Pitchside Europe

The Little Pharoah with a big reputation


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No sooner had Stephan El Shaarawy set foot in Milanello a year ago than his new team-mates asked him to cut it off. "Absolutely not," he said. "No one touches the hair."

Since his early teens, El Shaarawy has grown what is known in Italy as 'la cresta', a mohawk that's short at the back and long at the front, climbing like the crest of a wave. "Let's say it's aerodynamic," he added by way of justification.

Call Milan's dressing room old fashioned, a claim that doesn't exactly ring true considering they play in the style capital of the world and many of the players, not to mention the coach, have modelled in little more than their underpants, but the veterans weren't overly impressed.

"Ibra threatened [to cut it] but he never picked up a pair of scissors or a razor," El Shaarawy recalled, "nor did Cassano."

Luckily, someone came to El Shaarawy's aid and stood up for him. "A team-mate defended me. 'If Hamsik, Neymar and Cisse style their hair like this then I don't see why he can't too'. He said that in front of everyone and just like that the debate was over."

Yet before this season began the pressure to conform returned, only for captain Massimo Ambrosini to make a compromise. "I hope that he scores at least 15 goals," the Milan midfielder explained. "If he doesn't, I will cut off la cresta. If he scores seven before Christmas, I will pay for his holidays."

The fear that one day he might hear the buzzing of hair clippers coming up behind him while he kneels to tie his bootlaces at training has served as quite the motivational tool to get the best out of El Shaarawy.

Saturday's goal in a 1-1 draw with Parma - a determined run to out-sprint and out-muscle defender Cristian Zaccardo to the ball followed by a well-timed slide to poke a shot under goalkeeper Antonio Mirante - was his fourth in six games. It looks like El Shaarawy's next vacation will be on Ambrosini after all.

Not even Ibrahimovic, the player who used to "growl" at El Shaarawy if he didn't pass him the ball, started a season this well at the club. He is Milan's top scorer, has already equalled his total from the last campaign, and should he continue at his current rate, will end up with 25 goals in 2012-13.

"He is the most convincing reason for the fans to buy tickets and keep following Milan," wrote La Gazzetta dello Sport. "Progress is evident and it goes beyond goals... He is the supporters' anti-depressive."

There has indeed been a lot to be down about at Milan following the "painful but necessary" sales of star players Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Thiago Silva to Paris Saint-Germain and the moving on of legends Alessandro Nesta, Rino Gattuso and Clarence Seedorf. Austerity has compelled the club to put its faith in youth, but given the circumstances, in particular the veering from one extreme to the other, and the expectations at the club, Milan's kids have little or no time to learn the ropes and are obliged to grow up fast.

El Shaarawy has acted older than his age. Still only 19, he has so far performed like a seasoned pro. The potential that has long made him one of the most talked about prospects in Italian football looks like it's about to be realised. The son of an Egyptian father - hence the nickname Little Pharoah - and an Italian mother, El Shaarawy is a fascinating mix and, like Mario Balotelli, is an example of Italy's latent multi-culturalism.

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While he has often visited his dad's family, who are from near Cairo, and is a Muslim like him, remaining in touch with his roots, he admits he doesn't speak Arabic or observe Ramadan. In recognition of being born and brought up in Italy, El Shaarawy "feels Italian" and chose to represent the Azzurri following discussions with his family from the moment it looked like he had a promising future in football.

Spotted by Genoa and drafted into their academy at 14, he was a member of the youth team that won the treble [a Scudetto, Coppa Italia and Super Cup at that level] and became the youngest player ever to play for the oldest club in Italy when he made his debut for the first team a few weeks after his 16th birthday. A loan spell then followed at Padova in Serie B and El Shaarawy proved a revelation.

He almost got the team promoted to the top flight only to be left in tears after a play-off defeat to Novara. The pain was eased somewhat by the news that he was named the second division's Player of the Year and that Milan, the Italian champions at the time, had signed him, initially in a co-ownership arrangement with Genoa. A permanent deal was subsequently struck this summer and El Shaarawy extended his contract at the club until 2017. He was awarded his first full international cap for Italy in a friendly with England last month.

So much has come so soon to El Shaarawy that even he confesses it has been difficult to remain humble. "I thought it would be easier not to let it go to my head," he told MAX. "Instead, it's hard. When people see footballers, they often say: 'How can they be so bloody arrogant?' I thought that a thousand times too. Then you find yourself in their position with fans asking you for photos and autographs, building you up, and you start to feel like a phenomenon, even if you don't want to. Thank goodness there's my dad who refuses to leave me on my own in Milan and keeps my feet firmly on the ground."

Even so, it's clear El Shaarawy enjoys some of the things that come with fame. "You get into Serie A and immediately the sexual attention around you multiplies. I like it." Asked to reveal how he meets girls if, as he says, he rarely, if ever, goes out, he replied: "You can find a lot of stuff online." Wink. Wink.

Speaking of women fluttering their eyelids at him, El Shaarawy can return their glance, confident in the knowledge that, should he bat his lashes and raise a brow, his grooming is impeccable. As if his hair style wasn't already enough, the grizzled Rino Gattuso was furious one day when he saw his young team-mate, trimming and plucking his eyebrows. "As soon as he realised, he really had an awful go at me," El Shaarawy recalled. "He said: 'You should be only thinking about playing, do you understand?' He's a great guy. I am going to miss him."

Metrosexuality among Italy's footballers was a hot topic this summer and El Shaarawy, unsurprisingly, has since heard his name mentioned in the discussion. But despite his reputation as something of a 'pretty boy', don't make the mistake of thinking he is afraid of getting his hands dirty and putting in a shift.

El Shaarawy, along with goalkeeper Christian Abbiati, is the only Milan player to have started every game so far this season. He gets through a lot of running. It's partly the exuberance of youth but also the adrenaline rush he gets under the pressure of playing for such a big club. "San Siro is a crazy place," he said. "It's like a Buffalo breathing on you for 90 minutes. You feel it a lot on the pitch. So you know what I do? Simple: I put my foot down. I go a thousand miles an hour. I chase every ball because at the end of the day this is what the fans want."

In each of Milan's last two games at home to Cagliari and away to Parma, he has sacrificed himself to become an auxiliary full-back, either doubling up with fellow youngster Matteo De Sciglio or directly filling in for him like at the weekend once he went off injured.

"I like Stephan a lot," Milan chief executive Adriano Galliani insists. "He runs. He scores great goals and tracks back when needed. I like strikers who also play at full-back. In this respect, he reminds me a little of [Samuel] Eto'o."

The Pharaoh still has a long way to go before he justifies the comparison, but to Milan right now he is a wonder in a desert and the sooner he gets to the top of the football pyramid the better.

James Horncastle will be blogging for us on all matters Serie A throughout the season. He contributes to the Guardian, FourFourTwo, The Blizzard and Champions magazine amongst others.

Follow @JamesHorncastle

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