The Chelsea revolutionary charts route to cult status

Exclusive Interview - Hernan Crespo: One of the best strikers in the world left Milan for the King's Road. Alex Hayes hears why Roman's empire-building is such an attraction
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The Independent Football

It seems wholly appropriate that Hernan Crespo should describe himself as "a revolutionary, a pirate of the football seas". Not only has the Argentinian striker been spreading the game's South American gospel throughout Europe for the best part of a decade, he is also something of a buried treasure. Not at home, where he is the most worshipped of the current international players; and not in Italy, where his record of 108 goals in 188 Serie A games places him alongside such luminaries as Gabriel Batistuta and Christian Vieri; but here in England, where Crespo's arrival has been relatively unacclaimed.

Perhaps this is because Crespo is simply seen as one of a galaxy ofsuperstars to bedazzle Stamford Bridge this summer, another feather in Roman Abramovich's lavishly decorated cap. Or perhaps Crespo was not helped by the fact he spent the first 10 days of his Chelsea career on international duty in Argentina. Perhaps, too, his first goals were a little late in coming by his impossibly high standards. Whatever the reason, it remains that in any other year, at any other club, the £16.8m capture of one of the best strikers in the world would have generated no end of publicity. But not now. Not at the new-look Chelski, where for every Crespo there is a Claude Makelele, a Damien Duff, a Juan Sebastian Veron or an Adrian Mutu.

"It is strange being one of many big signings," the 28-year-old admits in his first interview since joining the Premiership, "but I don't mind, because this way I know that I am really part of something very special. People say that Chelsea are undergoing a revolution. Well, that suits me fine, because I am a true revolutionary. I like to push myself to the limit of my abilities. I like tough, unpredictable challenges like this one. Knowing I was going to have the opportunity to help write new chapters in Chelsea's history was all the incentive I needed."

Crespo's willingness to swap a club who were in the semi-finals of the Champions' League four months ago for one who are just pleased to be in the group stages may seem a little odd. Cynics will say that the Argentinian left Internazionale of Milan to follow his wallet, but the man himself insists his decision is fully in keeping with his beliefs.

"I have always liked to be part of revolutions," says Crespo, who grew up idolising the ultimate trail-blazer, Diego Maradona. "I went to Italy as a 21-year-old when I could easily have stayed in Argen-tina, playing for the biggest club in the land, River Plate, and having a nice, comfortable life. It was hugely demanding for me at that age, but I wanted to play in Italy with the very best. I really grew as a man and a player during that time, and it has served me well for my new adventures."

The striker, whose total transfers add up to an impressive £71.95m, adds: "I strongly believe that if you can survive for seven years in Italian football, you can make it anywhere else. So when I got the call from Chelsea, I just thought to myself, 'Look, Hernan, you've never settled for the easy option and you've never shirked a challenge, so why start now?' "

Everything about Crespo suggests that he is a tough hombre: the long, scraggly hair, the boxer's nose, the vice-like handshake, and the impassioned cry for his beloved, yet financially crippled, Argen-tina. "If I could lock myself with Carlos Menem [the former President] in an elevator," says Crespo, who grew up in Florida, a middle-class suburb of Buenos Aires, "I would make him tell me where he put everything he stole. I wouldn't let him out until he told me everything. I'm not joking. I want to understand how he left Argentina ruined."

On hearing Crespo talk so vehemently, one could be forgiven for thinking he was indestructible. But there is also a more vulnerable side to his nature. He admits, for example, that although Veron helped him decide on the move to Chelsea and then settle in, the first few weeks in England have been tricky. "I am not going to lie and say that moving here has been the easiest thing in the world," says Crespo, who has shared a dressing room with Veron at Parma, Lazio and Argentina. "The language, culture, food, training methods and playing style are all very different to Argentina and Italy, so it is going to take me a while to adapt to my new surroundings.

"Seba has been helping me a lot, and we speak every day, which is a great support. We sometimes recall how Osvaldo Ardiles and Ricardo Villa came to London to sign for Spurs, and we discuss how much we would love to become legends like them. But there is no quick fix. I need time to get to know my new team-mates and surroundings, but that's OK. I am definitely not afraid, and I'm prepared to put in the work. There is something special to do here and I want to make sure I can deliver."

