Buenos Aires is Argentina’s capital and is home to many poets, writers and actors but it is the city’s footballing scene and culture, which grasps the world. Andrés Nicolás D’Alessandro was born on April 15, 1981 in La Paternal, Buenos Aires as he carried the heavy praise of Diego Maradona on his shoulders all the way from Buenos Aires to an uneventful sojourn in Europe until he found his utopia in Porto Alegre.
His ascent as a youngster was swift as at the age of four, he was playing indoor football and by the age of eight, he had already joined River Plate. He had to travel 40 minutes by bus from the La Paternal section of Buenos Aires to Belgrano in order to train at River Plate with a sandwich his mother made in tow.
‘El Cabezón’ as he is more affectionately known for the size of his head both physically and figuratively has always felt indebted to his family, especially his parents Gladys (a school administrator) and Edward (a former taxi driver and current owner of an auto shop). In order to aid his parents with their financial burden, he took up jobs as a plumber from Thursday to Sunday evening then he delivered pizzas on a motorcycle until midnight.
At the age of 18, D’Alessandro signed his first professional contract and used the money to move him and his family into a better house. It was the first time him and his brother had their own rooms as it accentuated a love for his family and his city that would stick with him throughout his career.
Before, he would begin to turn heads for River Plate; D’Alessandro would be part of a vastly talented U20 World Youth Championship Argentina squad that would take place in his hometown of Buenos Aires. The squad, coached by José Pékerman, would include Germán Lux, Nicolás Burdisso, Fabricio Coloccini, Javier Saviola, Maxi Rodríguez and Willy Caballero.
The tournament was opened by a stunning Rodríguez free kick against Finland before D’Alessandro doubled the young Albiceleste’s lead in the second half. Argentina were dominant in the tournament, scoring 24 goals on the way to the Championship with Saviola bagging an astonishing 11 while El Cabezón finished with a modest two.
In a match against Estudiantes in September 2001, he came on to find his beloved River 1-0 ahead. He then played a sublime cross into the six-yard box, which bobbled around before it was nodded in by another prodigious young talent, Esteban Cambiasso. For his first goal, he traded passes with striker Ariel ‘El Burrito’ Ortega as he drove into the box and drilled a shot past the keeper.
However, he would truly be remembered for a match a few months later in a 5-0 away rout against Independiente when he opened the scoring by wriggling away from his marker on the left flank to cut in and curl a beautiful strike into the top right corner of the goal. He then gave Ortega an immaculate defense splitting through ball, which sent the striker through on goal to be fouled by the keeper for a penalty. Buenos Aires-based newspaper La Nación referred to the pass as ‘footballing genius of inventiveness’.
“He’s the player who most resembles me, the only one that I enjoy watching,” said the great Diego Maradona. “Are Rivaldo and Verón the world’s best players?” Maradona also asked. “Well, the player who stands out for me is D’Alessandro. He’s something else.”
His team River would win the Argentine Championship, their second since 2000 and D’Alessandro’s second since joining the first team. Chilean manager, Manuel Pellegrini would replace his mentor Ramón Díaz the next season.
Pellegrini made D’Alessandro an integral component of his River Plate set up and in turn, El Cabezón began to mature as he began to control his temper while he also added goals to his game. Pellegrini’s start to the season was slow including a 1-0 loss to Vélez Sarsfield at home in the Estadio Monumental, forcing the Chilean to deny his resignation to the media after the match.
His team eventually embarked on an astonishing run of form, which included eight consecutive victories — D’Alessandro scored six goals in that period as he managed to lift his third Clausura at River. The pick of these goals was in a 3-0 win against Gimnasia. He took on a pass from the right flank and deftly turned away from his marker to then casually nutmeg a lunging defender as he drove into the box before cutting the ball to his left foot in order to beat another defender and place a shot in the top right corner of the goal.
A month later, he would sign a blockbuster deal with VFL Wolfsburg for a reported 9 million euros. D’Alessandro left River having scored 26 goals for them in between 2001 and 2003, and was also the youngest captain in the history of the club. His move to Wolfsburg was the highest that the German club had paid for a player in their history.
