In an era that is seemingly becoming more and more dominated by bland, corporate advertising tools. It would be easy to forget that the game of football needs its colourful characters.
Over the years South America has proven to be a reliable purveyor of the loveably eccentric, suitably exciting, players and coaches alike.
Ramón ‘Wanchope’ Ábila – October the 14th 1989 – Cordoba, Argentina – being the latest, compelling story to come out of the continent.
A curious christening, and a catalyst to boot
It’s probably best to start with the elephant in the room: why Wanchope? Well yes, as unbelievable as it may seem to anybody who has ever seen Ábila, he was christened ‘Wanchope’ in the familiar South American tradition of giving virtually every player a nickname, due to a perceived physical similarity with the former (amongst others) Premier League, Rosario Central, and Costa Rica international striker Paulo Wanchope.
However, setting aside the rather bizarre perspective of his teammates, in all likelihood the name worked (only even remotely) due to somewhat of a stylistic resemblance with Ábila and his Costa Rican namesake sharing an unorthodox, almost awkward playing style.
Albeit truth be told, the fact it continued going forward probably owed most to the player believing that the name ended up being the catalyst to a remarkable, meteoric rise up the footballing ladder.
From journeyman to leader of the pack
Having joined hometown side Instituto de Córdoba as a relatively late bloomer, Ramón Ábila’s route to the top would not be a straight forward one.
Three seasons in the B Nacional, Argentina’s second tier, were spent for the most part in and out of the first team picture. The fact that it took the erratic young Ábila the better part of those three years to even score his first goal for the club were hardly the most auspicious start to his career.
Indeed, as a result of this largely fruitless period, and the emergence of an outstanding prospect by the name of Paulo Dybala ahead of him in the pecking order at La Gloria, it meant the burly centre forward would embark on a series of journeyman loans dropping down to the third tier. Spells at Sarmiento de Junín, and Club Deportivo Morón were not exactly glamorous but proved moderately more productive than his frustrating first period with Instituto.
Nonetheless it would primarily be the figure of one man that was to play a key part in launching the Wanchope phenomenon, and that would be his boss upon returning to Instituto: Frank Kudelka.
On what is now seen by many as a landmark night back at the beginning part of the 2013/14 season. Ábila went from sitting on the bench versus Brown de Adrogué, known by most (fans and media at least) as ‘El Negro’ Ramón, to being thrown on and scoring the winner, and thus suddenly giving birth to ‘Wanchope’ Ábila.
From that point onwards there was no looking back. So much so that when Kudelka joined one of Argentina’s most historic clubs, Huracán, who had fallen on hard times and plummeted down to the second division, one of the first things he would do would be to send for his talismanic star striker.
Much to the delight of the Huracán faithful, both Ábila and his manager would take little time in establishing themselves at the Estadio Tomás Adolfo Ducó.
Kudelka may not have stayed in Parque Patricios for too long but Ábila’s goals remained and not only propelled El Globo back to the Primera but under Eduardo Domínguez, Huracán would capture the Copa Argentina with a surprise penalty triumph over Rosario Central. The result meant El Globo would make an unlikely return to the Copa Libertadores after an absence of 41 years.
It’s a ‘Wanchope Fact’: Ábila is a star now
Participation in the Copa Libertadores would provide Ábila with the perfect opportunity to announce himself to a wider audience. His scoring feats leading him to become Huracán’s all time top scorer in continental competitions, edging ahead of club legend Miguel Ángel Brindisi.
Goals would become his calling card across South America. But ones such as the spectacular scissor kick strike in a losing effort against eventual champions Atlético Nacional, also contributed in the demand for the exciting, yet unpredictable, forward to increase significantly.
A host of clubs where linked, and indeed close friend Carlos Tevez made no secret of his desire to establish a partnership on the pitch as well so a move to Argentine giants Boca Juniors seemed to be on the cards.
However, it would be Brazilian side Cruzeiro that would outfox all the competition, snapping up the striker for a reported 4 million dollar fee and therefore drawing a close to a more than respectable tally of 53 goals in an eventful 102-game Huracán career.
Fast forward to the present, and Argentine football’s loss has certainly proven to be Brazil’s gain, with ‘Wanchope’ taking to the Brasileirao Serie A Championship with an almost insultingly easy aplomb.
9 goals in his first 12 games, including a run of scoring in 8 consecutive games in league and cup have seen the fans at the Estadio Mineirão welcome him in as the club’s new, instant, cult hero.
So much so in fact that many have found themselves taking to social media to begin a popular ‘Wanchope Facts’ trend (a play on the ‘Mascherano Facts’ circa the 2014 World Cup), posting a series of tongue-in-cheek scenarios to show there is nothing their new star can not achieve.
An unpredictable, yet exciting style Ábila can also tend to go through games were he looks disinterested, or maybe just simply overwhelmed.
While this may perhaps go some way to explaining his more gradual rise to the top, in recent times the forward has used this to lull his opponents in to a fall sense of security as well.
With talk that Valencia CF are preparing a 10 Million Euro bid for when the transfer window opens in January, Cruzeiro’s resolve is likely to be tested.
Combine this with an Argentina National team boss who has a very recent familiarity with the Brazilian league, and is openly looking at new options upfront and we may well be seeing the Wanchopemania craze crossing the continent in the not too distant future, after all stranger things have happened… you only have to think of certain nicknames for a perfect example.