In a footballer’s career, there is often a single ‘that’ moment; a single moment in which he transcends the boundary between being a mere footballer and a practitioner of a more supreme form of art; a moment which lingers on in the memory of the viewing public longer than any other; a moment, no matter what other stellar feats he has gone on to achieve in his long and distinguished career, which always continues to define him. It’s like there cannot be any conversation about Gordon Banks’ career without reference to ‘that’ save from Pele. Like any tribute to Zinedine Zidane is meaningless without the mention of ‘that’ goal against Bayer Leverkusen. Like Dennis Bergkamp’s exquisite touch and instinctive finish to knock Argentina out of 1998 World Cup will forever be etched sharper in the memory than any other piece of sublime skill from the Dutch maestro.
The history of football is littered with a multitude of similar ‘that’ moments. Maradona’s mazy run and finish against England, Marco van Basten’s stunning volley against USSR, Ryan Giggs running at Arsenal, there is a ‘that’ moment for almost all footballers. But what sets apart the great ones from the rest of the pack is the number of candidatures they can conjure up in their career for the role of a single ‘that’ moment. So what if a footballer has only one contender for being the ‘that’ moment in his career? And what if the ‘that’ moment came in his very first bow at senior level? Therein lies the problem of the footballer named Federico Macheda.
Federico Macheda, nicknamed Kiko, made his debut for Manchester United when he came on as a second half substitute against Aston Villa in a Premier League fixture on 29th March 2009. Manchester United, at the time, were chasing a record equaling 18th league title with Liverpool in hot pursuit. The Red Devils entertained Villa on the back of successive league defeats and the tide seemed to be turning towards the Merseysiders in the title race. On that particular sunny Sunday afternoon, Villa – winless at Old Trafford since 1983 – played with an uncharacteristic verve and poise to lead by 2-1 deep into the second half. At Merseyside, they could smell blood and even though Ronaldo made it 2-2, an air of discontent hanged heavy over the stadium as the match entered stoppage time. The Theatre of Dreams cried out for a hero.
Enter Kiko Macheda and his ‘that’ moment. The 17 year old kid, whom Manchester United had controversially cherry-picked from Lazio’s academy in 2007, was hitherto unknown to the majority save the most dedicated of United followers. But all that would change the moment he received the ball from Ryan Giggs inside the box, pirouetted round Luke Young with all the grace of a ballet dancer and curled a delicious shot beyond a flailing Brad Friedel into the far corner. If ever there was a fairytale debut, then this was the one as Andy Gray cried out – “A Star Is Born”.
It was not just the occasion or the timing of the goal but also the way Macheda scored it, which made the goal so special. This was no once in a while 30 yard scorcher, nor a stabbed finish from two yards following a goal mouth scramble. In many ways, this was the most flawless goal a striker could have scored, the most perfect blend of skill, technique and accuracy that a striker could have conjured up. This was the sort of goal, which made the dismissal of Macheda, as a flash in the pan, impossible. He was here to stay. And as if to prove that very point, the next week, Macheda delivered once again with an instinctive poacher’s effort to give Manchester United the victory at Sunderland. The kid could do no wrong. At 17, sky was the limit for the Italian boy wonder.
Or so it seemed. In the ensuing three years post those heady spring days of 2009, when he swung the momentum irrevocably in favour of Manchester United in the race for the title, Macheda has made just a paltry 15 starts (with 18 substitute appearances) for United with a measly return of 3 goals. Hardly, the stuff of champions. On a closer inspection though, it appears that it is Macheda’s precocious talents, ironically, that has acted as an impediment for him to establish himself in United’s first team by now.
On the eve of the 2010-11 season, Sir Alex Ferguson was faced with a choice regarding his options within the striking department for the upcoming campaign. Between Kiko and fellow youngster Danny Welbeck, one was to be withheld to provide backup to Wayne Rooney, Dimitar Berbatov and the new arrival Javier Hernandez, and the other one to be sent on loan to further his football education. Ultimately, it was decided that Macheda had the wherewithal to make the step up to United’s first team and Welbeck was sent to Sunderland for a season long loan. It turned out to be a momentous decision in the fledgling careers of both the young forwards. While Welbeck made best use of his loan opportunity and lapped up the valuable playing time afforded to him, Macheda struggled to carve out a niche for himself in Manchester United’s first eleven.
Macheda’s travails though can scarcely be attributed to his own failings. The lad has had to endure some truly appalling strokes of luck in the past two seasons. First, it was Berbatov’s scintillating form, coupled with the instant impact of Hernandez at start of 2010-11 season, which severely restricted his first team opportunities. In his limited appearances, Macheda, apart from his well-taken goal at Villa Park, had very few moments of inspiration and was largely unconvincing. With Welbeck starting to profit immensely from his loan spell, it became quite apparent that Macheda needed to follow suit come January.
Follow suit he did but not quite with the same result as Welbeck. Sampdoria was the chosen club as his destination, which at that time, appeared to be an excellent choice as the club, shorn of its two marquee strikers in Antonio Cassano (transferred to Milan) and Giampaolo Pazzini (to Inter), presented Macheda a perfect chance to make his mark. Back in his native Italy, things started brightly for Macheda with a goal in his first start in a Coppa Italia tie against Udinese.
But this would be as good as things got and soon events took a turn towards the catastrophic. Mimmo Di Carlo, the manager who brought Macheda to the club, was sacked and Alberto Casavin was installed to revive Blucerchiati’s flagging season. Casavin continued to select the ineffective pairing of Massimo Maccarone and Nicola Pozzi over Macheda, who was reduced to an all too familiar bit part role. Out of his 14 appearances for Sampdoria, only 3 were starts, the last of which came in early February. In a Sampdoria team, utterly devoid of creativity and attacking instincts, Macheda failed to add to his solitary goal and ended a miserable 5 month spell in Italy with Samdoria’s relegation.
The 2011-12 followed the same pattern again for Macheda. After flattering to deceive on the pre-season tours with United, Macheda yet again failed to make most of his limited opportunities during the first half of the season. Come January, he was farmed out again, this time to Premier League strugglers Queen’s Park Rangers and Macheda, to his dismay, soon found himself reliving the nightmare from an year back. Nine days after his joining, Neil Warnock was sacked as manager and replaced by Mark Hughes, who soon bolstered his strike force with signings of Bobby Zamora and Djibril Cisse. As with Casavin in Italy, Macheda found first team opportunities hard to come by with just 6 appearances and no goals in 3 months before an ankle injury cut his loan spell short.
And thus, more than three years have passed since that dream debut; United still wait on him to make it big. But it’s time someone should remind Macheda, if he needs reminding of the fact at all, that this club does not wait for anyone much long. The fact that it has waited this long in itself is an indication of the immense talent the lad possesses. The barren years may have battered his self-confidence but somewhere within, there’s still a world class striker waiting to break through. There have been talks of season long loan deal to Benfica and a successful loan spell may well be catalyst for the breakthrough.
For his own career’s sake, a clean break from Manchester United may free him from the burden of that glorious debut and allow him a fresh start which he so desperately needs. Whichever road he chooses, he will hope to have lady luck smiling on him for a change. The audience awaits a ‘that’ moment to rival his last one. And once again, like he did on that April afternoon, Federico Macheda needs to stand up and deliver.