Why We Watch: Javier Pastore, Untrustable Genius

Paris-St. Germain's forgotten star can be one of the most exhilarating players in soccer. Of course, that's more likely to happen when he's playing.
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It may be best to begin with things that are not the reasons why we tune in to watch Javier Pastore. We do not watch Javier Pastore to see him tracking back diligently with an opposing fullback. We do not watch Javier Pastore to see him isolated on the wing, with no teammate in sight. And we certainly do not watch Javier Pastore to see him twiddling his thumbs as an extravagant, unloved ornament on the expensively decorated mantelpiece that is the Paris Saint-Germain bench.

Pastore was the biggest of the first wave of expensive signings made by the nouveau riche PSG in 2011, the €40 million man whose name adorned the backs of the replica shirts of supporters at the Parc des Princes. He was the statement signing, the purchase that signalled the intentions of the new owners to make PSG the preeminent footballing force in France and in Europe. And in that first season Pastore generally looked the part. Tall, elegant and skilful, he scored 13 goals and assisted six more. More than that, though, he just fit.

Paris seemed the ideal city for a player of Pastore’s talents. Surely if any city would appreciate the visual splendour and inventiveness of his play it was the city that, to Argentinians particularly but pretty much universally, has historically represented the epicentre of artistic and cultural cool. Indeed, the French league as a whole has proven fertile ground for South American playmakers. It should come as no surprise that the country that produced Alain Giresse, Michel Platini and Zinedine Zidane would welcome and embrace the likes of Carlos Valderrama, Enzo Francescoli, Raí and Ronaldinho.

At his best, Pastore is a classic South American playmaker on fast forward. Lithe in figure and lacking the strength or outright acceleration to buy himself time in possession, his extensive repertoire of flicks and tricks are designed to circumvent his physical flaws. He rarely holds the ball for more than a couple of touches. Head up, eyes darting from side to side, Pastore constantly scans the field for available teammates, shining when aligned in close quarters to another like-minded individual.

Pastore, who hails from the same salubrious Argentine province that soothed the lungs of a young Che Guevara, sprung to prominence at Huracán, where, cheered on by Angel Cappa, a staunch advocate of beauty before brawn, he formed an enthralling attacking midfielder partnership with the small, tricky Matías Defederico. Huracán played slick and beautiful passing football. Pastore was a revelation, and the club would have been champions of Argentina were it not for a highly questionable refereeing decision in the final moments of their championship decider against Velez Sarsfield. He was every bit as great at Palermo alongside the similarly inventive Josep Illicic, quickly becoming a fan favorite.

Pastore regularly withdraws into his own aesthetic paradise, attempting passes that no one else sees, or at least do not have the audacity to attempt. Blessed with a fecund imagination and astute appreciation of space, he often appears, especially when seen in television’s longer focus, to be pushing the boundaries of possibility. Sure, sometimes he fails, sometimes he gives the ball away when a less indulgent touch would have sufficed, but as Des Esseintes, the arch-aesthete of J.K. Huysmans’ Against the Grain, notes: “It is only the impossible, the unachievable that arouses desire.”

Pastore regularly provides a window into the unimaginable, drawing a gasp when the viewer realises, moments later, the intended outcome of a particular move. To a casual observer he may appear a charlatan, a player whose casual, indifferent touches, sporadically successful, highlight a lack of care or effort, an attempt to engineer cool. The initiated, on the other hand, choose to indulge in the felicities of his style. In this sport, as elsewhere, it is often the manner in which an interesting premise is executed, rather than the end product itself, that beguiles. This is a human truth. In football, it only goes so far.

***

What at first appeared a perfect relationship soon began to sour for both Pastore and PSG, as a second wave of signings, in the summer of 2012, saw his prominence reduced. As Moacir P. De Sá Pereira noted in his five-part Classical essay Paris Is Earning, as the city’s only major club, PSG has to be everything to everyone. In other cities there are teams that have traditionally represented different parts of society; think of Boca Juniors and River Plate in Buenos Aires, Cruz Azul and América in Mexico City, or Betis and Sevilla in Seville.

Even if there is often a dichotomy between the historical association and present day supporter demographics, there are at least options for the would-be supporter. In Paris, PSG is not just the team of artists and the cultural elite, but also the team of the working class. A balance had to be struck between aesthetics, effort and productivity, and Pastore was the man who lost out. Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s stylish efficiency took center stage.

First, Pastore was shoe-horned into a deeper midfield role, then placed out on the left flank, playing functional roles that failed to make the most of his talents. He performed competently, but this was not the Pastore the club had paid €40 million for, nor indeed the Pastore who had delighted crowds at Huracán, Palermo and, briefly, in Paris. Isolated and hampered by Ibrahimovic’s tendency to drift to the left and interrupt his play, there was little of the spark of old. Cappa, for one, was unimpressed with PSG’s use of his favourite son, memorably telling So Foot that it was comparable to “having a writer like Gabriel García Márquez and asking him to write the horoscopes.”

This season has been even worse. At time of writing, Pastore has started less than half of PSG’s league matches and just one of their European games. New signings have pushed him even further down the playing order, and as new coach Laurent Blanc attempts to incorporate Ibrahimovic and the similarly prolific Edinson Cavani into the same team, Pastore’s inconsistent magnificence transparently no longer has a place. PSG have swiftly developed from a rich-person’s plaything into a ruthless, efficient organization. There is no time for unnecessary frills, no place for Pastore’s uneconomical grandeur.

It is a shame, and perhaps even an indictment of the modern game, that a player as brilliant and talented as Pastore has been reduced to a bit part role. Football cannot, or at any rate ought not, be allowed to reach a point where efficiency always triumphs over beauty. It is time for Pastore to move on, to find a smaller club willing to accept his flaws and foster the inventive brilliance that defines him; to let him, in short, be the reason why we would watch. Pastore alone is reason enough. We just need a shrewd team to give him the stage. Until then, he’s why we wait.


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