Half a year ago Zlatan Ibrahimovic was the most important player on Milan and the only comments anyone made about Stephan El Shaarawy pertained to his hair.
Rino Gattuso grumbled about El Shaarawy plucking his eyebrows. Several other teammates threatened to lop off his mohawk, dubbed la cresta in Italy.
"I hope that he scores at least 15 goals," captain Massimo Ambrosini said this summer. "If he doesn't, I will cut off la cresta. If he scores seven before Christmas, I will pay for his holidays."
El Shaarawy accomplished that by October. Ambrosini upped the ante from a vacation in the mountains to a trip to the Caribbean should the Little Pharaoh (his father is Egyptian) hit 10.
El Shaarawy leads Serie A with 14 league goals, one ahead of Edinson Cavani; Miroslav Klose and Antonio Di Natale sit on 10. Ambrosini, wisely, didn't raise the stakes.
Now, as El Shaarawy flies for his all-inclusive holiday (reports suggest he ended up going to Dubai), he's become as integral to Milan as Ibrahimovic was.
Last year, Milan scored 80 goals in Serie A and the UEFA Champions League. Ibrahimovic was responsible for 43 of them (28 goals and six assists in the league, and five goals and four assists in Europe). This season, El Shaarawy has scored or assisted 17, half of Milan's 34 league goals.
"El Shaarawy is playing better than we expected him to," Adriano Galliani said. "He just turned 20 last week and I don’t know how many forwards of his age are scoring goals so consistently. The only other player like him in the world is Neymar."
Like Neymar, El Shaarawy thrives on jutting in from the left flank onto his favored right foot. But he's decent on the other side of the ball as well. Arsene Wenger, Cesare Prandelli and Paolo Maldini have all praised his defensive work. Gattuso held up his hands and admitted he was wrong to dismiss his former teammate. Andriy Shevchenko sees himself in the way El Shaarawy accelerates.
The forward has risen quickly. A few weeks after his 16th birthday he became the youngest player to feature for Italy's oldest club when he made his debut for Genoa. He went on loan to Padova the next year and came within a playoff of leading the team into Serie A. He won the player of the year award for Italy's second division and Milan bought half of his rights.
"When he arrived here from Padova he had a lot of fitness problems, but he's better now and he's one of the biggest talents in world soccer," Galliani said. "He kicks the ball with tremendous precision and manages to place it wherever he wants with an incredible eye for goal."
That finishing prowess only emerged twice his first year in Milan, when he made 22 appearances but only six of them as a starter. He also struggled to gel with Ibrahimovic. "The secret is to pass him the ball, or he starts to growl," El Shaaraway said. But with Ibra's departure popping the clutch on his career, El Shaarawy is now a full Italian international, making his debut against England and scoring his first goal against France. He is a legitimate star.
"I thought it would be easy not to get carried away," he said. "Actually, it's tough. When you see a footballer, you say to yourself: 'How do they get to be so presumptuous?' But when it's you, and people never stop asking for autographs or photos, and they're always on your back, you start to think of yourself as some sort of phenomenon. Luckily, my father is there to make sure I keep my feet on the ground. I still act the same way around everyone, including my old friends from Savona. The only difference now is that it's me who's buying the pizza."
Really, the only thing that's changed is the name of Milan's offensive protagonist. Even la cresta has received a presidential pardon, of sorts.
"[Silvio Berlusconi] told me I can keep the mohawk," El Shaarawy said.
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