The last goodbye: When David Trezeguet rescued River Plate aged 33

At 33, David Trezeguet tore up a contract in the Middle East to sign for River Plate, his boyhood club. His goals returned River to the Primera División.

It’s not uncommon for footballers to return to their hometown clubs at the end of their career. A send-off in a familiar place guarantees appreciation, incurs little pressure from the fans and allows a player to be closer to friends and family.

It’s often a sentimental affair, with the player’s popularity allowing them to put their feet up and enjoy the moment.

For David Trezeguet, France’s World Cup and European Championship-winning striker, things were a little different.

Born in France but raised in Argentina, Trezeguet grew up a fan of River Plate, the imperious Buenos Aires club that has produced talents like Hernán Crespo, Pablo Aimar and Ariel Ortega.

During the first decade of Trezeguet’s life, River won five league titles.

Years later, however, with Trezeguet a 32-year-old veteran, a World Champion, a European champion and a two-time winner of both the French and Italian leagues, River were in crisis.

In debt to the tune of 75 million dollars, the Argentine giants were struggling on the pitch and, at the end of the 2011 Clausura tournament, were forced into a relegation play-off

A 3-1 defeat to Belgrano de Córdoba sent River into the second tier for the first time in their history. Fans rioted, the manager resigned, and the future looked bleak.

A new challenge

Not long after River’s unprecedented collapse, Trezeguet signed a contract with Baniyas SC in the UAE Pro-League.

You couldn’t blame him: his final three years at Juventus had been marked by injuries, and a gruelling one-year stint in Spain with Hércules had ended in relegation — despite the Frenchman’s dozen league goals.

A £30,000-a-week deal to play in the sunshine? It’s no wonder he turned down a late approach from Celtic.

But just a handful of appearances into his spell with Baniyas, something was nagging at him.

Unhappy with life in the UAE and still struggling with injuries, Trezeguet agreed a mutual termination of his newly-inked deal.

Retirement seemed a distinct possibility for a player, now 33, whose halcyon days had come and gone a decade earlier.

Trezeguet, however, had other ideas.

With a humbled River Plate beginning their first season in the second tier, the French-Argentine striker saw an opportunity to “form part of the history of [the] club”.

If he could straighten out his injuries, if he could agree terms with his boyhood team, he could be the player to return River to their rightful place.

In late December 2011, the deal was struck.

But this would not be any normal homecoming. Trezeguet may have been a star name, but he would not be allowed to bask in adoration without delivering the goods.

Promotion for River was critical. Failure to return to the Primera División could have destroyed a club already at its lowest ebb.

“I feel good,” Trezeguet announced. “I am looking forward.”

Goals and golazos

By the time Trezeguet was fit enough to pull on the River shirt in February 2012, the season had just passed its half-way point.

River were second in the table — high enough to secure promotion but running a right race with Quilmes, Instituto and Rosario Central. The second half of the campaign would have to proceed near-flawlessly.

Trezeguet, looking sharper than expected, fit into the side with ease.

In his first three appearances, River won every game, the striker adding late goals in the second and third games after coming on as a substitute.

When he eventually commanded a starting spot, River were unstoppable, and Trezeguet would ultimately end the campaign with 13 goals in 19 appearances.

Many of those goals were crucial. On three occasions, including the title-winning final match of the season, Trezeguet was the sole goalscorer and match-winner. On other occasions, his strikes increased the margin of victory in ruthless demolitions.

Perhaps his finest moment came in late March, ehen his two late goals secured a 3-0 win over Ferro Carril Oeste.

Although River remained in second place after the victory, the manner of Trezeguet’s second goal was utterly spectacular: drifting to the far corner of the box for a corner, the striker met a bouncing clearance with a preposterous sliced volley.

The ball, travelling in slow motion, sailed into the top corner, giving River fans a glorious memory from an immensely difficult year.

On the final day of the season, Trezeguet led his side to a 2-0 victory with both goals — one a crisp volley from the edge of the box — and could even afford to miss a penalty.

Mission accomplished

Trezeguet’s goals in the Primera B Nacional were a buoyancy aid for troubled River, but the forward suffered a choppy end to his time in Buenos Aires.

Despite notching three goals in the Primera División, he was released by River midway through the 2012-13 campaign. Fans protested the decision, but Trezeguet’s mission, it appeared, had been completed.

And he deserves immense credit for his role in saving the club.

While many career swan songs allow players to take their foot off the gas, Trezeguet gave himself a serious challenge in moving to his boyhood club.

Because although River fans warmed to their World Cup-wining hero, that warmth was generated and intensified by the striker’s goalscoring returns.

Had Trezeguet struggled for form — and had River’s performances suffered as a result — he might have found himself in a very different set of circumstances.

The striker would have been all too aware that the players who suffered relegation a year prior had been threatened, in no uncertain terms, by furious supporters.

Ahead of the catastrophic relegation play-off in 2011, fans had displayed a banner warning the River players to “Kill or die”. There was genuine danger of the relegated squad being attacked.

For a glorious half-season, Trezeguet chose the former option: ‘killing it’ in the second tier, living to tell the tale and returning a great club to its rightful place.

By Benedict O’Neill

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