Pablo César Aimar Giordano was born on 3 November 1979 in the commercially important city of Rio Cuarto, located in the south of Córdoba province, in central Argentina. Situated in the fertile grasslands of the region, the city quickly became established as a centre for the development, processing and export of local agricultural produce. For fans of Valencia Club de Fútbol however, by far the city’s most important product and export was the young Aimar, whose exploits at the Estadio de Mestalla provided them with a feast of entertaining and exciting football, contributing to one of the club’s most successful periods, and giving him iconic status among fans of Los Murciélagos.
Born with an extravagant natural ability for football, the young Aimar was spotted at an early age by Alfie Mercado, coach of the Estudiantes de Río Cuarto, and would train there three times a week, honing his skills, learning the game and developing into a prodigious talent. Still in his early teenage years, news of the emerging talent quickly spread and, in 1993, River Plate acted to secure his services – before anyone else could beat them to it.
Initially, the teenager’s father was moved to rebuff their advance. With understandable parental concerns, he had planned out a future for his son in the medical profession. It took a visit and persuasive arguments from national footballing hero, iconic former River Plate captain and, at that time, manager of the club, Daniel Passarella to seal the deal. All thoughts of medicine were put to one side, as Aimar moved to Buenos Aires joining River Plate’s youth set up. From there progress would be little short of meteoric.
Still only 16 years of age, Aimar debuted for the club’s first team on 11 August 1996 away to Colón at the Estadio Brigadier General Estanislao López. At the time, River were enduring a difficult time and a 1-0 defeat left them in the lower reaches of the Clausura classification. Better times lay ahead for both club and their ambitious tyro recruit though as the young midfield player sought to establish himself in the team.
By early 1998, it has become increasingly difficult for new coach, Ramon Diaz to ignore the persistent claims of the young Aimar for an increasingly regular berth in the first eleven, alongside such luminaries as Enzo Francescoli, Marcelo Salas and Juan Pablo Angel. To underscore his case, in February of that year, the young prodigy scored the first of his 21 league goals for the club, netting against Rosario Central. He was still on 18 years old.
River would go on to secure the Apertura title 1999 and the Clausura in 2000. They were just a couple of the five titles that Aimar would win with River across his time in the Argentine capital, but his time there would be limited. Much as how his fame had spread in his native land, the global football grapevine is an efficient tool for passing on news of emerging talents, and by the end of 2000, the wealthy echelon of a number of top European clubs were making siren overtures to River Plate to take Aimar across the Atlantic.
At the end of the 1998-99 La Liga season, Argentine coach Héctor Cúper moved from Mallorca to take control of Valencia. He had led the island club to a highly impressive third position in the league during the previous season, finishing one place above Los Murciélagos, and was clearly bound for higher things. Valencia acquired his services and, by the end of 1999, profiting from the Champions League place secured by that fourth-place finish, the previous season, had established their credentials in the competition, remaining unbeaten, and topping their initial group ahead of Bayern Munich, with Rangers and PSV Eindhoven trailing behind. In the second group phase, a runners-up place behind Manchester United and quarter-final victory over Lazio took Valencia into a final four confrontation with Barcelona, and a 5-3 aggregate passage against the Catalan club. In the final against Real Madrid however, Valencia’s brave run was halted with a 3-0 defeat to Los Blancos. A third-place finish in the league however offered up another chance at continental glory.
Once more, the first group stage was completed with some comfort, as Valencia topped their section again. It took them into a second stage grouping alongside Manchester United – for the second year running – Austrian club Sturm Graz and the Greek club, Panathinaikos. In December 2000, following a 3-1 home win over the Austrians, a goalless draw in Athens placed Valencia in a strong position to qualify for the knockout stage, when the competition resumed after the winter break. By that time though, their ranks would have been swollen by an expensive signing from South America.
In December of 2000, Aimar would play his final game for River Plate in a 3-2 defeat to Club Atlético Lanús. He had worn the club’s famous colours on 82 occasions, delivering 21 goals but, just as importantly and perhaps even more significantly given his role in the team, the record books reveal that he had also assisted in creating a further 28 goals. The new year would place him in a new club, in a new country and a new continent. Aimar’s talents had been acquired by Valencia for the princely sum of €24million and he would move to Spain in the following January. It made the young midfielder, still just a month or so past his 21st birthday, Valencia’s most expensive acquisition to date. His performances would soon serve to justify the expenditure.
Despite his high value, there was no initial easy path into Cúper’s starting team, with the Argentine coach wary of disrupting the core of his successful regular selections until Aimar became fully ingrained into the role he was required to play. As the weeks progressed though, his speed and creativity proved to his compatriot that he would be a valuable asset, one that would only improve both the team’s performances and results with his dazzling displays.