His first goal for the club would come on match day three in a 5-1 mauling of Hamburg where he scored the fourth on the break by driving the ball on his left foot in the centre of the pitch but suddenly switching onto his right, leaving the defender on his backside and finishing calmly with his right foot. The next game would come to epitomize D’Alessandro’s time in the Bundesliga and in Europe, as a whole, as after the sagacity of the last game he would be sent off with two yellow cards before the end of the first half against TSV Munich 1980.
Wolfsburg’s start to the season was indifferent with El Cabezón struggling with the intensity and physicality of the Bundesliga. Nevertheless, there was the occasional performance of genius from the Argentine as against Hertha Berlin, where he was an imperious force, grabbing a goal and creating many opportunities as German magazine Kicker named him their man of the match. Sadly, D’Alessandro would only get his next goal and last goal of the season against TSV Munich 1980 on match day 21 rectifying his red card from the last game against the Munich-based side. El Cabezón would finish the season with three goals and 11 assists.
Argentina and D’Alessandro would travel to Athens for the Olympics with a star-studded team including the likes of Carlos Tevez, Javier Saviola, Willy Caballero, Nicolás Burdisso, Fabricio Coloccini, Javier Mascherano, Gabriel Heinze and Germán Lux. They were under the stewardship of National Team coach Marcelo Bielsa and began their campaign with a 6-0 romp against Serbia and Montenegro, as D’Alessandro got two assists in that game.
Argentina then won their next match against Tunisia 2-0 with goals from Saviola and Tevez before the final group game against Australia. During that match, El Cabezón played an astounding outside of the boot pass to the right flank with his left foot before latching onto a loose cross with the outside of the same boot and finishing with conviction from the top of the box. It was the only goal of the game and D’Alessandro’s only goal of the tournament as the Albiceleste left the group phase with maximum points. Argentina faced Costa Rica in the Quarterfinals winning 4-0 before they dispatched Italy 3-0 in the semi-finals and fellow South American side, Paraguay in the Gold Medal final.
It was a season shrouded in doom and gloom at club level with more rare examples of his potential as the German media thought that he had finally found his way in the Bundesliga after an impressive performance against VFL Bochum. He scored and created a bounty of chances for teammates in a 3-0 win but it just was not meant to be. A couple of weeks later, he received a red card after eight minutes but in truly inconsistent fashion, he would get three assists in his next three games.
By May that season, manager Eric Geret’s patience in him was wearing thin as he was unable to play due to taking nutritional additives that were not recognized by the club and could be found in breach of doping allegations. “I like Andrés and have tried for a long time to protect him, but I can’t give him preferential treatment over the rest of the squad,” Gerets told the Wolfsburger Nachrichten newspaper. “I need calm and normality to work for next season and if there are certain players who cannot work with that, and then we will do it without them.”
El Cabezón finished the season with an underwhelming three goals and four assists in 19 games as his European excursion had turned into a nightmare. By the end of January 2006, D’Alessandro was dropped from the Wolfsburg squad as manager Klaus Augenthaler grew frustrated with his lack of defensive work.
“I do not need eleven Maradonas on the field – I need players who are willing to fight for their team,” quipped Augenthaler to the Wolfsburger Allgemaine Zeitung. “He must learn that his game is not over when he loses possession.”
“I am tired of hearing I have to work on my defensive game,” D’Alessandro grumbled. “There are other players to do these sort of jobs.”
By the end of January, D’Alessandro became Portsmouth’s ninth signing under manager Harry Redknapp.
“The boy is an influential playmaker and you cannot have too many of those,” said Redknapp. “This is a massive signing at the club for sure.”
Two well-drilled D’Alessandro deliveries were the catalysts for amazingly taken finishes from Pedro Mendes to win their first game of 2006 late at Fratton Park against Manchester City in March. Portsmouth then went on to win the next two with El Cabezón grabbing the admiration of the Pompey faithful. They did not lose again until a match against Charlton where D’Alessandro etched his name into Portsmouth folklore.
He received the ball on the right flank with his back to goal. He then turned his man with the drumming of the Portsmouth fans serenading his every movement, before rolling the ball against his right foot to his left in order to carve out some space to place a magnificent shot into the top left corner of the goal from the top right corner of the box. They secured safety two games later with a win against Wigan, with D’Alessandro the vital part of the Pompey attack.
