CORDOBA, Argentina (AP) – El Flaco's circus: Javier Pastore fits into QIA's plans of making PSG a Ligue 1 contender. (Jacques Demarthon/AFP/Getty Images)
Javier Pastore has been known as El Flaco ('the skinny one') since he was a bandy teenager making his way in the game at Club Atletico Talleres, a club based in his home city of Cordoba, Argentina. If burly French defenders were rubbing their hands at that prospect of showing Paris Saint-Germain's €42 million signing the true nature of a physical challenge, early signs are that they will have to reassess. Pastore's teammates may even have to come up with a more befitting nickname for a player who continues to confound expectation at every turn.
If PSG attracting the 22-year-old to the capital shook French soccer to its core - almost doubling the previous French record transfer fee paid by Lyon for Yoann Gourcuff last summer - and confirmed new owner Qatar Invertment Authority's willingness to blow everybody else out of the market, Pastore himself was sanguine. From the moment he touched down in Paris, it was clear that he meant business. He walked into the arrivals hall at Charles de Gaulle airport on the way to his signing with his trademark Rolling Stones mop-top - the quintessential haircut of the flamboyant Argentinian playmaker - brutally chopped off, with a go-faster tramline carved on one side of his head. The message was clear. The past was gone, and Pastore had no fear at starting over, from the top.
No two clubs quite grip the French soccer-loving public as Marseille and PSG do. They set tongues wagging like no others. The Stade Velodrome and PSG's Parc des Princes command formidable atmospheres when approaching capacity, and playing for either club carries with it a very specific pressure, the sort of demand that has broken the spirit of many a talent in the past.
It is already clear that the young Argentinian is made of sterner stuff. He is faced with two additional strands to the usual onus on a player adapting to life at the club; playing in France for the first time (PSG has tended to sign mainly French or France-based players in recent years), and the vastly-hiked expectations at the Parc following QSI's takeover. In the past week alone, both Lille head coach Rudi Garcia and Lyon president Jean-Michel Aulas, have predicted last season's fourth-placed club will end 2011-12 on top of the table.
PSG head coach Antoine Kombouare is already under considerable pressure to deliver results, with recurrent speculation in the French media that sporting director Leonardo has discussed the possibility of his friend and former boss, Carlo Ancelotti, being put in charge of the team. When PSG headed into the locker room for the half-time interval at Toulouse in its last Ligue 1 match on August 28 trailing 1-0, Kombouare's future looked bleak.
Enter Pastore. Making his first start for his new club, he dictated matters in the second half after a quiet opening 45 minutes. Moving his 6'2 frame with the sort of languid grace rarely seen on French turf since Glenn Hoddle's spell at Monaco, he trimmed open Le Tefece's defense with an incisive ball just before the hour, which was seized upon and finished by the nippy Kevin Gameiro to level the match. PSG then scored in the 90th minute, and again in the third minute of stoppage time, to clinch the points. Pastore was at the genesis of both scores; sliding another delicious pass through to substitute Mevlut Erding for 2-1 and then spraying the ball wide for Erding to lay on the clincher for Jeremy Menez.
Nothing brings a team together like the shared joy of success, but the scenes at the final whistle were amazing, with the Parisian players queuing up to give their new star a joyous hug, one-by-one. Perhaps they were just realizing what a gem they now have at the hub of their side, and how far he could take them; because, of course, Pastore is not even at full-tilt yet, as he edges towards full fitness and adapts to a more rugged brand of soccer than he practiced in Serie A with Palermo.
Certainly Pastore's full debut was an eye-opener for those who suggested that he would struggle in the hurly-burly French game. There was, and still is, considerable doubt that a classical playmaker could ever succeed in Ligue 1 today.
Perhaps the most successful top-flight playmaker of recent times in France has been Gourcuff, in the bulk of his spell at Bordeaux, but the now-Lyon man is a different beast entirely to Pastore. Gourcuff has a very modern way of pulling the strings. For all the subsequent revelation of Ancelotti and Paolo Maldini deploring Gourcuff's alleged arrogance in his spell at AC Milan, the bottom line is that the Frenchman was in direct competition with Kaka; the two are of similar physique, poise and have a comparably direct way of plowing breathlessly through prone defenses. The Brazilian was simply far more advanced, but there are significant similarities between the two.
Pastore's throwback style had Walter Zenga, his coach when he signed at Palermo, doubting whether the player could get his head around the tactical discipline required in Italy. He could, as he proved when given a chance under Zenga's successor Delio Rossi, and showed that he had all the qualities to have a team built around him. Pastore works hard, has the range of passing to start moves from deep and the shooting power to play as a No. 10 to great effect. Perhaps the most important component he added to his game was the 5kg of muscle that FOXSoccer's James Horncastle recently wrote Pastore put on in Sicily. This will help him earn the space to play in France.
What is perhaps the most remarkable aspect of this huge transfer is that Pastore wasn't even Leonardo's first choice. Leonardo penciled in a fellow Brazilian, Santos' €50 million-rated midfielder Paulo Henrique Ganso, as the jewel in the new-look PSG's crown. Leonardo was eventually forced to give up on the idea, with any prospective deal muddied by a dizzying number of agents, advisors and intermediaries; the same factors which had led domestic rival Lyon, a club with historically excellent contacts in the Brazilian market, to park its own interest last summer.
If first impressions are anything to go by, Leonardo has had a significant stroke of beginner's luck in the key transfer of his first window at the Parc des Princes.