On 5 July, 2011, in a match against Peru, Uruguay’s 24-year-old striker Edinson Cavani made his first appearance in the Copa América. Eight years and three tournaments later, he scored his very first goal in the competition.
It has been a strangely barren path for a player widely considered one of the best centre-forwards in the world over the last decade or so.
Despite having scored almost 50 goals for his country, and despite actually winning the Copa América in that 2011 debut tournament, the finals have time and again seen Cavani taking a back seat — if not outright scuppering his team’s chances. In two separate tournaments he has failed to score in 90 minutes against Jamaica.
Of course, we’re hardly talking Lionel Messi levels of missed opportunity here.
Cavani, now 32, lifted the trophy in 2011, thanks largely to the excellence of Luis Suárez and Diego Forlán, and Uruguay have never been hot favourites anyway. Cavani has underachieved, but with Suárez in the team, rarely has goalscoring responsibility been laid squarely at his door.
But given Cavani’s domestic prolificacy, three entire tournaments without a goal has been a long-standing blemish on the hitman’s record. The 2015 edition was a particularly gruesome nadir: three group matches came and went without a Cavani strike, and the forward’s red card in the quarter-finals effectively sent Uruguay packing.
But then, finally, sweet relief.
On 17 June, 2019, Cavani’s flying volley against Ecuador felt like a weight being lifted. As the big striker darted away from defenders then became airborne in the penalty area, eight years of frustration became as irrelevant as marking and/or gravity.
It was only a matter of time; it had only been hard luck keeping him from scoring.
And he hasn’t stopped there. Eight days after that spectacular strike, Cavani opted for substance instead of style, his impossibly precise header proving the difference against Chile in the final match of the group stage. The goal took Uruguay to the top of Group C.
It’s early days yet, but in the absence of Neymar, Cavani’s PSG team-mate and not-so-secret rival, and with Messi showing no obvious signs of lifting his international curse, this could be Cavani’s belated time to shine. A great player deserves one great tournament.
It’s easy to like Cavani. In fact, if you ignore the years in which he wore a goatee — an offence far worse than biting an opponent or illegally punching a shot from the goalmouth — he has done everything right, maintaining an incredibly consistent goalscoring record for around a decade.
Impressively, he’s done this despite playing second fiddle to a number of marginally bigger names: Suarez, Ibrahimovic, Neymar and, er, Fabrizio Miccoli.
During PSG’s Zlatan years, Cavani was often forced out wide; in these troublesome Neymar years, he isn’t even allowed to take set pieces.
Rarely has it dented his confidence though.
At Palermo, Napoli and PSG, and during every Uruguay match that isn’t part of a Copa América finals, the striker has been world class. The goals just keep coming.
Given their number (he is nearing the 400 mark for club and country), it’s understandable that some of those goals have been functional.
Many, however, including the Ecuador volley, have been spectacular. In fact, it’s only been a year and a bit since Cavani’s last acrobatic volley for Uruguay, an almost gratuitous bicycle kick against the Czech Republic.
There’s more to Cavani than goals, though.
With his long hair, Alice band and square jaw, the Uruguayan is something of a footballing archetype. He is a facial composite of ‘glamorous South American striker’. Or perhaps ‘1990s footballer who dabbled in Serie A’. Or maybe just ‘striker’.
For those of a certain age, he is something familiar, comforting.
And don’t underestimate the importance of appearances. Cavani, equal parts Tarzan and fragrance model, seems to be projected straight from a dusty VHS recording of Football Italia, a perfect homage to the Batistuta lookbook, a man obviously born with a vocation.
It’s not shallow or strange to appreciate this: we all link football to our childhoods, so a player who has time-travelled directly from USA ’94 should obviously be cherished.
His nearest ally in this domain, another specialist in flying volleys and Brylcreem, could yet face Cavani in the Copa América. His name is Radamel Falcao, and we all love him too.
During the weekend’s quarter-finals, Cavani will not face Falcao’s Colombia, but Peru, the team against whom his 10-match Copa América dry spell began eight years ago. (A handful of Peruvian players remain from that 2011 fixture, including their 35-year-old captain, Paolo Guerrero.)
But the game will not be about making amends or making up for lost time. Cavani’s Copa América goal drought has been an inexplicable blip, not a failing. It’s why his duck was broken in such spectacular fashion, and why there is clearly no weight about his very broad shoulders.
If Cavani can lift the South American trophy, he’ll fully deserve it. If he doesn’t, he’ll still be the most striker-y striker in world football.