Paco Alcacer's life was rocked on a Friday night in mid-August 2011. He was a few weeks shy of his 18th birthday and on top of the world. Less than two weeks earlier, he had become a national hero, coming on as a substitute to score two goals in extra time in the UEFA European Under-19 Championship final against the Czech Republic, which helped Spain to a dramatic 3-2 win.
AS Roma were in town to play Valencia at their historic stadium, the Mestalla, for a pre-season tournament called the Trofeo Naranja (Orange Trophy). It marked the first time Luis Enrique—who was coaching AS Roma—returned to Spain for a match.
Enrique got a torrid welcome—Valencia swept aside his team. The game ended in a 3-0 defeat. Alcacer scored the match's final goal in the 82nd minute. French defender Jeremy Mathieu—who later played alongside Alcacer at Barcelona—raced into the box to get on the end of a pass before cutting back a cross to Alcacer, who finished from close range.
After the final whistle, Valencia's players—including Jordi Alba, another future Barca team-mate of Alcacer's—crowded around team captain Juan Mata as he paraded the trophy. In the dressing room afterwards, Alcacer's agents, Lorenzo and Alberto Toldra, asked him if he needed a ride home. He said he was OK—he was going to meet his parents, who were waiting outside the stadium for him.
Then tragedy struck. Alcacer's father collapsed along Avenida de Suecia, the avenue that sits in the shadow of Valencia's stadium. Medics spent 30 minutes trying to revive him to no avail. He died on the street from a heart attack. He was only 44. The tragic circumstances endeared the grieving Alcacer to Valencia's supporters.
"Because of it he became an idol, and for his goals," says Cayetano Ros, a journalist with El Mercantil Valenciano. "He had such a great facility for scoring goals. He stood out from the beginning since he was very young."
Alcacer graduated to Valencia's first team at a difficult moment in their history, as they were committed to leaving Mestalla for a new stadium it couldn't afford to complete. Each season, the club had to sell their star player: David Villa (2010), David Silva (2011) and Alba (2012). Alcacer got to mix with some great young talents, though, including Isco, Mata, Ever Banega, Dani Parejo and Juan Bernat.
He made his La Liga debut in January 2012, coming on as a sub against Real Sociedad, and started to make his goalscoring mark in the 2013/2014 season, especially in Europe. That season he scored seven times in Valencia's march to the UEFA Europa League semi-final, which they lost on away goals to Sevilla.
As the club tumbled into further crisis during the brief reign of Gary Neville in 2015/16, the Englishman made Alcacer his captain. He was 22 years old and one of the few rays of light at the club, but then things turned dark. "He was the team's most beloved player until they sold him in an unexpected way," says Ros.
In the summer of 2016, Valencia's owner Peter Lim sold Alcacer to Barcelona for a reported fee of €30 million. The deal was kept quiet. Valencia's former president Lay Hoon Chan assured Valencia's players and, according to Ros, 1,500 supporters at a fan meeting—that Alcacer was not being sold. Alcacer played along until the transfer was revealed publicly. He was seen as a traitor.
"When he left Valencia, it was emotional and sad because people didn't want him to leave, but also he [left a bad taste in the mouth] because he said Valencia wasn't run properly," says Ros. "That wasn't well received here, even if it was true. People didn't like him saying it. When he returned here with Barca, fans were hostile towards him. They felt he betrayed them by accepting Barcelona's offer because he was a huge idol here. The love for him turned into hatred, so this summer when there was a possibility for him to return to the club, I think the club didn't do it because a big part of the fanbase was upset with him."
Alcacer endured a difficult two seasons at the Camp Nou. He failed to break into the starting XI, given the vaunted Lionel Messi-Luis Suarez-Neymar Jr. trident was first choice during his first season. He got poorer returns during his second season despite Neymar Jr.'s departure. Ernesto Valverde, who took over as head coach in the summer of 2017, had less faith in him than his predecessor, Enrique.
