In front of a lively Parisian crowd eager for the opening of the 2018-19 Ligue 1 season, my favorite player finally earned a send-off fitting of what he has given to the club. Though Javier Pastore departed nearly two months prior, few had time to reflect; no public ceremony, no closure. Surely nothing befitting the world’s best footballer. The emotional ceremony finally cemented the legacy of Pastorisme, a paradoxical dedication to a player who spent much of his career injured or benched for even larger, more expensive stars.
Reflecting on the career of this decade’s most entertaining footballer paints him as a victim of the modern game, or a story of lost potential. Football is more physical than ever, and playmakers too must carry their weight, fulfill their conditioning requirements: essentially everything that Michel Platini disavowed, between puffs of his cigarette and three consecutive Ballon d’Or trophies. Today’s prospects must compromise in their roles (as Edinson Cavani drifts from striker to full-back), or learn to limit their flashiness (“explosive” rather than “overzealous”).
Make no mistake: Pastore was lazy. An ill-conceived dribble cost AS Roma a goal in his pre-season debut. Should Adrien Rabiot lose a ball in midfield and then lackadaisically trackback, the press will rightly eviscerate him. We are conditioned, however, to make exceptions for the exceptional. Fans don’t need to forgive Lionel Messi for strolling around the pitch; his lack of movement is simply not questioned, for his moments of transcendence seem to necessitate muted periods.
What makes Pastore so special in the popular memory is that he was not the greatest. That he is Eric Cantona’s favorite is only more evidence against him. Managers Laurent Blanc and Unai Emery could not find a permanent place for him, despite having years in the team to try to adapt to a deeper-lying role. Thomas Tuchel sold him almost immediately. Every run Pastore had in the team was conjured by some extraneous circumstance, an injury or long suspension, though each time he clawed to keep his place, not through dogged defensive work but by forcing his style on his own team and his opposition. Blanc designed his team to be conservative and possession-hungry. Pastore, who lost the ball eagerly and vaingloriously, must have been a nightmare for his manager. And yet El Flaco constantly made himself undroppable, at least until his own body inevitably gave up. These phases of his involvement compartmentalize remarkely well and proved nostalgic even season-to-season.
This piece is assuredly not a eulogy: he returns to the league where he made his name, Serie A, ascendant for the first time in years. He will add to his highlight reel. But as his age and physical condition, Roma will likely be El Flaco‘s last high-level club. His career is a reflection not only of how far PSG have come since his arrival from Palermo in 2011, but also a portent of a changing sport. I do not mean to shake my cane at things like video assistant referee (VAR) and lament the old days of managers smoking cigars on the touchline; the game is not crying out for more players like him. After all, he is Cantona’s favorite for a reason: he clings to his own identity.
At the expense of his own career, Pastore did not bend to turgid tiki-taka nor to clipboard-fueled counter-pressing. His prime has passed him by. Few others come to mind who were so uncompromising. Cantona and Zlatan Ibrahimovic were similarly devoted but far less humble. Pastore, strangely enough, took every second on the bench with gratitude and humility. Perhaps it remains to be seen what he does with the next few years, but even if he sputters out—perhaps in Mexico or Turkey, like other cult number 10s—his legacy at PSG is unblemished.