On Valentine’s Day, Manchester United visited the Mestalla in the Champions League. They would face a Valencia team featuring the debut of Pablo Aimar. The game ended goalless but the playmaker’s display had many observers purring – not least among them Johann Cruyff, then coaching Barcelona. Cúper was also convinced and Aimar made his league debut the following weekend against Las Palmas and scored to mark the occasion in a 2-0 win.
Although it’s always difficult being parachuted into a successful team halfway through a season, Aimar’s Valencia career was up and running. He would participate in all of the club’s remaining Champions League fixtures, as Valencia finished above Manchester United before progressing past English clubs Arsenal, and then Leeds United, to reach their second successive final, this time against Bayern Munich. Although the contest was much closer than the heavy defeat against Los Blancos in the previous final, Valencia again finished as runners-up as the Bavarian team won in a penalty shoutout after a 1-1 draw.
In contrast to their experience in the Champions League, Valencia had a less successful time in the domestic league and, a fifth-place finish precluded any opportunity for a tilt at reaching a third consecutive final. Instead, they would compete in the UEFA Cup. Perhaps considering that his stock was at its highest point, Cúper decided to leave the club, taking over at Internazionale. If some considered that the departure would herald a spiral in fortunes Valencia, the arrival of Rafa Benitez to take over, would quell such fears.
In contrast to his predecessor’s pragmatic tactical approach that restrained the full flowering of Aimar’s creative talents, Benitez more expansive ethos would allow it to bloom. Playing in a midfield three alongside David Albelda and Rubén Baraja, the diminutive Argentine enjoyed a sensational and hugely influential season. He would play 40 games for the club across all competitions and, although only returning half-a-dozen goals, Aimar’s play was a key factor in Valencia winning the La Liga title for the first time in 30 years. The final table, with Valencia seven points clear of second place suggests a stroll to the title, but for a long time that as hardly the case.
On 30 March, with Valencia tied on points with Real Madrid, Benitez took his team to the holiday island of Tenerife to face the local club at the Estadio Heliodoro Rodríguez López. It was a key turning point of the season. Had they faltered and failed to return with the full three points Los Blancos would have pounced, and with 23 minutes remaining that looked to be the likely outcome. The club’s official website recalls how the game was finally decided as “Pablo Aimar scored a great goal of the time, one of those worthy of a title [before] … The Argentine went crazy taking off his shirt.”
The goal, and win, dismissed any lingering concerns that Valencia would stumble and fall to the irresistible pressure coming from Real Madrid. How important was the goal? The Valencia website offers an answer. “After retiring, Aimar acknowledged that the goal he ‘remembers the most’ and ‘the most beautiful of his career as a professional was that one, scored against CD Tenerife.” From there Benitez’s side went on to win five of their final six league fixtures, the other being a draw away to Mallorca, and secured the title with a 0-2 win against Málaga with games in hand.
Perhaps suffering from an anti-climax following the tremendous success of 2001-02, or that sort of difficult ‘second season syndrome’ Valencia’s fans had far less to cheer during the following term, despite Aimar enjoying his most prolific goals season with the club, scoring 11 goals in 46 games across all competitions and eight in 31 league games. Ironically, Valencia were eliminated by Cúper’s new club in the quarter-finals of the Champions League, and domestic form was little better. A fifth-place finish was disappointing, a gap of 18 points to champions Real Madrid was even more so, although qualification for the UEFA Cup would deliver a massive dividend the following term.
The collapse in the league position from champions to a distant fifth place suggested to many that the title victory had been a mere lucky break season, when everything occasionally falls for you. After the poor defence of their title, Valencia needed to deliver a riposte and dismiss such talk. They did so.
Across the 38-game league season they lost only seven games and, two of those were the final fixtures of the season after the title had been secured. It meant that Valencia had climbed back to claim their place at the top table of Spanish football, securing the title by two points from Barcelona. Their tally of goals scored at 72 was only one less than top scoring Real Madrid but, to emphasise their dominance, the 27 that Valencia’s defence conceded was precisely half that of Los Blancos. Again, Aimar was a key influence in the team’s success appearing in 25 of the club’s La Liga fixtures. There was further glory to come in Europe. In the UEFA Cup, Aimar would feature in eight of the club’s ties as Valencia progressed to the final and overcame Marseille to lift the trophy. Aimar would appear in the game staged at the Ullevi in Gothenburg, but only from the bench. The club’s ‘double’ season, as well as being his most decorated, would also be last of his truly exceptional terms with the club.