Crespo certainly has all the equipment required to achieve his Premiership ambitions. "He is quick and powerful, with good heading ability, a deft touch and that all-important killer instinct in front of goal," Chelsea's manager, Claudio Ranieri, says. "Hernan is a lion." He is also one of the most experienced and accomplished strikers around, having learned his trade playing against the best defenders in the game on a weekly basis. "Serie A gives you the best possible grounding," says the Argentinian international, who has scored 20 goals in 38 appearances for his country, "because you have to be strong to survive there.

"I wouldn't say that life in the Premiership is in any way easy, but it is a lot more approachable, both on and off the field." Not only are training sessions never interrupted by angry and sometimes violent fans, but Sunday afternoons can be spent walking through parks or visiting museums without being harassed.

"The lifestyle here is totally different," he says. "I am respected in London and I can lead my life serenely. In Italy, you are the property of the supporters; in England, you are allowed to be yourself. I believe this freedom can only help me become a better player, and I am really excited about the prospect of a competitive but quiet life."

Crespo's unveiling, a 30-second parade in front of a half-empty stadium during the second leg of the Champions' League qualifier against MSK Zilina, typified his low- key beginnings in England. Whereas the captures of Duff, Veron and Makelele contained a dramatic element, Crespo just signed. One sensed also that although his name rang a bell in many supporters' minds, Crespo was largely unknown to the British public. "Serie A have had a very quiet four or five years in European competitions," Crespo says, "and Argentina did not have a very good last World Cup, so maybe players like me have not stood out much of late. But that's OK. I don't mind not arriving here under a big fanfare, because it will allow me to catch more people by surprise."

Crespo gave a spectacular glimpse of what he means when he came off the bench at Wolverhampton Wanderers last weekend to score two goals in 25 minutes and promptly banish any further talk of what he had jokingly referred to as "my useless twin brother". "That was a good way to finally get going," he admits, "but I was always convinced that I would score goals here in England. I want to emulate Gary Lineker. He was a great player, who scored so many goals and whose movement in the box was superb. I never thought that I was going to struggle. I was always going to need a little time to adjust, but now I think I'm there and I believe we can do great things at Chelsea."

Like winning the Champions' League? "Yes, why not?" says Crespo, who scored nine goals in 12 European ties last season, and hopes to open his Chelsea account in Europe on Wednesday against Besiktas. "Juventus and Manchester United are favourites, because they have experience in this competition. We do not fear any opponent in Europe, but we have to prove ourselves. The key is to get to the last 16, and then anything can happen."

Securing one of the top two qualifying places should be achievable, although winning Group G will require excellent performances against Crespo's former club Lazio. "The chance of playing in the Olympic Stadium is going to help me do well," he says. "I can't wait to go back, although I am even happier for my wife, because she's originally from Rome and is keen to do some shopping there again."

Crespo says he will not be indulging in any retail therapy himself. "There is no need," he smiles, "because I have only just swapped my football boots. I used to wear white ones in Italy, but felt that I needed a change to mark my arrival in England properly, so that's why I put on a grey pair at Wolves. I think it has done the trick."

Biography: Hernan Jorge Crespo

Born: 5 July 1975 in Florida, Argentina.

Club career: River Plate (1993-96, 62 matches, 24 goals); Parma (1996-2000, 116 matches, 62 goals); Lazio (2000-2002, 67 matches, 44 goals); Internazionale (2002-2003, 30 matches, 16 goals), Chelsea (2003-present, 3 matches, 2 goals).

International career: Argentina (38 matches, 20 goals). Debut, Feb 1995.

Achievements: Copa Libertadores with River Plate (1996); Uefa Cup and Italian Cup with Parma (1999); Italian Super Cup with Lazio (2000, 2001).

Also: when joining Lazio for £36.5m in 2000 became world's most expensive player. Cost Chelsea £16.8m. Won 1996 Olympic silver with Argentina.

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