By Joseph Sexton
Some call him ‘El Loco’; other prefers ‘El Titán’. Born in La Plata in 1973, he started his pro career banging goals in for his local club- Estudiantes- and he’s barely let up ever since. In a career that’s taken him to Spain via the Federal Capital- and back again- he signed off at home for the club which he became synonymous, Boca Juniors, last Sunday in a 1-1 draw against Belgrano at the Bombonera. 297 all-in-all goals in 609 professional club appearances tells us something as to why he held in such reverence; eight Primera División titles, two Copa Libertadores, and one Intercontinental Cup tells us more.
He never quite cut it in Europe; to be fair, Palermo in many ways does not resemble the prototype of an Argentine forward. Moreover, injuries robbed him of speed. Tall and gangly, he certainly doesn’t stride like a footballer. His first touch remains uncultured. If no-one can deny that there is one thing that defines him, it is his goals; and underpinning that are his two other great qualities- presence; and pelotas. Balls.
There were no goals for the blonde-haired centre forward on the day he achieved international notoriety, July 4 1999. The stage was Copa América group C, the opponent Colombia, and the setting Asunción, Paraguay. It is a game that still defies logic. Five penalty kicks were awarded that day, including the one that led to Ivan Córdoba’s opener for the Colombians ten minutes in. Javier Zanetti, of all people, was shown a straight red 21 minutes from the end for a reckless barge; so, too, was his manager Marcelo Bielsa.
That erratic genius of a coach added to the surreality of the night in his post-mast reaction. When asked what he thought of the referee he, characteristically, stared blankly into space for what seemed an eternity before replying. “Well, I usually don’t like to comment on referees, but…”. But. And it’s true, he doesn’t. But, here we went, surely?
But no. “Well. Regarding my expulsion all I will say is that Señor Aquino was absolutely correct because I protested in an such an ill-mannered form”. Crikey.
But no, this match will be remembered for none of that. Not a whit.
Palermo had already opened his account for tournament in the first game versus Ecuador, netting his first and second goals for the albiceleste. WhenArgentina were awarded a penalty with the scoring level in their second game, he was the natural candidate to step forward to take the kick. His presence, more than anything, had forced the Colombian centre-half into this foolish concession by handball. His every move screamed confidence.
Staring down the opposing goalkeeper, Miguel Calero, he smacked a ferocious shot down the centre. With Calero committed, the ball accelerated with such force that you feared for the netting. Instead, the ball hit the crossbar flush before arcing over the end line for a goal-kick. ‘Palo!’ the commentator, Marcelo Araujo screamed. The Colombians had been let off the hook. Within three minutes, the rattled Argentines had presented their unfancied opponents with a gift they were in no mood to pass up. Córdoba, this time, made no mistake from 12 yards.
Yet,Argentina were still the better side and it simply looked a case of when- not if- they would strike back. Watching the re-run on Fox Sport Clásico, they appear superior to their opponents in every aspect. After the tragic failure of USA 1994, Colombia were going through a generational change but were a country without a track record of possessing those key attributes of peerless talent, belief and continuity that mark the continents two super-powers’ ability to manage such transition.
More wedded than ever to the slow short-passing game 0f their erstwhile trainer, Francisco Maturana, they no longer had those deadly technicians or that devastating turn of attacking acceleration which had seen them eviscerate their opponents 5-0 on their own turf six years hence, forcing the Argentines into a humiliating play-off against Australia and an ill-starred recall for a physically ruined Diego Maradona to make the World Cup in the US. Here, Argentina were bigger, more coherent, feistier, and asked serious questions of this dubious Colombian defence.
After the break, it was more of the same. The only thing missing was end-product. If only, you felt, they could pick out Palermo in the right position the Colombians were there for the taking. Yet from one incisive centre-field switch, Zanetti coughed up a cross on the right that looked to be sailing harmlessly away from danger until the referee blew his whistle for a push so devilishly subtle fromArgentina’s central defender, Astrada, that nobody but the official noticed it. Bielsa slumped to the turf and flailed his arms as his defenders protested.