He would then spend the summer looking for a move as Portsmouth found his wage demands ‘excessive’ before Real Zaragoza signed him on a loan deal for the season.
His first season at Zaragoza was his most regular spell of constant first team football in Europe as at 25-years-old, he played 36 games (starting 35) as Zaragoza finished in sixth place, qualifying for the UEFA Cup while Diego Milito finished second on the top scorers charts behind Ruud van Nistelrooy with 23 goals. D’Alessandro finished with a characteristically measly two goals and fifth on the assist table with nine assists. He proved his immense ability and mastery of the ball on match day 36 in a 3-1 loss away to Sevilla when he equalized at 1-1 in the 76th minute by scoring a goal direct from a corner.
The 2007/08 season would spell the end of El Cabezón’s sojourn in Europe, ironically in a season where he signed a permanent deal with Zaragoza. By the winter break he played 14 matches and only started four while he had three goals in that period. A training ground spat with him threatening the life of Argentine compatriot Pablo Aimar and gaining the scorn of manager Victor Fernández meant that his time in Spain was up. The Argentinean would leave for San Lorenzo on loan to link up with his former coach Ramón Díaz.
El Cabezón made his San Lorenzo debut in the Copa Libertadores against Venezuelan side Caracas FC in a 2-0 away loss. He made his presence felt almost a month later in the league in a 3-1 victory against Lanús with two goals and one assist. D’Alessandro then went on to get three assists in his next five games before he got two assists in five days with one against Gimnasia and one against Diego Simeone’s River Plate in the Copa Libertadores. San Lorenzo won the first leg away 2-1 before going 2-0 down in the second-leg and with the score at 2-1, El Cabezón sent in a well-directed corner to Gonzalo Bergessio to tie the score and send San Lorenzo to the Quarterfinals where LDU Quito from Ecuador knocked them out on penalties. San Lorenzo finished fourth on the overall table with D’Alessandro finishing with two goals and five assists in all competitions before he decided to move to Porto Alegre and join Internacional in the summer for 5 million euros.
He made his debut in the Brasileirão Série A on match day 20 against Vasco Da Gama although his first season will always be remembered for the tie against bitter city rivals Gremio where he got one goal and two assists. D’Alessandro would finish that Brasileirão Serie A with two goals and four assists, as Internacional would finish in sixth. The Brazilian team would go on to beat Estudiantes 2-1 on aggregate to win the Copa Sudamericana as D’Alessandro contributed two goals and one assist in their campaign.
The following season Inter would lose the Recopa Sudamericana, would only reach the last 16 of the Copa Sudamericana but finish second in the Brasileirão and qualify for the Copa Libertadores. D’Alessandro would miss 17 Serie A games but would contribute six goals and one assist in the league. El Cabezón spoke of a return to Europe with interest from Tottenham Hotspur and Borussia Dortmund but neither move materialized after Borussia Dortmund denied their interest in the player.
The 2010 season would see Internacional finish seventh in the Serie A and win the coveted Copa Libertadores as D’Alessandro participated in every game except one as he managed to get an assist in both legs of the semi-final. The Brazilian team would beat Chivas in both legs of the final to claim the centerpiece of D’Alessandro’s career.
D’Alessandro finished the season with one goal and eight assists in all competitions and won the South American player of the year award given by Uruguayan newspaper El País as he finished with 61 votes, ten more votes than Juan Sebastián Verón did while he also beat Neymar and Dario Conca. Argentinean newspaper La Nación released an article entitled ‘¿D’Alessandro? ¿Por qué?’ but the Argentinean left an indelible mark on the Brazilian club.
Internacional would then finish third at the FIFA Club World Cup with D’Alessandro getting a goal and assist in the United Arab Emirates. There was talk of a return to River Plate for him but Internacional executive director, Newton Albuquerque Drummond described the then 29-year-old as ‘priceless’.
“Anything is possible in football, but there are no concrete offers for D’Alessandro right now. We have only had news and rumours that River are interested. The truth is that he is priceless, a player who is adored by the fans,” Drummond told Radio La Plata.
