FA Cup Countdown: Maradona of Basingstoke

When Cristian Levis left Argentina for football in England he had visions of a future worthy of Ricky Villa. After a spell in bedsits and a job in Boots, the Dragons' secret weapon faces Chesterfield in the FA Cup on Saturday. Nick Harris met him
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As a kid growing up in Mar del Plata, Argentina, Cristian Levis was raised on folk tales of Ricky Villa's FA Cup final replay-winning goal for Tottenham in 1981, but never dreamt he would one day be playing in the tournament: not for Basingstoke Town, anyway.

In a fantasy scenario, the 25-year-old striker would maybe have made it big in Spain, or failing that, England, where the professional pyramid had the cherry of the Premiership at the top.

He had, after all, brushed shoulders with legends as he worked his way up back home. One of his early club-mates was the former international Carlos "Loco" Enrique, brother of the 1986 World Cup winner, Hector. "Hector would always tell the story of Maradona's incredible second goal against England in 1986," Levis recalls. "He'd say, 'Sure, it was a great goal. But it was my pass that set Maradona on his run. Really it was my goal!'"

One of Levis's other clubs, albeit as a reserve, was Arsenal. Or to be more precise, Arsenal de Sarandi of Buenos Aires, where Jorge Burruchaga, who scored the winner in the 1986 World Cup final, was the manager in recent years.

Levis also played against some of the planet's best young players when the Under-20 World Cup was hosted by Argentina in 2001. He was not involved in the tournament, but played in a Mar del Plata side that acted as warm-up opponents for Michael Essien's Ghana (Levis scored against them), and France, who had Djibril Cissé in their ranks.

So while he made no assumptions that Europe would be a cakewalk he felt that, with hard work and the right breaks, he might be able to earn a living. But as John Lennon almost said, strife is what happens while you're busy making other plans, and instead of a fast track to the Nou Camp or White Hart Lane, Levis's career has taken the long and winding road.

On Saturday, with Basingstoke of the Conference South, that road will take him north to the League One "giants" Chesterfield in the first round of the FA Cup. But that in itself is an achievement, for club and striker alike.

"Of course Ricky Villa's goal is famous in Argentina - I heard all about it growing up. I watched it on video only a few weeks ago," says Levis, who was just 44 days old when his compatriot ran through that Manchester City defence.

"When I was older, I always watched the FA Cup final, and Manchester United were in a lot. I especially remember Eric Cantona, so strong, such technique. I could only imagine doing that. Now I am playing in the FA Cup for real."

His journey there has rarely been smooth. After being urged by an adviser to leave Argentina four years ago, he tried his luck in Spanish non-League football. Then an agent said he might be able to get a break in England. He got a few games: for Molesey in the Ryman League. His digs were London bedsits, shared with his childhood friend and fellow aspirant pro, Sergio Torres.

"Me and Serge spoke only Spanish - we didn't know many people, and had no money," he recalls. "We thought, 'Oh no, what have we done?' But it got worse. After a few weeks at Molesey, the president says, 'We've got no more money'. And I say 'OK, then I go.'

The players were both recommended to Basingstoke's then manager, Ernie Howe, although again there were hiccups and hardships. Non-League football does not generally pay the bills, so Levis and Torres took jobs at a Boots warehouse in Basingstoke, cycling miles each morning to start their shifts at 5am. They also worked Saturdays until midday, then played in the afternoon. Levis could not afford to rent a flat, so took up the offer of a Spanish-speaking Basingstoke fan, John Gray, to stay with him. "John invited me to stay with him and his wife, Mimi, for a couple of weeks."

He stayed for the whole of the 2004-05 season, and after spending last year in Spain, with a semi-pro club in Andalucia, is back with them again.

"People are so friendly, I really like it in Basingstoke," Levis says. "When we were back home and first said we might come, people said, 'Don't do it, you won't like it.' They said England was not good, they talked about [hostility because of] the Malvinas. But they had never been here. They did not know."

Levis and Torres endured and enjoyed differing seasons in 2004-05. On Levis's debut, he had a furious row with Howe at half-time. "I played bad, yes, but Ernie just shouted at me, telling me to be stronger, keep the ball. Actually, I didn't understand at the time what he said."

Howe called John Gray into the dressing-room to translate, to tell Levis in Spanish he was playing badly. "But I knew that already," Levis says. "I was angry at myself." He responded with a second-half hat-trick, including a spectacular bicycle kick from the edge of the area.

Levis scored a lot of important goals that season, but with Howe insisting on playing him as a winger, not up front, he left for Spain at the end of the campaign. Torres, meanwhile, had impressed Wycombe Wanderers, where he moved and remains.

When Howe was sacked earlier this year, Basingstoke replaced him with Francis Vines, known as the non-League's Jose Mourinho for his prodigious trophy feats (eight at Crawley). He personally implored Gray to persuade Levis back "home", from Spain to north Hampshire. "And that's why I came back," says Levis, who is returning to form, up front as desired, after a heel injury.

In recent weeks his goals have been vital, none more so than the first penalty of the FA Cup qualifier shoot-out against Worcester a week ago, after a replay and extra time. Basingstoke won it 7-6 to earn the trip to Chesterfield. Victory this weekend would equal their best-ever FA Cup run, reaching the second round.

As for all clubs of their status, the match is a windfall (worth around £40,000, against an annual budget of around £150,000) and a cause of huge excitement for the fans. "We're taking two 102-seater double-deckers," said the supporters' club chairman, Ian Davies, yesterday. "And we reckon another 150-200 are going up by train and car."

Levis is under no illusions about the size of the task against Chesterfield, a club who reached the FA Cup semis in 1997 and who have earned plaudits for eliminating Manchester City and West Ham from the League Cup this season. "They play in League One," he says. "They're the favourites. They've beaten Premiership sides this year, so they're a good team. But we'll try." He pauses. "Winning means more to us, and Chesterfield know that. There's more at stake for them. If we lose, don't worry. But if they lose? That's worry for them. And pressure for them."

For himself, the game is less pressure, more opportunity. "Football can be difficult in England. Harder, stronger, faster. In Argentina it is slower, more technique. But I want to play at a higher level. It's my dream. And maybe this FA Cup can help my dream."

Strangers in a strange land: Foreigners off the beaten track

Keisuke Takano (Japan)

The student made history in 1997 when he became the first Japanese to score in the FA Cup. His goal, for Morecambe, came in a 3-3 first-round replay against Emley, who won on penalties. The club fought a legal battle for a special permit to let him play in front of paying fans.

Edinho (Brazil)

A striker for whom the phrase "cult hero" could have been invented. Signed for pre-Premiership Bradford in 1997 by Chris Kamara. Scored 16 League goals in 60 games, but much more important, never stopped smiling. First English word was "Guinness". Catchphrase was "Edinho love Bradford! Bradford love Edinho!" Honked his car horn every time he saw a fan in the street.

The Three Amigos (Spain)

Jesus, Bob and Izzy, aka Jesus Seba, Roberto Martinez and Isidro Diaz, made their League debuts for Third Division Wigan in August 1995. Martinez became Wigan's longest-serving player by 2001, when he was released. Now with Chester, and a Sky pundit on Spanish football.