All Grown Up

All Grown Up

It was early December in San Salvador. We had just checked into a shabby hotel room to escape the heat. The air conditioner was roaring. I was perched at the edge of the bed, drenched in sweat, staring at the tiny television mounted high on the wall across the room.

The Argentine Primera División’s Apertura was winding down. River Plate was playing… someone, I don’t know who. I didn’t care. All I could see was the scrawny genius at the top of the midfield. His passing, control, movement, and all-around talent were obvious, even to me.

This kid saw the game. He knew where a player would move, seemingly before the player himself did. He wheeled and spun, stuttered and screeched. He moved with the energy and agility of a swallow.

How could someone so young move so knowingly across a pitch? How must his opponents have felt, knowing that his few years of raw talent dwarfed their decades of carefully honed skill? He mocked them with his effortless perfection.

I gawked in wonder.

I didn’t know who Erik Lamela was before that game, but the image of him laying off a pinpoint pass in dense traffic at full speed, twisting, running to just the right spot, deftly receiving the ball three moves later, then chipping the hapless keeper… well, that burned his name into my brain forever. I had the strangest feeling that I was getting an undeserved preview of something really, powerfully special.

I got back home in time to watch River Plate get relegated for the first time in their long history, to watch Buenos Aires tear itself apart, to see Lamela end his short domestic career in tears.

I looked him up online and found that, no, I had not discovered a diamond in the rough. The rest of the world had been watching him for some time. But the European view on his talent seemed tinged with caution. When River Plate went down, I heard he was sold to Roma and, since I don’t actively follow Serie A, I haven’t heard much since.

I guess I had assumed that, like Bojan Krkić, his luck didn’t rise to the level of his talent. He seemed too nice and so, I figured, he’d probably had the passion stomped out of him by a jealous teammate or an unimaginative coach or an insatiable agent. Roma seemed the wrong club for him and I guess I turned away because I didn’t want to watch another promising light wink out before its time.

Imagine my excitement, then, to see him humbly destroy AC Milan last season. Whatever anybody else says, this was the kid that I discovered on a 1980s television set, the kid who made me forget the misery of tropical winter.

He’s stronger now, and faster. His game is keener, his timing better and his touches are even more precise. But that vision is still there, that joy, that smile, that subtle, gracious brilliance that makes him so fun to watch.

And this season, I hope to do a lot more watching.