid. But the player did not shine in Portugal, failing to impress in his few first-team appearances. His selfishness in possession led many to conclude that he really did believe his own hype.
Negative perceptions were reinforced by events at international level. Although Iturbe’s parents were both Paraguayan, he had been born and raised in Argentina – in Barracas, a tough barrio in south-east Buenos Aires. Before the player even got to Porto, he sparked a feud between the two nations’ football federations over which country he would play for.
As a teenager, Iturbe had represented Paraguay at Under-17 and Under-20 level, as well as making a late substitute’s appearance in one friendly for the senior side. But the latter fixture, against Chile, was not a formally-sanctioned Fifa fixture. When Iturbe subsequently decided he would prefer to play for Argentina, Paraguay attempted to prevent him from doing so.
“One time I was at the airport, ready to leave so I could accept a call-up to the Albiceleste, and I was stopped from departing,” Iturbe told Sportweek. “Two policemen showed me the fax with which the Federation had banned me from leaving the country. [In the end] I just had to go home, what else could I do?”
It would take another three days for the situation to be resolved, Iturbe informed via another fax that he was, in fact, free to go. It is old news now, but even so the player still jokes that “if I had to play for Argentina in Asuncion, I might need a helmet.”
Again, Iturbe’s actions saw him branded as arrogant – the player accused of throwing the hard work put in by his Paraguay coaches back in their faces just for the sake of playing for a more successful national team. He rejects that suggestion outright, arguing that he simply feels a closer affiliation to the country where he grew up.
One way or another, it was not until Iturbe went back to Argentina at the beginning of this year, joining River Plate on a six-month loan, that he would finally begin to show signs of fulfilling his potential. He made 17 appearances for Los Millonarios, scoring three goals and contributing a pair of assists.
Iturbe returned to Porto in June, but with the likes of Jackson Martinez and Silvestre Varela ahead of him in the pecking order, his first-team opportunities were always going to be limited. Verona, newly promoted from Serie B, saw their opportunity, signing the player on a season-long loan on the final day of the summer transfer window. The deal also included an option to buy Iturbe outright at the end of the campaign.
Already it seems unthinkable that they would not do so. Verona have made a stunning start to life back in the top-flight, winning five of their first eight games – including a season-opening victory over Milan – to find themselves in fourth place, ahead of not only the Rossoneri but also Inter, Fiorentina and Lazio.
Iturbe began the season on the bench, making an underwhelming debut as a substitute against Juventus on 22 September but playing superbly ever since. He marked his first start, against Livorno, with a beautifully-struck goal from a free-kick, and followed that up with a 50-yard run-and-finish against Bologna. “Iturbe was singing in the rain,” wrote Diego Costa in La Repubblica. “But if Gene Kelly danced while he did that, then Iturbe made the opposing defence do it instead.”
Such ambitious dribbles will likely always be a part of Iturbe’s game, but he does appear to have reined himself in at least a little at Verona. The team’s manager, Andrea Mandorlini, allows him a good deal of freedom when the team is attacking, but expects his forwards to track back and contribute to the defensive cause once possession is lost. So far, Iturbe has shown himself willing to do so.
But if the temptation is to get carried away with the player’s bright start then fans would be wise to remember that the player remains, in relative terms, a big kid. Asked what his last thought was before he goes to sleep every evening, Iturbe replied: “I close my eyes imagining my goodnight kiss from my mum.”
His parents, after all, remain in Paraguay, half a world away. Iturbe’s father, a bricklayer who only moved his family to Argentina in the first place to escape the dire economic situation back home, still cries with joy down the phone line when they speak. He has never asked his son to be the next Lionel Messi; instead just the best Juan Manuel Iturbe that he can ever be.