Argentina's New Hernan Crespo - River Plate's Funes Mori

The River Plate and Argentina Under 20 star has it all: pace, power, finishing and whopping transfer fee on his head. Now he just needs Manchester City or Chelsea to come and get him. Or failing that, Wigan Athletic would do.
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‘The pressure here is huge,’ says Gabriel Funes Mori as he looks out across the empty stadium. ‘Playing in front of 60,000 fans, with the situation we’re in, plus with a young side, is very difficult,’ says the 20 year old, who prefers to meet out on the pitch at the Monumental to avoid the melee of restless reporters camped outside after River Plate’s training session.

Funes Mori, along with other youngsters at the club such as Erik Lamela, Manuel Lanzini and Roberto Pereyra, are tasked with helping one of the biggest clubs in Argentina, and indeed South America, on two fronts. They have to help River Plate stave off relegation… and bankruptcy.

‘Of course we feel the pressure. If things don’t work out on the pitch, the fans get angry, they are worried, they are very passionate…’ he trails off. In the current climate at River Plate, calling the supporters ‘passionate’ is something of a euphemism.

Along with Boca Juniors, River have historically dominated Argentine football. The millonarios, so called after their big spending in the 1930s, have 33 league titles to their name. But in recent years they hit a slump in their performances, and the club accounts also slipped deep into the red.

With no transfer funds to bolster the squad, it down to the young players at the club to make up the numbers, and battle against relegation. Yet the club are also banking on strong performances from their promising youngsters to bump up their transfer value – River Plate have no option but to sell come the end of the season in order to keep the accountants at bay.

Just over a year ago, a dazzling performance and goal against Boca, albeit in a preseason friendly, had Gabriel Funes Mori singled out by River Plate as one of the most promising players on their books.

Since then, Benfica have had a £7 million bid rejected. Fiorentina, Inter Milan and Borussia Dortmund are just some of the other clubs rumoured to be interested in the player, while River Plate are ambitiously holding out for a fee closer to £13 million.

‘I really never thought that in such a short space of time after making it into the first team they would be talking about that kind of money,’ he admits, somewhat nervously. ‘I’m still young and if a move hasn’t happened yet, it’s for a reason. I’ll have to wait to see what happens.’

Just over a year ago, a dazzling performance and goal against Boca, albeit in a preseason friendly, had Gabriel Funes Mori singled out by River Plate as one of the most promising players on their books.

Tall, lean and strong, he avoids comparing himself with other players, ‘but I always used to watch Hernán Crespo,’ he adds. ‘I try to move well, make good runs and be in the right place in the box to score.’

Crespo is a classic reference point for any young Argentine centre forward, but particularly for those starting out at the Monumental, where the former Argentine international is one of the club’s legendary strikers. But there are those in Argentina, and indeed those in the stands at River Plate, who question the price tag placed on Funes Mori’s head.

Soon after breaking into the first team, he went 14 league games without a goal. Supporters punished him cruelly for his profligacy, pointing to a fluffed one-on-one against Boca in the superclásico – this time in the league - as the strongest evidence that he lacks the killer instinct in front of goal. His confidence was shot.

Not even a 24-minute hattrick against Racing put him back on track. He soon suffered another drought. Despite his technical ability and athleticism, coaches who have worked with him have pinpointed an area he needs to develop.

‘The main thing coaches have taught me and worked with me on is my confidence. I will never forget (Leo) Astrada for giving me my debut. (Ángel) Cappa liked to play passing football and we worked with the ball more than most coaches do, but (current coach) JJ López is working a lot on my confidence.’

It is not just at River where they have high hopes for Funes Mori. He was included in the Argentina squad for the South American Under 20 championships, where he scored twice. He didn’t light up the tournament as Brazil’s Neymar, or even as Argentina’s own Juan Iturbe did, but he does have the all-important goals in the blue and white of Argentina, perfect  for the DVD that agents go into board meetings armed with. And while rumours rumble on about a possible move to Europe, he himself hopes to return to the country where he had his first chance of signing a professional contract.

‘I had a trial at Chelsea,’ he recalls with a smile, an opportunity which came about after he won a soccer reality show in the USA. ‘I remember watching Lampard and Drogba training, it was incredible to see them close up, it’s something I’ll never forget. I trained with the under 18s and played a training match against Wolves. I scored.’

Not holding an EU passport meant that Funes Mori, both Gabriel and his twin brother Ramiro, couldn’t stay in England and the family soon returned to Argentina after an eight year spell living in the USA. But now he is approaching the time to move to Europe, he is hoping to find a club in the Premier League.

‘Obviously a move to a club like Manchester City which is growing quickly would be amazing, or Chelsea, which has great players. But there are other good clubs in England,’ he adds, mentioning Franco Di Santo and Hugo Rodallega at Wigan.

When his chance does come to play in Europe, as it surely will, Gabriel Funes Mori will know all about dealing with the pressure. Whether he has what it takes to succeed at the very highest level, and whether River get their asking price, remains to be seen.

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