30 minutes remaining, River Plate 1-0 down at Rosario Central on the 2nd weekend of the Argentine championship, and the signal is given to the man known as the Ogre to remove his large posterior from the bench, and commence warming up, or wobbling up rather. Cue loud cheers and collective donning of shrek masks from the 5000 traveling fans. The 24 year old with a figure more akin to a middle-aged ex pro turning out for a charity match is about to make his league debut for River.
“I’m a few kilos over the ideal”, he said before signing the week before, a slight under-statement, as demonstrated when he stripped off for his live medical; a torso that would make Neil Ruddock look like Stan Laurel if he stood beside him. Christian Fabbiani has always lacked shape, even when he was in-shape, but 6 months of inactivity due to a dispute over pay with former club Newell's Old Boys has converted muscle into yet more flab to the point where the Ogre must surely now be the fattest professional footballer in the world?
His on-off transfer from Newells to River Plate was the summer soap opera of Argentine soccer. Refusing to take part in pre-season training, the striker posed, Paul Ince-like, in the white and red shirt of River while still a Newells player. He explained that he had stood as a 10-year-old on he terraces of the club he wished to join, and how, in June 2008, while still a player at Cluj (with whom he won the Romanian league title), had been amongst the hundreds of River fans celebrating their 'closing' championship victory on the pitch. Instant kudos from the supporters; not only did their prospective new signing speak like one of their bare-topped 'barras' who fill one end of the Monumental stadium every home game, but he looked like one aswell, complete with beer belly...
There was just one snag for Fabbiani though. Debt-ridden River Plate couldn't afford to buy him. The economic recession has dictated the end of the usual sale of young players, or percentage stakes in young players, to European clubs, and therefore, no funds for new signings, no matter how badly they want to join.
Two weeks ago, on the eve of this year's 'closing' Championship, disillusion hung over the Monumental. The team had finished a humiliating bottom of the 'opening'* Championship that ran from last August to December, and just to rub salt in the wounds, everything was going smoothly at big city rivals, Boca Juniors, where legendary manager Carlos Bianchi was returning as technical director of the 'opening' champions to oversee a squad, containing the likes of Argentine internationals Riquelme, Palacios, Palermo and Battalliga, exactly the kind of characters and fan favourites, River lacked.
In two pre-season friendlies with Boca (the word friendly being used in the loosest possible sense here, as they were sell-out showpiece matches held in Mar Del Plata and Mendoza. part of a summer mini-tournament, screened live across the country), River's faceless players not only lost, but were comprehensively outplayed on both occasions.
Something had to be done to breathe new life into the stagnant River, and right on transfer deadline day, a delighted Fabbiani received the call he had been wishing for all summer, just as he was about to undergo, literally, a medical for Velez Sarsfield. The Ogre apologised to the Velez doctors and staff and asked to leave the clinic. "Well, if his heart wasn't in it,then it's better that he told us now than after 15 games", said a very understaning Velez manager and everything was arranged with River the same day..
Shrek fever began on the very day of his signing; children and adults turning up to Fabbiani's official presentation with their faces painted ogre green. One ex-River player, sitting in the canteen, remarked how it had taken him ten years to become a crowd favourite, but the new lad was already an idol without even playing a a game.
Again, Fabbiani said all the right things. "They won't kick Falcao anymore, now I'm alongside him", a reference to some tasty treatment the River Plate player had received from San Lorenzo players in the pre-season mini-tournament, part of a long running feud, although it is probably little Buononotte, 'the dwarf', who will probably benefit the most from having Fabbiani's physical presence. What more balanced attacking partnership could you ask for? The fattest player in the world alongside the shortest player in the world! However, the truth is that there is actually a lot more to Fabbiani's game than just putting his weight about. He has a lot of skill and an excellent finish.
Then, in one of those moments when football does imitate hollywood scripts, the shrek saga part 1 had a perfect happy ending. Just a few minutes after Fabbiani came on in the match at Rosario last sunday, River equalised through Martin Galmarini, nipping in with a header from a free kick while the defenders were all watching Fabbiani. Ten minutes later, the Ogre himself, 30 metres out and with no run up, lashed the ball into the back of the net to score the winning goal. Out came the shrek masks again, the commentators and fans went into a frenzy, and Fabbiani collapsed flat on his back, Charlie George style.
Fabbiani's goal here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GpyWNfHTJBQ
Fatso' and 'Monster', were the headlines the next day (the latter a play on words, eg. Gardel is a 'monster' of the Tango.) Comparisons with Ference Puskas and the Brazilian Ronaldo were naturally drawn, one newspaper putting together a list of the fattest players of all-time, placing Fabbiani at the top, and a psychologist wrote about how Fabbiani gave hope to all weight-challenged kids.
"A lot of kilos and a lot heart", said Clarin, and just to round off a perfect weekend for River fans, rivals Boca lost 2-0 at home to Newells. Contrary to what Tina Turner sang at her concert in the club's Monumental stadium, River Plate do need another hero. The Ogre could be just the job.
*Since 1992, the Argentina Primera league (1st Division) has been divided into two championships: The apertura (opening) which runs from August to December, and Clausura (closing) which runs from February to June, with seperate winners for each tournament. The 20 teams play one another once in each tournament. A return to a one-season championship has been recently suggested by AFA president Julio Grondona, but the majority of the 1st Division clubs are unlikely to vote for a change as the current format gives more clubs a chance of winning, or at least challenging for the Championship. Relegation is decided by a complicated system of point averages over the previous three seasons.