Two and a half years ago Paulo Wanchope was on a basketball scholarship at the University of Southern California. A career in football was not in his plans, let alone in Derby, a town he had never heard of. Today he is being hailed as one of the Premiership's most promising foreign legionnaires, which seems only appropriate for a man whose middle name is Cesar.
A 21-year-old, 6ft 4in Costa Rican has entranced English football this season, flailing his arms and intriguing observers with the efficiency of his irregular style. Paulo Wanchope's spontaneity gives foreign imports a good name.
On his Derby County debut, against Manchester United at Old Trafford in April, he produced one of his trademark gangly runs, fended off all attempts to dispossess him by dodging and weaving, and finished the move with a measured left-foot shot. Derby won the match 3-2, inflicting on the champions one of only four Premiership home defeats since 1992.
Wanchope, shyer in conversation than on the pitch, seems genuinely modest as he recalls the game. "Really against Manchester United I didn't beat a lot of players," he said. "I took the ball straight into the box. If I have the space, I try to go." His analysis does not do full justice to his methods, but he concedes that his first sport has influenced his game.
"Sometimes I make the moves of a basketball player to get away from a defender or to use my arms in the box, so it's very important." The statistics certainly suggest this is beneficial. Despite a cartilage injury that kept him out of the game for four months, he returned to action 11 weeks ago and has scored 10 goals in 12 games since.
As a teenager, the aspiring hoop-shooter left Costa Rica for west coast America. By 17, he had won a sports scholarship, and at 18, all he thought about was basketball. Then he went home for a holiday and was spotted playing football with his friends. "The manager of Herediano [one of Costa Rica's leading sides] saw me play and he asked `Who's that player?'. And he gave me the opportunity to be in a professional team and I decided to stay."
Within weeks he was a first-team regular and within months he was drafted into the national squad for his country's World Cup qualifying campaign, where his performance against the United States attracted the attention of ex-Arsenal defender and part-time agent, Bob McNab. In January this year, McNab arranged a trial for Wanchope (and his compatriot Mauricio Solis) at Queen's Park Rangers. The pair were rejected, but McNab telephoned his old friend Jim Smith and the Derby manager did not hesitate in signing them both.
Thus far Smith appears to have done little to temper his new star's flamboyance and has settled for telling him where to play, but not how. "The manager cannot do anything in the game. [He] cannot be near you telling you `do this' or `do that' specifically. You have to be spontaneous," Wanchope said. It is something he believes Smith sees as an asset rather than a problem. "He signed me because he saw that my style is good. If I change my style it's not Wanchope." (For the record, he pronounces his name "Wan- cho-pay"). "It would be very boring if a player always does the same. And it will be easy to defend if you always do the same."
He adds that his style does occasionally upset Smith, but ultimately he believes the end of his attacks justify their means. "Sometimes he [Smith] argues with me when I don't do it simple or when I don't pass the ball. But that's part of the game, because if I take three or four [players] and score, nobody says nothing, but if I take two or three and lose the ball, that's the risk of the game. We have to take the chance. If the striker doesn't take the chance, you never score."
Wanchope's role in Derby's recent renaissance is part of a wider internationalisation at the club. He is one of 11 overseas players currently in the squad, but sees their common aim as a uniting factor rather than their diverse origins being a barrier. "In football there is a football language that is always the same. It's not a problem," he said. He appears to genuinely relish being a part of the Pride Park set-up. "It's very exciting. We have a good stadium and it's nice to play in a full house with a good pitch, good team-mates. So I'm very proud to be in Derby."
He was also proud to have represented his country in World Cup qualifying, and despite the disappointment of his side not making it to France next year, he can take some consolation that he was Costa Rica's highest goalscorer as Mexico, the US and the Reggae Boyz of Jamaica progressed ahead of them.
His immediate ambitions in English football are clear. "For this team to be in Europe and to end in the top six in the League," he said. He added: "And to score lots of goals. And I don't like to say how much goals I'll score. I only wait until the season is finished and I'll see."
Whether or not he can match the strike-rate of the Premiership's leading goalscorer (and his opposite number for West Ham today, John Hartson) remains to be seen, but at least it will be exciting watching him try.
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