This is a story with a happy end or better: The story of a happy end. The story about someone very remarkable, very exceptional, who stayed true to himself despite of having more back luck than most of his peers. The story of someone who finally got rewarded on the big stage anyway. The story of a man they call crazy – and maybe they are right. The story of a hard worker. The story of an idol.
This is the story of Martín Palermo.
It’s a wonderful story about how optimism and hard work can get you anywhere, no matter how big the obstacles you have to overcome on the way there are.
The first round match of Argentina vs. Greece at the World Cup two days ago was nearly meaningless for Argentina as they were already as good as through to the next round. Coach Diego Maradona fielded seven players that have not been in his starting lineup in the previous matches. It was some kind of reserve team that took the pitch, which did not change a lot when Di Maria and Pastore came in for Maxi Rodriguez and Agüero later. After 80 minutes of play, there were only two field players left that did not yet participate in the tournament so far. Maradona decided to go for the forward and brought on a 36-year old veteran. When nine minutes later Lionel Messi’s shot was defended by the Greek goalie and the deflection was easily converted by this player, Diego Maradona went totally crazy on the sideline. Not because of the result, but because it was Martín Palermo who scored – a player that has a very special relationship with his coach and some say the only player who matches Maradona in personal uniqueness.
The statistics of Palermo’s career are stunning: He scored some 283 goals in 572 matches in Argentina and Spain (league & cup) and is the leading goal scorer of all time of probably the most famous club in Argentina, Boca Juniors (River fans may apologize). He won six national titles, two Copas Libertadores and the Intercontinental Cup. However what is more astonishing than the pure figures are the stories he created throughout his career. His nickname is “El Loco” – The Crazy One, and he gave good reasons why this is so.
The most notable story happened on July 4, 1999. Palermo played with the Argentinian team against Colombia in the Copa América and in this one match he missed three penalties. Yes, three in one match. Usually when a player misses one penalty, another player takes the next. Having a player miss one and shoot another penalty does not happen too often, but missing two and still taking the third one takes some guts. Throughout his career, Palermo never lacked guts, that much is for sure. Missing the third penalty as well is something that only “El Loco” can do. Not only did it get him into the Guinness Book of Records, it also got him out of the Albiceleste – the Argentinian National Team – even though in his previous 6 appearances he scored 3 times – an excellent record.
However this wasn’t the only interesting Martín Palermo penalty story: In a league match against Platense in 1999, he shot a penalty with both feet as he slipped prior to touching the ball – he scored anyway.
Want more? In the first round of the Copa Libertadores, which is the South American version of the UEFA Champions League in Europe, in 2008, his team Boca Juniors had to win against Colo Colo to keep their chances alive. Boca lost a player due to a red card early, and seconds later, Colo Colo scored. When the referee then awarded a penalty to Boca, they “had to” convert it. Palermo took it and missed. While any other player would have lost his nerves completely in that situation, Palermo got angry and scored a beautiful flying header just 2 minutes later. In the end, Boca won the match 4-3.
Let’s move from penalties to injuries – there were plenty in Palermo’s career – and “loco” is a good word to describe some of them:
In November 1999, in a match against Colón de Santa Fe, he suffered an ACL of his right knee, one of the worst injuries for a soccer player. He did not recognize how bad he was injured and score his 100th goal in the Argentinian league before he was taken off the pitch. He stayed out for a six month recovery period. But what a comeback he had: On May 24, 2000, Boca played their biggest rival River Plate in the Copa Libertadores. Boca lead 2-0 fifteen minutes from the end when Palermo was brought in. The crowd was going wild at La Bombonera and Palermo scored Boca’s third goal, probably one of the most emotional ones he ever scored.
Boca went on and won the Copa Libertadores, then played Real Madrid in 2000 for the Intercontinental Cup, a very important trophy for South American teams (a little less popular in Europe). Real, with players like Raúl, Roberto Carlos, Luís Figo or Claude Makélélé seemed unbeatable, but six minutes into the game, Palermo already scored his second goal. Boca won the match 2-1.
Palermo went to Europe in 2001 where he played for Villareal (and later also for Real Betis and Alaves). Later that year he was in good shape and there was a lot of speculation about him being brought back to the National Team with the World Cup 2002 in sight, when Villareal scored a goal in a cup match against Levante. Palermo and others went close to the front row of the stands to celebrate with their fans when suddenly the weight of the pushing fans made a small concrete wall collapse onto Palermo’s leg. That broken leg was ending his World Cup dreams for the time being.
If you already feel by now that this is a pretty freaky story: There is one chapter missing. The goals.
In three years in Spain he only scored 22 of them – a very low number for his caliber. When he went back to his beloved Boca Juniors in 2004, many thought that he was finished, 30 years old and injury prone.
But Martín Palermo fought back again. In the 280 appearances for Boca since then he scored 179 (!) goals, and it wouldn’t be Palermo if there wouldn’t have been some “special” ones among those.
How about a goal from behind the midfield line against Independiente in 2007?
Or a goal headed in while hanging on to the cross bar with his hands against River Plate in 2008?
And his goal 200th goal in the Argentinian league was as special as his 100th (see above): A header from well above 40 (!) yards against Vélez Sársfield in 2009.
But how about his career in the National Team? Well, even there things have turned out good recently. With Argentina in severe trouble in the qualification stage for the 2010 World Cup, Diego Maradona remember a 6ft 3 striker he used to play with at Boca Juniors in 1997. The Argentinian press shook their heads about the decision of bringing back the old man, but not for long. Just one week after his 40+ yards header goal, Argentina played their penultimate qualifier against Peru and badly needed a victory to boost their hopes of a direct qualification. After leading 1-0, Peru equalized in the 89th minute in the torrential rain at “El Monumental”, the stadium of Boca’s arch-rivals River Plate. From reading this post by now you should be able to tell what happened next: 2 minutes 15 into added time, Palermo, who was brought in at half time, scored the 2-1 that sealed the victory. The stadium went nuts and Diego Maradona did “the diver” to celebrate the goal. Palermo kind of brought Argentina to South Africa and Maradona later referred to the match as the “Miracle of Saint Palermo”.
Maybe it was only Maradona’s feeling that he would have to thank Palermo for it, but quite surprisingly he nominated Palermo for the World Cup. Given that five true world class forwards are already on the roster (Aguero, Milito, Tévez, Higuain and a certain Messi), no one saw the need for brining in a sixth striker nor the possibility of Palermo really playing during the tournament. To free Palermo’s spot, he left players like Champions League winners Javier Zanetti and Estenban Cambiasso at home.
Martín Palermo was finally going to a World Cup! Argentina won the first two matches, so Maradona could rest large parts of his starting 11 in the final group stage match against Greece – the rest you know already.
What a happy end to a literally incredible career – though it may not be the end yet (it does not seem like Palermo is currently considering to retire). The tournament is still going on and many see Argentina as favorites. Palermo World Champion? Someone say “icing on the cake”!
He’s a tall, heavy player with great instinct, but definitely not one of the gifted artists that usually are the stars of South American soccer. Everything that he accomplished he accomplished by hard work. If there’s something to learn from Palermo, it is that even if you are different from most others, even if they don’t believe in you and even if nothing seems to go your way you can go anywhere if you work hard, believe in yourself and keep an optimistic attitude – not just in soccer.
“El Loco” is not the only nickname for Martín Palermo. Some call him “El Titan” – the titan. Other than that he is known as “El Optimista del Gol” – the optimist of the goal.