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As Edinson Cavani cheerfully strolls inside from a drizzly Monday at Paris Saint-Germain FC's Camp des Loges training ground, it strikes you that he looks surprisingly unassuming.
Before swapping the clamour of SSC Napoli for the bright lights of the French capital this summer, he had become an icon in Naples. The Serie A club produced biscuit tins and pencil sharpeners emblazoned with the Uruguay forward's image. Elsewhere in the city, pizzas in the shape of a matador (his nickname) were made in his honour.
As he takes his seat, Cavani's straightforward manner is reflected in his words. His demeanour is modest, his focus is unmistakable. "How can I say this?" he ponders, when asked to describe his best attributes. "A player with some good qualities, a lot of devotion to the cause and always with the ambition to win, aiming to get results for the club and for yourself. And very, very concentrated on what I really want, which is something that gets you results."
This is where the serious dedication beneath Cavani's carefree image becomes clear. Discussing the art of the centre-forward, he speaks as he plays: without self-aggrandisement, economically and efficiently. "A big part of the game on the pitch is when you don't have the ball," he points out. "It's about anticipating and reading how the game is developing, to be able to finish. With that final movement you have to know how to bring the best out of yourself."
Goals in mind
Cavani does score spectacular goals but never indulges in showmanship for the sake of it. "I'm often asked why I don't play a lot with the ball at my feet, but I just need to do it at the moment when the game requires it," he deadpans. "I can do that without a problem, but what I like a lot is my movement off the ball – and then to really appear in the final few metres, which is scoring."
The PSG No9's determination may be inspired by the sacrifices his family made so he could pursue his dream. When he was six, his parents couldn't take him to training because they were working but he already showed such promise that his first coach Carmelo Cesarini picked him up. (Astonishingly, given his recent goalscoring record, he played in midfield until he was 15.)
Redeployed as a striker at Danubio FC in Montevideo, he was top scorer at the 2007 South American Youth Championship, earning a move to US Città di Palermo that same year. Now 26, he is frank enough to admit he has toughened up since his arrival in Palermo nearly six years ago. "I believe international football – professional football – has changed," he says.
"More precisely, in the way that to have a certain dynamism in the game is a big thing and a certain organised approach too, compared with how things used to be. You have to really apply yourself in the work you put in, your professionalism – to work on your body, so when you go onto the pitch you feel you can do your job."
His developing partnership with Zlatan Ibrahimović will test Europe's most accomplished defenders. The Swede's ability to drop off and pick a pass, combined with the Uruguayan's devastating directness, has convinced coach Laurent Blanc the pair will form a formidable duo in time.
For the new arrival, the union of these two Capocannonieri is a gift to be embraced, rather than a puzzle to be solved. "Well, for me it's a beautiful experience," Cavani smiles. "To pair up with him, for a young player like me, it's really a nice experience. But when you go onto the pitch you're not thinking about who you're playing with, you're just thinking you're part of a great team – and about your desire to win."
The early signs are that Cavani's faith will be borne out. Ibrahimović's through ball helped create his first UEFA Champions League goal for PSG during the 4-1 win at Olympiacos FC on matchday one. "Starting with a victory was an important step," he says. "When you win and you're getting results, that helps you do things more calmly. We still have to adjust and improve a lot."
They are, though, on the right track, and Cavani backs his coach's aim of cultivating an expansive, attacking brand of football for the Rouge et Bleu. "Paris have a very particular attacking side," he says. "There's a mix of many things: sacrifice, technique, quality. And in this competition, match after match, that can make the difference."
With his talent, focus and humility, Cavani can make the difference too.
This is an abridged version of an article that appears in Champions Matchday. The official magazine of the UEFA Champions League is available across Europe on the newsstand and also in digital versions which can be purchased via Apple Newsstand or Zinio. You can also follow the magazine on Twitter @ChampionsMag.
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