The replay showed that Hamilton Ricard, the man supposedly fouled, had barely been within three feet of his purported assailant at the time. This one was going from weird to weirder, and worse was to come. Ricard, with the look of a man with the church chalice protruding from his satchel, dispatched a poor strike which Roberto Abbondanzieri palmed to his right before clutching unopposed at the second attempt. Justice had been served.
As the game became more open and loose, the rangy young enganche Juan Román Riquelme wrestled control in the centre as Colombia dropped back, his clever through-balls to the predatory Palermo coming closer each time to yielding a leveler. Somehow, dogged resistance, dumb luck, and indecisiveness meant we entered the final quarter mark with Colombia still ahead.
The commentators, Araujo and his sidekick, noted the sheer distraction factor of Palermo, how the entire defence seemed fixated upon his physical presence; and how just- if only- a midfield runner could intelligently use his decoy presence then the entire Colombian strategy of sitting on their 12 yard line could come unstuck.Argentinahas stuck to their philosophy and were doing everything right. Bar the odd Colombian pot-shot, it was all one-way traffic and Riquelme was in magisterial form. Eventually, a mistake would come, and eventually the right opportunity would present itself.
And finally it came. Under sustained pressure, Colombia allowed Kily González and Riquelme to exchange passes out on the left before the enganche swung a deftly flighted ball towards Palermo at the back post. The only way to to stop him was to impede him; the decision was an easy one. “Penalti!” Bielsa, who moments before had had the countenance of a man being told his sister had been abducted by a band of Ratko Mládic’s irregulars erupted, jumping, bellowing and eyes bulging. “It’s ON!”
While the Colombians crowded the the referee on the penalty spot, Martin Palermo looked the coolest customer in town as he placed the ball on the mark, oblivious to their half-hearted protestations. The melee cleared, and just as before but from the opposite end he began his run-up from twelve yards, utterly unfazed.
Fixing his socks in place, he set in motion. “Vamooooo Martín, vamooo Martín!” implored Araujo. Same boot, same situation. This time the ball flew into the stands without ever coming close to the touching the bar. Unbelievable! “Por dios…. Por favor…. cómo puede ser?” For the love of god, how can it be so? intoned the comentarista as Palermo yanked up his nicks like a nappy, that cold exterior finally succumbing to anguish.
The players were losing the plot, just as Bielsa now was losing his. And the referee? He’d never had much of one to begin with. Bielsa was led away from the pitch by a pair of heavies with regulation 1970’s beige military dictator suits and glasses. And yet still, it was a one goal game. Not for long though. A corner on the right saw Palermo lose his man at the wrong end of the field, allowing Edwin Congo to ghost home a sublime finish from the centre that all but sealed the group for his side.
It was some minutes before play resumed. The Colombians, understandably, were every bit as ecstatic as the Porteños were shell-shocked. But the drama wasn’t finished. Bielsa teams know only one way to play, and that is to attack. It is what makes his sides so invigorating to watch, regardless of the outcome. Just as his Chile side did against Spain against all the odds in South Africa last summer, now the selección continued to go toe-to-toe a man short.
They were making good headway through the centre when that clown of an árbitro, Ubaldo Aquino- deciding to do what their opponents had given up on trying- broke up a fine passing move as Diego Simeone sought to feed the ball centrally. Their tails up, the Colombians took maximum advantage as Freddy Rincón fed the 16 year-old wonderkid Jhonnier Montaño who sliced through the off-guard albiceleste defence to plant a golazo worthy of winning any game having spotted Abbondanzieri fractionally off his line from some 30 yards out. 3-0. 3-0! Mad, bad, and insane in every membrane possible. This had been one hell of a game. But yet… but yet.
