When driving in Italy, you spend more time looking in your wing and rear-view mirrors than in most other countries. Mopeds zip in and out between cars stuck in traffic jams and it was presumably while sitting in one on his way to training last season that the then Fiorentina striker Luca Toni was reminded of his teammate, Juan Cuadrado.
The winger from Colombia weaves through opponents just as a rider on a scooter does fellow commuters in rush hour on a gridlocked stretch of road. “Toni calls me Vespa,” he revealed to Il Corriere dello Sport. A twist of the throttle, a sudden burst of acceleration and vroom, Cuadrado’s off. Fiorentina’s right-side is their fast lane. Few can stay with him.
A member of Colombia’s golden generation, which in terms of the exciting players coming through is only rivalled by Belgium, Cuadrado is perhaps one of the least heralded. That now looks set to change.
After giving what Fiorentina owner Andrea Della Valle called a “stellar” performance in the team’s season opener in Serie A, a 2-1 win over Catania at the Artemio Franchi, La Gazzetta dello Sport’s Luca Calamai wrote: “If Gareth Bale is worth more than €100m, Fiorentina can start doing the math on how much Cuadrado is worth. At least €50m? Maybe even more.”
That’s Baleconomics for you. Barcelona and Bayern Munich have supposedly been watching the 25-year-old, for whom football is “happiness and allegria." If their scouts were in attendance on Monday night then, like Della Valle, they’ll have left impressed.
Cuadrado was many people’s Man of the Match. Only Edinson Cavani picked up more of those awards in Serie A last season . Cuadrado's WhoScored rating on Monday night was 8.15. Last season's most successful dribbler in Italy [completing 118] managed to accomplish another 5, tormenting Catania left-back Fabian Monzon. Twice the Colombia international burst past him in the first half, his mop-like hair blowing in the wind, and each time he got to the byline, pulling the ball back into the danger zone.
As he rolled the Nike Incyte into the penalty area, panic spread. Cuadrado’s teammates took advantage. Giuseppe Rossi swept in one of his cut-backs to score his first competitive goal after 18 months out with injury and when Catania failed to clear another, David Pizarro picked it up on the edge of the box and blasted a shot into the top corner. Cuadrado, incidentally, was the only player to attempt more than one cut-back in Serie A on the opening weekend - no one tried more than 10 over the entirety of the 2012-13 campaign.
Given a torrid time by Cuadrado, poor Monzon was replaced at the interval.
Not for the first time over the last year, coach Vincenzo Montella was delighted with him. Although when most people think about Montella's Fiorentina team, the first names that spring to mind from last season are those of Borja Valero, Stevan Jovetic, Adem Ljajic and Pizarro and this season Rossi and Mario Gomez, it’s worth remembering that only Valero played more games in the coach’s maiden year at the Artemio Franchi than Cuadrado, who made 34 starts and a further 2 substitutes’ appearances. It shows the high regard in which Montella holds him.
Seeing the player’s potential, just as he did with Ljajic, he has worked hard to ensure he realises it. Montella, it must be said, is establishing quite the reputation as a developer of talent. “Cuadrado still makes a few little mistakes,” he smiled wryly, “but for now it’s better this way. The day he becomes perfect they’ll immediately take him away from us.”
Brought to Italy four years ago by Udinese, Cuadrado came to the attention of their renowned scouting network, on which according to La Repubblica they spend €20m a year, while playing for Independiente Medellin.
As a kid, he grew up, as many of his generation did, idolising the original Ronaldo. Indeed, when asked by Mediaset’s pitchside reporter during a flash interview after Monday’s game who his point of reference was while kicking a ball around in his hometown of Necoclí, he namechecked O Fenômeno.
To begin with Cuadrado was a striker, only he didn’t score enough goals. So his coaches moved him into midfield. On his arrival at Udinese, Francesco Guidolin had him play as a wing-back in a 3-5-2, though, as we’ll discover his predilection has nearly always been to attack, not to defend.
Loaned to Lecce with his compatriot Luis Muriel the season before last to get some experience, the pair were a revelation and well worth the season ticket price at the Via del Mare, with Cuadrado making 33 appearances during his time at the club. “Pay attention to these two,” La Gazzetta recommended.
They both got fans off their seats and, for a time, Lecce danced to their chichoki rhythm. Muriel scored at San Paolo against Napoli and at San Siro against Inter, turning defenders inside-out. Cuadrado’s 3 league goals came on less prestigious stages and against opponents of a lower profile, but they were arguably more important in Lecce’s [ultimately unsuccessful] bid to survive and were every bit as stunning.
At home to Siena, he ran from deep inside his own half, breezed past four opponents, beat the last defender in a one-on-one with a series of stepovers on the edge of the area then, to top it all off, lobbed the `keeper.
“If Cuadrado always played like he did today,” coach Serse Cosmi said, “he’d be like Lionel Messi, while Muriel would be our Ronaldo. Unfortunately, it’s not like this.”
Following Lecce’s relegation, Muriel returned to Udinese, while Cuadrado, who never hit it off with Guidolin, was sent out on loan again to Fiorentina.
Included in the agreement was an option to buy a 50% stake in the player for €6m at the end of last season and the Della Valle family gladly took it. Perhaps they should have pushed to buy him outright. Should Cuadrado continue to improve over the next year, a World Cup year, which he hopes to go to in Brazil, then acquiring the other half when the arrangement comes up for renewal next summer will prove prohibitive, particularly if his value rises as high as La Gazzetta claim it might.
For now, however, Fiorentina hope he can be as decisive as he was on Monday for the entire season. Agile, elastic, he's difficult to handle and provokes his share of fouls. Only Alessandro Diamanti and Pablo Barrientos were brought down more in Serie A last season .
Montella has been getting him to work in particular on his finishing. Cuadrado's conversion rate was just 7.5% last season. “I need the mister’s lessons on this,” Cuadrado said. And who better to learn from than l’Aeroplanino? “I spend hours and hours shooting at goal after training. Who knows how angry the goalkeepers Neto and Lupatelli are at having to hang back with me before they’re able to hit the showers.”
They won’t mind as long as it pays off.
“The objective is to get to 10 goals.” Cuadrado claims. He got five last season. “I think I can manage it,” he said. “The fans like the dance I do after scoring and I’m training a lot on the pitch to be able to dance more.”
Serie A might have lost some exciting players over the summer who are either still young or about to enter their prime, from Edi Cavani and Jovetic to Marquinhos and Erik Lamela. Another wave is never far behind and Cuadrado, you feel, is at the crest of it.