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D'Alessandro finally fulfills promise

He may not have left the Camp Nou to a standing ovation, he may not be the best-paid player in the world, and he may not have totally fulfilled the promise he had. However, Andres D'Alessandro -- a one-time prodigy -- was voted Best Player In The Americas for his performances for Brazil's Internacional by the prestigious Uruguayan El Pais.

Of all the little boys who dribble magnificently around the vacant lots of South America and hope to become "the next Maradona," D'Alessandro might well be the only one who was fingered by Diego himself, many years ago, when he said the diminutive left-footer was the one "who most reminds me of me."

Picked to join the pre-kiddy division of River Plate at a 'baby-football' match -- Baby football is the highly organized category of pre-club leagues, which in Argentina serve as breeding grounds for some of the world's most coveted soccer talents -- D'Alessandro soon emerged as a force to be reckoned with, forming part of a River Plate front line which still send shivers down fans' spines.

His mother tells of the game when the man in charge of organizing River's kiddie categories was in coaching the opposition; after the game he was heard asking for "the bigheaded lefty's dad." Bighead having it's own word in Spanish, which is of course, "Cabezón."

Even at the Little League stage, Andres had developed and refined a move which later came to be known as "la boba" -- the silly -- where he expertly dummies the opponent, first attracting him to come close and then swaying one way and the other to pass him, in the words of a trainer from those days -- "as if he was a little cone."

Expert observers often have no words to describe the trademark style of Andres D'Alessandro, having to resort instead to a wiggling of their middle fingers, in order to show quite how fast and detailed his leg movement around the ball can be.

Having attracted crowds to watch baby-league from a young age, his start at the reserves in River saw him often left on the bench, and he would come home and say "Mum, i want to go for a trial elsewhere." Another kid trainer, however, had spotted him, and also started asking for the 'bigheaded left footer" and he soon became a regular starter until he made it to the first team, and won three Clausura tournaments before moving on to Germany with Wolfsburg.

A promising start in the Bundesliga soon tailed off and having spent one season on loan at Portsmouth (England) and one in Zaragoza (Spain), he was eventually bought outright by Zaragoza and returned to Argentina. This time, D'Alessandro would join San Lorenzo under the same manager who gave him his first team debut at River Plate, Ramon Díaz.

Internationally, his main emergence was in the 2001 U-20 World Cup where he actually came on as a sub but quickly became the axis of the team (along with Javier Saviola) that won the title. "It was an opportunity to do everything right and he did" say his close friends. He also picked up an Olympic gold medal in 2004, in Athens.

D'Alessandro is a typical "enganche" player, an Argentine thinker of the pitch, and a position for which traditionally there will always be a lot of competition. He recently said, having picked up the award, that with Argentina under Maradona he had felt "further from the squad than ever." But the reality is his distancing from the international scene has been on and off for years, more notably while Jose Pekerman was still in charge (between 2004-2006), and with whom apparently there was a fall out.

D'Alessandro has stated Marcelo Bielsa is the manager who taught him the most, and to whom he is most grateful, but under current national team manager Sergio Batista he's had some call-ups and has prioritized making the Copa America squad his main personal goal.

His previous failure to live up to expectations can be laid at the feet of his volatile temper which often gets him into trouble. While at Zaragoza he was known to engage in fist fights with teammates during training, even with the likes of close friend and ex-River ally Pablo Aimar -- and was also kicked out of training once by a manager.

Outbursts on the pitch and against opponents are still de rigeur. At Internacional of Brazil he constantly demonstrates his unwillingness to let it lie. For most managers that kind of behavior is simply not tolerated.

But whether in spite or because of his strength of character, D'Alessandro may have been distant from the limelight, but never from the game itself. Now 29, he showed that, in addition to the feisty fighter spirit, he has an emotional bond with the ball and the sport which will be hard to shake off. His sentimental tears threatened to choke him before the Libertadores final (the one club title he had been coveting his whole life) and again after winning it.

Once again at the top of his game, River Plate keep alive the flicker of hope to repatriate him. Negotiations are under way, and the official club website calls it both "an obsession" and a determined quest. According to journalist Neil Clack, in 2008, before joining San Lorenzo, D'Alessandro snubbed River 's offer. "River didn't try hard enough to sign me," was D'Alessandro's response. But this January transfer window might well see him finally return; something River fans will no doubt applaud.

D'Alessandro sees his recent award one of the most important of his career, because it is "acknowledging many years of hard work and sacrifice." Whatever club succeeds in securing his services, fans from any denomination will no doubt be able relish the elegance of his touch, the lightness of his control, and the emotional charge of his outbursts. A true exponent of the tradition of an Argentine number 10.

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