"Talent contest." Normally, it's one of television's biggest lies. Whispers suggest that most of the time, the producers have already decided who is going to win. And as for talent -- real talent -- sadly, it's often conspicuous by its absence. But this time was different. This time was an exception, even if it took a while for us to realize as much; even if it was not until his fifth club and his sixth season that it became apparent just how talented he is.
The real test, though, still lies ahead: next season he'll tread a different stage, a bigger stage than anyone could have imagined 10 months back. The question now is: which one?
Felipe Caicedo was just 17 when he came to Europe to play for FC Basle in Switzerland. He had won Ecuador's equivalent of Pop Idol two years before -- only this was not for pop stars in the waiting, it was for future soccer players. It was called Camino de la Gloria, the road to glory. Alongside Edder Vaca, Javier Jaramillo, Jonatan Monar, Eder Moreira and Ángel Pután, a 15-year-old Caicedo was a winner. Thirty-four other hopefuls were left behind. The road led to River Plate in Argentina, but it did not yet lead to glory.
The experience, the chance to train with the Argentine club, was short-lived but valuable. A finishing school for players, except that Caicedo was still some way off being the finished article. It might not have launched Caicedo's career, but it did bring him to prominence and improvement. He returned to Rocafuerte, the amateur club where he had played for almost a decade, and he was called up for Ecuador's U-16s at the South American championships. Ecuador was runner-up and Caicedo got the chance to cross the ocean; he also got the chance to make the step up to the full national team -- making his debut for Ecuador at just 16 in 2005 against Italy.
FC Basle were among those with scouts at the tournament. And they were impressed. More impressed, in truth, than River had been. Caicedo wasn't so sure, but he was persuaded that this was an opportunity that was too good to pass up. His parents told him to go; so did his club. An Ecuadorean who has a tattoo of a tear near his eye to represent, as he puts it, "the hard times," Caicedo grew up as the only brother to six sisters in a Guayaquil neighborhood he describes as "dangerous," but was still just a kid. In a different country, a different world.
Off the pitch was one thing; on the pitch, another. Things went reasonably well. At first he was forced to sign youth forms and not allowed to be part of the first team squad. However, he did make his debut in September 2006, having not yet turned 18. He got a league title in his second season. He got 16 goals in 45 games over two seasons. He was second top scorer, from the left wing, and a looming, imposing presence -- powerful, fast, big. He stood out in Switzerland and in the UEFA Cup. Enough for Manchester City to make him the most expensive Ecuadorean of all time (until Antonio Valencia blew that figure apart when he signed for Man United), paying €7 million ($9.9M) for him in January 2008.
This was it. Or at least it looked that way. Three goals in three consecutive games -- against West Brom, Racing Santander and Hull City -- had the then-coach Mark Hughes predicting a fantastic future. At Ecuador training camps, this battering ram of a striker stood out.
But this was Manchester City, where even Emmanuel Adebayor had to go running for the door. A club with lots of money but little patience. And fewer opportunities. Even Hughes, who rated Caicedo, was gone before too long. Caicedo did not stagnate so much as not have the opportunities. There were hints of unhappiness off the pitch too. It just wasn't happening.
A loan deal to Sporting Lisbon in 2009-10 did not bring any goals; midway through the season he was off again, this time on loan to Málaga the following season. Survival came on the final day; four goals in 18 games was not a bad response for a side in desperate trouble but he hardly shone; he was good without being great, mediocre rather than malo (bad). If Málaga thought about keeping him -- and it did -- it did not follow through.
No one did. There was only an hour left of the summer transfer window when Levante bid for him. That's Levante, the club at which the sporting director admits: "We have to wait until everybody else has bought their players before we can move; we get everybody's castoffs, the players they don't want."
Caicedo, in truth, was a player no one wanted. One they had given up on, the guy that was going to be good but never really got there. Even though he was just 21. And that included City. It had decided to cut its losses: it would have sold but no one would buy. It agreed to pay half of his wages -- at €300,000 ($425,500) a year the highest in the squad and yet less than Leo Messi can take home in a week -- and signed a €1 million clause giving Levante the right to buy. City can afford to throw money away but happily signing away a €6 million loss spoke volumes.
So did Caicedo's destination: Camino de la Gloria? Not exactly. This was not River Plate or Manchester City or Sporting Lisbon, nor even Basle or Málaga. This was certain relegation; a team of has-beens and never-really-weres; old, limited and very, very cheap. A club in debt and administration, Levante have signed 40 players in three years. Not one cost a single cent of a euro. Valued at €1 million ($1.4M), Caicedo would be the most expensive of them. Except that, frankly, Levante had little intention of exercising its right to buy. But, hey, he came cheap. It was worth a try.
Well worth it. Levante has every intention of exercising the right to buy now. Few saw it, but Caicedo had something. So too did Levante. Caicedo himself says: "I have never seen a dressing room like this before, such unity. We're really close. This is unique for me; there are hardly words to explain it." Manager Luis García's special skill has been motivation. Players tumble off walls into each other's arms, slogans are posted on the walls and lockers and in the corridors, training sessions are carried out blindfolded. No one feels alone. Caicedo least of all. Even though, physically at least, he often is.
Levante was supposed to go down. Instead, with nine games to go it 11th, level with the side in 10. It is just five points off a European place. Three more points would take it to 38 points -- on last year's measure, sufficient to survive. Few doubt that it'll get them either. Why? Because Levante -- yes, Levante -- is Spain's third best side in the second half of the season. It has won six and lost just one of its last nine -- and that was against Real Madrid at the Santiago Bernabéu.
Caicedo has had a huge part to play, a greater part than anyone else. He has scored 11 goals this season from just 17 starts. No one else has more than four in the whole team. And it's not as if that's because he has been fed loads of chances, or because he shoots wildly and often. In fact, he has the best shots-per-goal ratio in the league. Sometimes asked to hold the ball up and bring others into play; more often asked to smash his way past defenders almost on his own. Quick, skillful, strong. And unaided.
A long ball up is an assist. It could hardly be any other way for a team conscious of its limitations. Keen to get the ball into the penalty areas as soon as it can. Keen to get it to Caicedo as fast as is possible. When Levante does, he makes it count. Only two players -- Osvaldo and Andrés Iniesta -- have a higher percentage of shots on target. Astonishingly, he has scored with just under half of his shots this season.
His goals have been evenly spread around and more valuable than anyone else's, too. They have been decisive not adornments. The second in a 2-1 win over Real Sociedad, the first and the second in a 3-1 win over Racing, the second in a 2-0 win over Atlético, the opener against Sporting and Athletic, the winner against Osasuna and the only goal against Espanyol. Goals that, using the meanest of measurements, have been directly responsible for 11 points this season. Eleven of Levante's 35.
Caicedo has become vital for Levante. Both on and off the pitch. Racked by debt, obliged to find €12 million ($17M) a year in repayments, it couldn't afford to pay €1 million for him; now, it can't afford not to. As Caicedo put it: "At €1 million, I am cheap, very cheap." Very, very, very cheap. He is a bargain, but only for Levante. During the winter, one Russian club offered €8.5 million ($12M), Levante said no. Handily, it was alerted to his potential value. Now it will pay Manchester City the €1 million and, with a hint of sadness, say "thank you very much" and sell Caicedo.
Where to, time will tell. One thing is for sure: the Ecuadorean has proved the perfect signing for the team from Valencia, the man who has become Levante's lifeline -- allowing a historic club to hang onto first division status and hang onto to solvency. This time his road may lead to glory; for Levante, his road may lead the team to survival. On and off the pitch.