Gervinho returns in style

Gervinho picked up the ball just outside his own penalty area and started to run upfield.

The Parma winger had six Cagliari defenders up against him and only one teammate.

By the time he had got to the halfway line he had escaped two wild sliding challenges while keeping the ball under control. One burst then took him past the last remaining midfielder and a final injection of speed left the central defender beaten. Finally, after a 70-yard run not dissimilar to George Weah’s goal for Milan in 1996, he dispatched a right-foot shot that went in off the inside of the post.

The Parma midfielder Luca Rigoni was so stunned he started applauding rather than celebrating. The whole Parma bench surrounded Gervinho to congratulate him. The Ivorian was back at the very highest level, scoring in Serie A again, two and a half years after he left for the Chinese Super League.

It was a remarkable turnaround for a player most people thought had taken the money for an easy life at Hebei China Fortune. He had departed Roma aged 28 but here he was, back in Italy, scoring a contender for goal of the season at 31.

When we meet at Parma’s training ground Gervinho is relaxed. He loves being in Italy, enjoying the food – “You have an Italian dish and smile for the rest of the day” – and, most important, is enjoying his football. “Everyone thought I went to China to retire and get paid,” he says. “They thought I was on vacation for a few years. I had some injury problems and that’s why people started to say Gervinho was done. But they were very wrong. Every week we had to give our best; in China there are many great foreign players now and this also motivates the Chinese players.

“I never let myself go. In China you have to be in peak form because you need to do well. You earn a lot – I had a huge salary – but then you have to prove you are worth it. Every match is a challenge and I played next to or faced some truly great players.”

So why did he return to Italy? “It all started with a phone call from Parma’s sporting director, Daniele Faggiano. We talked and after a few minutes we already had a proposal. He was very quick, pragmatic, enthusiastic – he deserves most of the credit. I felt in love with this project immediately.”

Gervinho swiftly proved his powers have not waned. He has four goals in eight Serie A games, including one against Juventus. Parma, promoted from Serie B, sit comfortably in 11th after 12 games.

“It couldn’t be going better,” he says. “When I told people I was going to Parma, a lot of them didn’t think it was a team good enough for Serie A … but instead we are doing great. Avoiding relegation is still our goal but then we will see about realising some significant dreams.”

Parma are Gervinho’s ninth club in a career that has included scoring for Ivory Coast at the World Cup and winning the Africa Cup of Nations. Yet there has always been the feeling among fans he could perhaps have done more. So does he have any regrets?

“Not even one,” he replies emphatically. “You must never forget where you came from. I was born in a tiny place in Ivory Coast, so being a protagonist in this life is a dream. I started playing football in Abidjan, my African town, without even having shoes on my feet.

“I was lucky to go on to have a good life, thanks to my passion. I played in the club of my dreams, Arsenal. I won a league title and a French Cup. I brought the Africa Cup to the people of my country and felt like a hero. I had great champions as teammates and I think I have many years in my career ahead of me. I have no regrets, I just want to enjoy every moment, every action, every shot on goal, because all of a sudden one day it will all end and without football life is sad.

“When I grew up I had to play without boots. In Ivory Coast it’s very hard to have normal shoes, so just imagine football boots – they were considered a true luxury. In the academy where I grew up there were only players with no shoes like me and when I went back a few years ago I played with no shoes next to them.

“But in that academy it became a philosophy. They tell the kids: ‘You play with no shoes on, so you learn how to better control the ball. When you have shoes it will be much easier and you’ll become champions.’ And after many years, after reaching some milestones, you finally get those boots. Joy after suffering, always with a smile. Unforgettable.”

Having started at Asec Mimosas Abidjan and represented Toumodi, Gervinho joined the Belgian club Beveren in 2004. After moving to France to play for Le Mans, he signed for Lille in 2009 and won the title – the club’s first in 56 years – before a transfer to Arsenal in 2011.

“Arsenal are the team that have left the biggest mark on me, without a doubt. I lived a dream. Any kid who starts playing can’t help but to dream to play at a club like Arsenal. The day I signed I cried. I remember it like it was today: it was in 2011, I told all my family and was jumping for joy. It was a source of great pride to sign with a club like that. I didn’t lose my smile from the first to the last match at Arsenal. I remember when I left I wanted to thank everyone, even the dressing-room staff.”

Gervinho has played with greats, including Eden Hazard at Lille and Mohamed Salah and Francesco Totti at Roma. “I knew Eden would become a global star. He had feet, mind, body and class: everything you need to become a champion. Salah is a tough guy. Always calm and strong, with the mentality of a hard worker. I’ll never forget his training sessions: very high rhythm, pushed like a madman, you watched him in amazement. He had a sort of positive effect – you saw Salah and wanted to work harder. Talent and sacrifice.”

Gervinho has learned things everywhere, starting in France. “I was a kid when I arrived – it taught me about being a professional. England is an extraordinary place, the Premier League is like a dream. I learned how to live as a person and footballer thanks to those years. In Italy, there’s a lot of quality work on tactics, in training, really impressive. In China, you need to be strong too: you can’t feel like you are on vacation, you need to teach something to the next generations. But Africa is always in my heart, Africa stays within you.”

Originally published by the Guardian


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