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What makes Edinson Cavani special at Manchester United?

Cavani has acquired a cult status at Old Trafford already

Tottenham Hotspur v Manchester United - Premier League Photo by Visionhaus/Getty Images

My first true experience of watching Edinson Cavani was at southern Italian club Napoli. And in some ways, it was rather fitting that it came at the club where Diego Maradona will forever be compared to San Gennaro - the patron saint of Naples, largely for giving the working class city a purpose and uniting it to fight against the odds and against the might of northern Italian giants. In many ways, it was the perfect fit. Maradona - a man of the masses, went and changed the history of a city which really needed a man of the masses.

Maradona’s stint in Naples saw them win the Scudetto twice and he turned the club into one of the biggest forces in the continent. Fast forward to 2010, Napoli had become a midtable Italian club after having gained promotion from Serie B in 2007. All they needed was someone of Maradona’s ilk; someone who could lift the club up from the midtable mess and take them forward into a new era.

When Cavani joined Napoli from Palermo, Napoli fans were dealing with the angst of having lost a hometown hero in Fabio Quagliarella. They were in desperate need of a striker that they could relate to - someone raw, passionate and no-nonsense. That is when I first got introduced to the man from Salto in the most innate way.

When Manchester United signed Cavani in the summer of 2020, the negativity was understandable but the optimism was tangible too. It was seen as a means to pacify an angry fanbase, which had been left frustrated by another underwhelming transfer window that had failed to address some issues in the squad. Comparisons were made to Radamel Falcao and there was a sense that it could go either way. It would either go the Falcao way or it would go the Zlatan Ibrahimovic way, the Henrik Larsson way or the Diego Forlan way.

South American footballers and Manchester United have had a black and white relationship anyway. They either become heroes for the terraces of Old Trafford or they become much derided characters in the club’s history. There has generally been nothing in-between; no grey area. No purgatory, only heaven or hell. Perhaps even for Cavani, something similar was going to happen.

I can’t be lying when I state that even after having watched Cavani impress at two different clubs across different countries, I had my doubts. But largely, it all boiled down to the frustration of a poor transfer window which had seen United fruitlessly chase Jadon Sancho for months. Despite that, I knew that it wasn’t going to be barren. I knew that there won’t be a lack of effort. After all, this was a man who came close to replicating Maradona’s image at the Partenopei and that isn’t child’s play.

In hindsight, it is easy to find similarities between the cultures of both Naples and Manchester and likewise, that makes it easier to understand the fans of the clubs too. These are cities that are rooted in the feeling of putting one up against the might of the other part of the country. While Naples (with Maradona) revelled in the feeling of having upstaged the more prominent north, Manchester was one of the footballing centres for dragging football’s influence to the north of England. During the inception of the professional game in England, the north of England was not seen to be ‘civilised’ enough to play the game because of the presence of a strong working class.

In Italy, the south of the country was looked down upon for not being Italian enough and for housing immigrants from a host of other countries when nationalist regimes dominated Italy. Fans from the northern clubs in Italy often mocked the southern clubs for being ‘Arabs’ - a derogatory term for immigrants. Both the cities have been the very epicentre of changing the landscape of the game in their countries, while sticking to a largely working class identity.

In Manchester, you could still come across some signs of the Industrial Revolution. Across the town of Salford, there are buildings which are a reflection of a time when Manchester really gained the reputation of being a working class city. The worker bee - to this day, remains the emblem of the city and more than how things are now, it is a reminder of the times gone by.

Likewise, Naples was and still is one of the industrial hotspots of Italy. Both cities house museums that point towards the nostalgia that they hold and if all of that is taken into perspective, you’d realise that both Naples and Manchester understand the value of working hard for a cause and being proud of that ethic.

And as Cavani’s stint at United slowly comes to an end (it is bound to end in January or the summer), you can see why the Uruguayan has appealed to the club despite all the injury issues that have come about. The fans, largely because of similar cultural and social identities, have similar demands out of players on the pitch.

Cavani’s work-ethic certainly does stand out and appeals a fair bit to the fanbases of the two clubs. But the swagger that he carries is raw - almost contagious. And for a global audience, it is an escape from lives that aren’t easy and steeped in a time when political identities often seem to matter more than individual identities and habits. Cavani’s Gabriel Batistuta-like image is a throwback to a time when individualism in football and otherwise mattered.

It is a throwback to an era where footballers weren’t essentially lost in PR-driven manipulations of themselves and robotic verses, but when they were true to their individual values, style and fashion sense.

The Uruguayan’s piece for The Players’ Tribune says it all. He barely seems to consider himself a superstar in an era of footballing commercialism. He uses the pitch to express his identity in more ways than one and he remains true to his Salto roots. He still takes the bumpy and dusty bus ride to his town like any ordinary individual and he realises that the life of a footballer is robotic and sometimes painfully monotonous. He knows that at a time like that, he has limited time to express his true self and he does that on the pitch.

And in this chaotic world, that is all we look to find - an expression of ourselves and an extension of what we are. Cavani does seem to excel in doing that and that is why people want to be like him - just like how people once saw Batigol as a role model.

His celebration is just fitting. It, according to himself, has roots in Uruguay and while he hasn’t offered a concrete explanation of what it really infers to, it is a shout out to where he comes from and those close to him. More than that, it is a reflection of him - a sniper in front of goal.

Perhaps, that is why Cavani will be as well known for his footballing abilities as his personality. He’s been at clubs which have well and truly encapsulated what he is and even though Paris Saint-Germain and the club’s culture seemed like a mismatch, he made an impact with his goalscoring. United, Palermo and Napoli seemed like a much better fit for him, despite his best goalscoring spell over a longer period coming at PSG.

In some ways, Catalonia will be an appropriate fit. Like Manchester and Naples, the region continues to fight for an identity and a cause.

Even though Cavani’s time at United has been hampered by injuries and other issues, it has been full of action and highs. Never did he not do the job when called upon under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and for a while, he was the player that fans would connect to the most. And there’s a reason why that even though his time seems to be coming to an end, there’s a feeling that United should get more out of him and what has happened isn’t enough.

From his brace against Southampton to goals against Tottenham, Roma and in the Europa League final against Villarreal, Edi certainly would be remembered as one of those South Americans at United who achieved heaven - like Forlan or Rafael.

United had been looking at Cavani since 2018 and only got the chance in 2020 and deep inside, I wish that the Uruguayan would have been a United player for much longer than he would be. At a club which has lost its identity too many times in recent years, having a player who has always remained true to himself will always be a dream. It is an experience.