Reviving the Premier League players you forgot existed…
On those rarest of occasions, something will happen on a football pitch that leaves you profoundly shocked and supremely exhilarated. Erik Lamela’s rabona, Wayne Rooney’s bicycle kick, Zinedine Zidane’s headbutt. Moments that transcend mere sport and imprint themselves on the public consciousness.
An unlikely setting for one of these moments was Loftus Road on 6 October 2002 during a hitherto unremarkable match between Fulham, temporarily exiled from Craven Cottage, and Charlton Athletic. With 36 minutes on the clock, the Cottagers’ new Argentinian striker Facundo Sava poked the ball home from six yards to score the only goal of the game. But that wasn’t the good part.
As he wheeled away in celebration, Sava bent down and appeared to reach into one of his socks. His hand emerged clutching a black Zorro-like mask that Sava placed upon his face, before proceeding to lurk around the pitch wearing. A grown man, in 2002, in the Premiership, putting on a mask during a football match for his own amusement. As goal celebrations go, there has never been one more surreal.
A summer arrival from Argentinian side Gimnasia, there was nothing about Fulham’s £2m capture of Sava that had fired the imagination. He had never been prolific, or played for a top club, or shown any particularly impressive qualities, and at 28 years old he was unlikely to improve.
“He was pretty average, nothing spectacular at all,” said one fan on the Friends of Fulham website, while a fellow Cottager described Sava as “possibly one of the slowest players I have ever seen - he used to run like a mechanical duck.”
But putting that mask on his face made him an instant club legend.
“He was bang average but there was something Fulhamish about him. His mullet and the famous mask probably made him more likeable than his ability,” reminisced another Cottager, who added: “Probably the most random thing I experienced at Fulham until they revealed the MJ statue.”
Sava’s fondness for facial attire had begun in Argentina, where he first donned a wolf mask after scoring a last-minute winner for Gimnasia in a local derby against Estudiantes. The manoeuvre earned him the moniker “Wolfman”, which is a nickname all men would like to have.
Following the memorable celebration against Charlton, all Sava’s subsequent Fulham goals triggered the same intricate ceremony: a strike against Bolton when he “literally dived three rows into the crowd” with his mask on, a brilliant hat-trick against Liverpool (although sadly one of the goals was retrospectively awarded to Sean Davis) and a close-range finish against West Ham.
“That was probably the only tap-in he scored. He was more of a classy goal type of player, it just didn’t happen often,” one Fulham fan said.
His actual displays were frequently indifferent, or worse, such as when his own goal against Hertha Berlin sealed Fulham’s elimination from the Uefa Cup (he didn’t bring the mask out for that one). But despite a patent lack of prowess, Sava’s mask-wearing antics gave him a special aura. Claiming to have been sent more than 250 masks by fans in Argentina, Sava threatened to don a Frankenstein, werewolf or even a bear mask if he scored in a cup match against Birmingham City.
The Blues defenders were evidently intimidated by this prospect because Sava did indeed find the net, although the cheeky scamp marked the strike with his standard Zorro mask rather than anything more flamboyant (which is a shame, because the bear mask sounded amazing).
Charlton fans never forgot the moment of Sava’s first mask revelation, in that scrappy 1-0 win against the Addicks. So when they were drawn to play at Fulham in that season’s FA Cup, they came to Loftus Road armed with 4,000 of their own red Zorro masks ready to exact revenge. The Cottagers battered Alan Curbishley’s side 3-0 and the red masks ended up blowing around the streets of west London in the wind.
“It was very funny and just added to Sava’s cult following,” recalled one Cottagers fan.
Sadly, in the dog-eat-dog world of the Premiership, wearing a mask can only take you so far. After Sava scored just once in his second season at Fulham, he was loaned out to Spanish second division side Celta Vigo and never seen again.
Mask-wearing goal celebrations remain rare, although Borussia Dortmund’s Patrick Aubameyang has developed a fancy for a Spiderman mask. In hindsight, Sava’s mask actually looks like quite rubbish in comparison. Like something you’d get in a Christmas cracker, or on a long-haul flight. But that never mattered.
As another Fulham fan concluded: “I’d go as far as to say he was a less than average player. But because of the mask he was always a fans’ favourite.”
Now the manager of Argentinian side Quilmes, Sava sadly no longer wears any of his 250 masks, which are presumably stored away in a cupboard somewhere in his house. Hopefully, he’s just waiting for the right moment.
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