D’Alessandro then started the Brasileirão with four goals and four assists in his first 13 games. These included a one-touch drive past the keeper from just outside the box against América-MG, a corner for Bolivar to head in against Figueirense and a chip for Oscar to chest and volley past the goalkeeper in a move that was more akin to beach football rather than on the grass pitches of the Estádio Beira-Rio.
He accrued 11 goals and 10 assists in all competitions that season as Inter finished fifth in the Brasileirão and win the Recopa Sudamericana against Independiente. This would be a special season for Inter and D’Alessandro as the next season, Inter dropped five places in the league table while El Cabezon finished with two goals, and eight assists in all competitions.
D’Alessandro was pivotal to Internacional in the 2013 season as Inter dropped three places and finished in 13th place. D’Alessandro finished the Serie A season with 11 goals and seven assists as he only missed three games that season. Internacional’s coach Dunga described him as an ‘example’ to the rest of the playing staff.
“We were winning and even then he was like a cart, he did not tire, whoever looks at this has a player example,” said Dunga to the Brazilian media during that season.
D’Alessandro started the next season with two goals and one assist in the first four games. Inter shot up to third place and qualification for the Copa Libertadores after missing out for two years as they spent majority of their time in the top three during the season. D’Alessandro finished the season with six goals and nine assists as he was certainly asserting himself in the prime of his career.
He then missed 23 games in the 2015 season as Inter were knocked out in the semi-final stage of the Copa Libertadores. They also finished in fifth in the Brasileirão with D’Alessandro contributing four goals and five assists in all competitions.
In February 2016, he made the decision to return to River on a year-long loan after seven years at Internacional. Most Internacional fans thought of him as an idol, as he faced bitter rivals Gremio 27 times, won thirteen times, drew nine, only lost five and scored 8 times against them. ESPN Brasil described him simply as ‘An idol. Captain. Winner. ‘The 34-year-old midfielder’s voice trembled with emotion as he leant forward and spoke before he broke into tears when he uttered the following words in the press conference announcing his return.
“This is a mixture of sadness and joy. I am returning to my land, to my house, to my parents. To return to the club after thirteen years for me is a very great satisfaction,” said D’Alessandro before he was unable to speak, looking down at the table while wheezing with tears running down his face.
In the Copa Libertadores against The Strongest, he set himself up to pass the ball to an overlapping player but nutmegged his marker to play a one-two with a player at the top of the box who back heeled it to him as he poked it in at the near post to open the scoring in the sixth minute. For the fourth goal, he took on a long pass to cross for Emmanuel Mammama to head in at the back post as River ran out 6-0 victors.
At the start of 2016/17 Primera Division, he scored in the opening game against Banfield when a Gonzalo Martínez shot rebounded off the frame of the goal and into his path to find the back of the net at the keeper’s near post in a 4-1 win.
He was a right-winger in Marcelo Gallardo’s 4-2-2-2 and created an wonderful partnership with Sebastián Driussi, who is almost 15 years his junior, as he once slid in the 20-year-old to score against Vélez Sarsfield. He then scored a match winning free kick in a 1-0 victory against Atlético de Rafaela.
The cherry on top of his return came in Copa Argentina Final, which River won against Rosario Central in a fiercely contested match. D’Alessandro was subbed off but never sat down as the 35-year-old jumped and gesticulated wildly on the sideline. It was the last time he would ever wear the red and white of River before he would return to a relegated Internacional.
D’Alessandro is remembered in Europe mostly for his insouciance but in South America he is an idol and maverick as those players rarely veer from their values, and that is why they are respected. The sight of him completing dribbles in his mid-30s that he executed in his mid-20s is football in the purest sense, as the sight of him celebrating that last Copa Argentina in a child-like manor will remain in the memories for River fans for ages. D’Alessandro will one day end his career with a trophy cabinet littered with glory and memories of grandeur in a journey with many sharp turns and roads left untaken but he will either be remembered as ‘¿D’Alessandro? ¿Por qué?’ or ‘An idol. Captain. Winner.’
Chaka is a recently graduated Journalism student and a freelance football writer published in These Football Times, InBedWithMaradona and Football.London. Follow his Twitter here @chaka_simbeye