Martin Palermo’s long-touted move from Boca Juniors to a European club finally took place last month. The destination? Not Lazio, Valencia, nor any of the other big-name clubs with which he has been linked over the past two seasons. Instead, he joined Villarreal, who were promoted last summer for only their second season in the Spanish top flight.
The transfer of El Loco (the crazy one) – so-called because of his unconventional dress sense and controversial goal celebrations – to Villarreal was the biggest surprise of the European winter transfer market.
“F*** me. Palermo can do better than that,” was the considered reaction of Diego Maradona, who thought Boca should have accepted Napoli’s offer to take Palermo on loan until the end of the season.
Others were more circumspect. “He’s been in the shop window for a while and no big club has moved in,” said Real Madrid coach Vicente Del Bosque. “That’s no coincidence.”
Two years ago Martin Palermo was the hottest property in world football. Clubs across Europe were lining up to sign the burly 1998 South American Player of the Year, who had broken all scoring records in the Argentinian League. It seemed only a matter of time before Palermo would be heading for Italy, with Lazio the favoured destination.
Then came the 1999 Copa America in Paraguay. Palermo began well, scoring twice in Argentina’s opening game against Ecuador. But against Colombia, he didwhat no other player has ever done in an international: he missed a hat-trick of penalties. His extraordinary sequence of misses meant that Argentina failed to win their group and met defending champions Brazil in the quarter-finals. They lost 2-1 and Palermo returned home a broken man. He was dropped by national coach Marcelo Bielsa, the deal with Lazio collapsed and then, worst of all, he suffered a serious knee injury in November 1999 that put him out of action for seven months.
Lesser players would not have recovered from such a series of setbacks. But Palermo demonstrated a mental resilience to match his combative displays on the pitch.
Under former Barcelona midfielder Victor Munoz, Villarreal had not been expected to set La Liga alight following promotion from the Second Division. But they had made some astute signings – bringing in former Spanish international Guillermo Amor from Fiorentina and striker Victor from Valladolid – and by the halfway point of the season, the club had reached a highly respectable eighth place.
“I see myself being successful with this club,” Palermo insisted on his arrival in Spain. “I do not see Villarreal as a stepping stone to a bigger club.”
Palermo arrived in Spain just days after being ordered by a Uruguayan court to do community service. It followed an incident with a photographer who claimed he was assaulted at a nightclub in the popular resort of Punta del Este after taking photos of Palermo and his girlfriend.
Controversy, it seems, is never far behind Martin Palermo.
– By Gavin Hamilton
Club Real Villarreal (Spa)
Born November 7, 1973, in La Plata
Previous clubs Estudiantes, Boca Juniors
International debut February 1999, v Venezuela
International caps 7 (3 goals)
Honours World Club Cup 2000; Libertadores Cup 2000; Argentinian opening championship 1998, 1999; closing championship 1999
*This is an extract from a full-length profile of Martin Palermo. The unedited version is available in the current issue (March 2001) of World Soccer.