"I think Alcacer didn't see himself as being good enough—at the same level as Barca's players like Messi, Suarez and Neymar in his first year," says Ros. "He shrunk in stature because he saw them as superstars and he was not up to their standard. Also, he stopped playing—he wasn't playing regularly. He only played a few minutes here, a few minutes there.
"He developed an inferiority complex. He didn't feel good enough to be at Barcelona. He is an instinctive goalscorer. He scores a lot of goals—he always has—in a natural way even when he is not a super special player, not technically or physically. What he has is an eye for goal. At Barcelona, it was a problem of self-confidence."
It would be a lie to suggest Alcacer was a disaster at Barcelona. He scored 15 goals in 50 appearances but only started 22 of these matches. In fact, during his first season at the club, he scored a goal every 138 minutes, which placed him sixth on La Liga's list of top scorers, according to goals-per-minutes-played ratio. Alcacer also scored in that season's Copa del Rey final. In November 2017, he got two critical strikes in a 2-1 victory over Sevilla in a league game at the Camp Nou.
"For the money Barcelona paid for him weighed against his performances, Alcacer is considered a failure, yes, but he's not considered a total failure," says Manuel Bruna, a journalist with Mundo Deportivo. "At an economic level, yes definitely, but football wise I'm not so sure."
Bruna draws a comparison with Andre Gomes, who also arrived at the Camp Nou—a UEFA Euro 2016 winner with Portugal—at the same time as Alcacer, reportedly for €35 million, and also went out on loan this season, to Everton in the Premier League.
The Portugal international Gomes couldn't adapt and admitted to the anxiety he felt trying to perform at the Camp Nou. In a revealing interview with Panenka, he said he felt "embarrassed" playing at Barcelona where fans regularly whistled him.
"Gomes was an absolute failure at Barcelona," says Bruna. "He cost a lot of money, and we saw nothing from him. He was given a lot of opportunities. The coaches trusted him. They saw something in him, but in the end he was a financial failure and a sporting failure."
Alcacer has revived his career in Germany. Since landing at Borussia Dortmund he has been a revelation. He scored on his debut against Eintracht Frankfurt; he bagged a hat-trick against Augsburg. In a record haul, Alcacer has amassed seven goals in 127 minutes played in the Bundesliga.
47 - Within the top five European leagues, only Paco Alcacer (a goal every 27 minutes) has a better mins/goal ratio than Patrick #Cutrone (a goal every 47 minutes) among players to have scored at least five times in all competitions so far this season. Future. https://t.co/BmknGSpC5G
Stefan Buczko, editor-in-chief of weekly Dortmund podcast Yellowwallpod, points toward the astute management of Borussia Dortmund's coach Lucien Favre in Alcacer's rejuvenation. Favre previously revived the career of another striker whose career had been drifting in Mario Balotelli at Nice, too.
"Alcacer fits the profile of the kind of player Favre needs as his centre-forward. Favre likes a fluid striker," says Buczko. "He doesn't like having a big, physical No. 9 up front that hardly moves. He needs players that drop back, that know how to press and that read spaces really well. He needs a player with a high footballing IQ, and Paco Alcacer has exactly that. Alcacer also moved into a team—a well-oiled machine with players like Axel Witsel, Thomas Delaney and Mahmoud Dahoud—that was basically designed for him, somewhat unwittingly."
Borussia Dortmund are top of the Bundesliga, and the club also lead their UEFA Champions League group, having posted an eye-catching 4-0 win over Atletico Madrid last week. Alcacer is a man reborn. He's got his mojo back for Spain, too. Recalled to the national team by his old club coach Enrique, he repaid the favour in spades, scoring three goals against Wales and England, respectively.
"At Dortmund, he has been liberated," says Bruna. "There is not the same pressure he suffered at Barca—the pressure to play and to score. Because if he didn't score, he felt he was failing. It is such a demanding club. With the pressure off, he is the old Alcacer from Valencia again—the guy who scores goals."
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