It’s easy to forget that not all progress follows a smooth curve. Despite the natural desire to contextualize the entirety of a person’s growth in sports into a neat little narrative—one of an emergent, inchoate talent that gradually develops as crawling turns into walking, followed by a rapid ascent during the prime years where the player becomes what he was meant to be, and after a sustained period at or near the peak, a swift and steady fall before the player or the game decides he can no longer hang—the real, actual human beings that kick the ball don’t work like that. And thank God for that, or else we wouldn’t have Stephan El Shaarawy.
At only 23 years old, it already feels like El Shaarawy has exhausted the fictive lifespan of the modern athlete. Most first heard of the teenaged wonderkid after his €20 million move from Genoa to AC Milan. He had great hair, a great nickname—Il Faraone, The Pharoah, a play on his Egyptian heritage on his father’s side—spindly little legs, and a flair for audacious touches and goals. Coming off a season on loan in Serie B, where he won the league’s Player of the Year award as an 18-year-old, El Shaarawy spent the majority of his first year in Milan as a substitute brought on late in games, not really to change matches (he only scored twice in 24 appearances) but to slowly rack up the reps necessary to refine his game into that of a star’s.
His 2012-13 season bore out all the promise he’d shown before, as he scored 16 goals in 37 league appearances—14 of those in just the first 17 games of the season—and combined with compatriot Mario Balotelli, who returned to Italy from England in January, to form the foundation of one of the most talent- and potential-rich front lines in all of Europe. By the end of that season, he was widely and justifiably considered one of the great young prospects in all the world.
Rather than speeding right along the ever-accelerating growth curve everyone traced out ahead of him, El Shaarawy’s development froze. Recurrent leg and foot problems held him to only a single Serie A start for all of 2013-14. What previously appeared to be a budding club and international super tandem with Balotelli and El Shaarawy came to a premature end as the former was sold off to Liverpool and the latter missed that summer’s World Cup in Brazil because of injury.
The promise of a healthy 2014-15 as the central focus of a Balotelli-less Milan team never quite delivered. The pain of Shaarawy’s struggle to hop back on the upward slope of years past was evident after his first goal of the season, and his first league tally in almost two years, as he fell to his knees crying after whipping one past Sampdoria’s keeper:
This turned out to be a false dawn. Further injury troubles and a failure to rekindle the flicker of his youth meant he only made 18 Serie A appearances, finding the back of the net just three times.
AC Milan could no longer justify holding a place for their fallen future idol, and sought to sell him during this past summer. His young age and all the ability he brimmed with only a couple years earlier made him an intriguing transfer target; his inability to stay healthy and regularly beat keepers those rare instances he wasn’t sidelined made him a risk. Ultimately, Milan loaned El Shaarawy to Monaco for the season, with an obligatory purchase clause if the Italian made 25 appearances.
El Shaarawy did manage to stay healthy for the Ligue 1 club, but never really fit into the team on the pitch. After coming on in 24 matches in all competitions, one game away from triggering the €13 million purchase clause, Monaco publicly announced their decision that El Shaarawy wasn’t good enough for the club and would not be making a single additional appearance to avoid the payment. Milan could either take the forward back or find a new home for him.
And so it was that El Shaarawy found his way back to Serie A, with no expectations for what he could do, loaned off again, this time at Roma, who were in the midst of their own fall from grace. What was supposed to finally be their serious charge at the Serie A title started strong, only to crumble as the season wore on. Formerly popular manager Rudi García was axed in mid-January after a particularly woeful run.
The club was on the verge of sending away their starting winger, Gervinho, and anxious for a substitute. In came El Shaarawy. It was probably a good sign, for nerves if nothing else, that Il Faraone scored a beauty on his debut:
El Shaarawy hasn’t stopped scoring since. In his nine league games with Roma, he’s scored six times. Out of nowhere, he’s back to being the backheel-flicking, long shot-blazing, defender-torching, fancy trick-loving wing demon he was at his best.
You can attribute El Shaarawy’s completely unexpected rejuvenation to a few factors. He’s fit and getting regular minutes at a club that values him, knows how to play towards his strengths, and empowers him with the freedom to make things happen. He’s also unburdened from the early expectations that hung on him so heavily, at once weighing him down and indicating to all others that this was a person who had been anointed for greatness and had since failed.
And yet El Shaarawy is not all that much of an outlier. He’s like other players who have demonstrated potential, skittered along with their form alternatively trending up and down, but finally came back to realize their talent’s promise. It calls to mind another wonderkid-turned-disappointment-turned-good player who passed through Rome on his travels: Bojan. There are all sorts of paths to the top, and even if El Shaarawy didn’t get there the way everyone expected, that he’s once again pointing that direction after everything he’s already gone through makes it even more remarkable.