The crowd oléd every successful Colombia pass. Now the timid had turned tormenter, taunting their opponents as the Scots once did at Wembley safe in the knowledge that whatever happened, they would not suffer the hubristic comeuppance Cruyff’s Holland did when their cockiness kicked in too early in the 1974 World Cup Final. Ping-ping-ping. Now it was Argentina who were chasing shadows and looking a shambles. But there remained one defiant man with unfeasible testicular fortitude who was not willing to take this humiliation sat on his arse; even as yet another colleague ended up on his in the middle of yet another mocking Colombian rombo. Who else could it have been?
Pressing like a man possessed, fighting against a lost cause that would have left Saint Anthony himself aghast, Martín Palermo picked the pocket of melina (that wonderfully Italian protoype of tiki-taka where the defence circulate the ball against an already beaten opponent) to surge into the area.
Surge? Maybe that’s too powerful a word. He was spent. Upon being crowded out by two recovering defenders he simply collapsed to the ground, dead from his efforts. But it was by no means the most preposterous of fouls given by Aquino on the night, and in truth, who would have begrudged Argentina some consolation on a night of such utter insanity? Even the defence barely bothered to protest. But what was this?
Palermo was already on his feet, if not exactly marching, then at least purposefully making his way towards the mark. If any team-mate was so foolish as to insist on stopping this beast from having his shot at at partial redemption, they certainly lacked the pelotas to do so; certainly lacked the pelotas of Palermo himself.
That icy stare appeared again, but this time tinged with a hint of desperation. The Bull from La Plata was panting. It was the fifth penalty of the night. It had been emotional… and then some. But, after all that had transpired before, there was not a hope he would cede duties to any of his shattered team-mates.
Most coaches tell you you must know how to shoot with both feet, but then Martín Palermo has never been one who conforms to what most coaches demand. His run up lacked the pace of his previous two. Surely this was fatigue, so evident, but it also lacked the earlier certainty. He didn’t seek power and height this time. Instead, an equally jaded Calero was grateful to save his left-footed shot in that area keepers always most favour- just off centre to the opposite side off their opponent’s preferred foot. Colombia celebrated again.
Palermo trudged off, bowed but not beaten. Within hours, even CNN in the United States was treating its viewers to this most cruel of tragicomedies. It was the talk of schoolyards from Ireland to Iran, and Japan to Cape Town. For those of us outside of outside of South America, at the dawn of the internet age, it was our introduction to the man.
But even at this moment of failure, it encapsulates what all Argentines love about this guy. Even the River fans, even those who scorned his selections during Diego Maradona’s crazed reign. Here was a man with balls the size of Mexico. A man whose sheer bloody-mindedness and refusal to admit defeat we could all aspire to.
His subsequent career saw highs and lows. In the short-term, his standing in the eyes of European scouts barely diminished. His stellar performance against Real to claim the Intercontinental Cup Final in 2000 proved he still had the power, pace, and finishing ability to make it in Europe.
After some initial success following a move to a Villarreal side looking to cement their newly-found status in Spain’s top flight, he suffered some unfortunate injuries and was never quite the same beast. Following those, his technical shortcomings were exposed at the highest level in Europe. Uncowed, he returned home to become the greatest goalscorer in Boca’s modern history.
When he finally reappeared on the world stage to rescue Argentina’s 2010 World Cup qualification, even that was questioned in some corners by the highest journalistic authorities. He did just that, at the moment Argentina stared elimination from South Africa 2010 in the face even before the flights had been booked.
But no one well ever question the man, his goals, his balls. Or is heart. How fitting that on his fleeting recall he managed to net against Greece in South Africa, becoming the oldest Argentine after the great El Diego himself to hit the mark in a World Cup to do so. Not through ephedrine. Not through natural gifts. But by taking what limited gifts he possessed and making more of them than a lesser man could ever have dreamed of.
Joseph is a freelance Spanish correspondent for Back Page Football and Scotzine. You can follow him on Twitter @josephsbcn.