There was a moment in the closing seconds of last month’s Merseyside derby when Daniel Sturridge would have broken clear on Everton’s goal but for a telling interception by a young defender making his full Goodison debut. That defender was Ramiro Funes Mori and that act of anticipation crowned an impressively composed display, though anybody who knows the 24-year-old’s history would not have been surprised.
After all, this is a man who once silenced an entire stadium when scoring the winning goal in Argentina’s biggest football match. It was in March last year that Funes Mori earned River Plate their first victory in 10 years at the home of arch-rivals Boca Juniors with a header four minutes from time.
“It was an incredible game,” he said, recalling that Superclasico at Everton’s Finch Farm training ground on Friday. “We played away and there were no River Plate fans because in Argentina now they don’t allow away fans. There were maybe 45,000 people against 11 people and five on the bench.
“It was incredible, when I scored – I screamed and I could only hear myself and my team-mates. The rest of the stadium was all quiet.”
This is just one illustration of the promise that persuaded Roberto Martinez, just before the last transfer window closed, to spend £9.5m on Funes Mori, a player who in his final act as a River Plate player won the Copa Libertadores, the South America’s European Cup.
He is the most expensive defender in Everton’s history and has settled in impressively, which is just as well given that he now has the task of filling captain Phil Jagielka’s boots after the England centre-back suffered damaged medial ligaments at Arsenal last weekend and is scheduled to be out for two months. It was Funes Mori who came on for Jagielka and then played in the midweek League Cup win against Norwich
So with no other senior centre-back at the club, he will resume his partnership with John Stones against Sunderland, with the prospect of a long run in the team until Jagielka returns. Funes Mori admits that opportunity has knocked sooner than expected. “To be honest with you, I didn’t think I’d [make my first start] that quickly,” he says, but what has helped him cope with occasions like the Merseyside derby is that he arrives battle-hardened by experiences such as that night at Boca’s La Bombonera.
“The football here is not as pressured as in Argentina,” he explains. “I really felt it in the derby, I really felt the people then, but it’s a good pressure. I think in Argentina they over- excite their fans.”
It also helps to have a manager like Martinez who will encourage him to play his natural game, even after the early mistake on his first League start at West Bromwich Albion when he was caught carrying the ball upfield and Everton conceded. “He’s been giving me lots of playing time. As a player I see he has confidence in me. He is a manager who likes to come out of the back playing and his way of playing is very comfortable for me.”
The third factor in his swift integration is his command of the English language. Funes Mori spent a part of his childhood in the United States, as he explains in his American-accented English: “I lived in Texas for nine years so my adaptation was a lot quicker because of my English.”
It was his father’s work as a mechanic that took the family to the US and it was there that Funes Mori and his twin brother Rogelio, a striker, had their first scent of football success when taking part, in 2008, in a football-themed reality show, Sueno MLS, with the promise of a place at FC Dallas for the winner.
“It was maybe a thousand participants. They play football and the one who wins the show is supposed to get a contract with the first team. My brother won that but then nothing happened. He never got a contract. As kids we wanted to play professionally so that’s why we went back to Argentina.”
On the back of their television experience, he adds, a scout involved with FC Dallas took them to Chelsea for a trial. “We came to London and were training for about two weeks but had no European passport so we couldn’t stay.” The twins ended up at River Plate instead, before Rogelio, now with Monterrey of Mexico, joined Benfica. “We Skype every day,” says Funes Mori. “He is really happy for me to be here in the Premier League, it is my brother’s dream also. We’re really close. When he went to Benfica, it was a hard moment for us because we’d been together most of our lives.”
If Rogelio searches online, he will find favourable reports of his twin’s early impact at a club with mixed memories of South Americans. Everton’s only previous defender from the continent was the injury-prone Paraguayan Antolin Alcaraz. As for their only previous Argentinian, striker Denis Stracqualursi troubled radio commentators more than rival defenders in his one season at Goodison.
Funes Mori, by contrast, follows in a fine line of defenders exported by River – from Daniel Passarella to Juan Pablo Sorin to Martin Demichelis. He sought the advice of Demichelis before coming here and repaid him by keeping the Manchester City man on the Argentina bench when starting alongside two other City defenders, Pablo Zabaleta and Nicolas Otamendi, in their last World Cup qualifier in Paraguay. On that trip, he adds, City’s Argentinian contingent briefed him on everything from “the speed and intensity of the games” in England to fish and chips. “I think I like it too!” he says with a grin.
As for his knowledge of Everton, the experience of sitting in Liverpool’s Anglican Cathedral for Howard Kendall’s funeral on Thursday was instructive. “There were a lot of people from the club’s history – that is why Everton is so big. I saw all the fans outside and I really felt it was a very important moment.”
Everton v Sunderland, kick-off 1.30pm Sunday, Sky Sports 1
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