Aimar’s final two seasons with Valencia were as difficult as the earlier three had been delightful. Instead of being allowed to demonstrate his skills to thrill and delight the fans at the Mestalla, much of his time was spent starting from the bench, or returning to it after being withdrawn. Following the success in Europe, Benitez had expected the club to continue its development by adding the players he requested for the squad, but he was to be disappointed, famously declaring that “I was hoping for a sofa [a defender] and they’ve brought me a lamp [Fabián Canobbio, an attacking midfielder]” He decamped to join Liverpool to be replaced firstly by a returning Claudio Ranieri, and then, after an unsuccessful period, by Antonio López.
The following term brought Quique Flores to the club as coach and, although Aimar’s time on the pitch did increase, there was little doubt that much of the magical talent displayed under Cúper and then Benitez had dissipated. At the end of the season, with his contract running down, Valencia decided to accept an offer of €11million from Real Zaragoza and Aimar left the Mestalla and his adoring fans.
Pablo Aimar played a total of 216 games for Valencia scoring 34 goals and, doubtless, contributing assists to a number twice that great. For players such as Aimar, however, mere figures are an inadequate way of measuring their worth to a club. Entertainment, enthralling and exhilarating performances have no numerical reference, but are the very criteria by which fans judge players of his ilk. Quantitative evaluations are worthless measures in assessing his time in Valencia. Qualitative evidence is required. So, let’s take such contributions from three sources, each of which is well qualified to offer an informed opinion.
The official club website offers evidence of the affection that Aimar is held in by fans of the club up to the present day. “Every time Aimar returns to the Mestalla,” it relates. “The public stands up, nostalgically remembering the famous songs of yesteryear: “Come on… Pablito Aimar, glory will return, like Kempes and the Louse, another immortal kid ”. It’s an affection that is clearly reciprocated. During an interview after he had announced his retirement and took up a post coaching the Argentina U17 team, Aimar made his feelings about Valencia clear. “I had a very beautiful time in Valencia. Two of my children are Valencian. I have a special affection for the city. Hopefully they will reach the top again, [my] team [drifted away], since then it has had good moments and others not so much, but surely it will return to the position it deserves,” he said.
Leo Messi once said that, “Aimar is my idol,” and if that is not enough, there’s the occasion when, back in December 2004, Aimar played for Valencia as they visited the Camp Nou to face Barcelona. Messi was absent from the Blaugrana team at the time, but Aimar found him at the end of the game, and gave him his shirt. As the Valencia website suggests. It was “a magical moment that neither would forget.”
But, let’s leave the last word to probably the greatest Argentine player of all time, and perhaps the best that the world has ever seen, especially playing in a role similar to that of Aimar. In an interview with World Soccer magazine in 2003, the recently lost, but much lamented, Diego Maradona said of Aimar that, “Pablo is the only current footballer I’d pay to watch. He’s been the best player in Argentina over the last couple of years and is even more talented than Riquelme or Saviola.” Who is going to argue with Diego? Not me, and not fans of Valencia Club de Fútbol either.
(This article was originally produced for the These Football Times ‘Valencia’ magazine.
To be widely regarded as a sporting superstar is an accolade gifted to precious few, even more so within any specific sport. Football is certainly no different. Reaching even beyond that exalted status though, there is a higher, more exclusive plane. Access to it is granted only to the legends, those whose passing can require a tear from the eye, a lament for the soul and thaw even the coldest of hearts. It can be difficult to identify what extra quality, what characteristic, what trait, separates those legends from the mere outstanding superstars. And yet, we instantly know it when we see it. Strangely, it’s not a strength. In fact, it’s quite the reverse. In art, in music so many had it, Jimi Hendrix and Kurt Cobain for example; it’s an almost perfect imperfection. In football, among others, George Best had it, Celtic’s Jimmy Johnstone had it and, without doubt, Diego Armando Maradona had it.
That difference is an extra quotient of a human characteristic that is often labelled as ‘vulnerability’ but should perhaps be better understood as the quality of humanity. It allows those so gifted to dream and reach out for the unimagined spectacular, but also to be prey to the same weaknesses and temptations that the ordinary fan feels. It’s to be favoured by the Gods, to have an angel sit on the right shoulder and whisper into your ear, whilst at the same time being compelled to unconsciously take heed of the devil sitting on the left shoulder, seductively offering an enticing reward for succumbing to a destructive but irresistible temptation.
The difference between the sporting superstar, admired and revered by so many, and the true legend who claims both of those rewards, but also receives that most precious of gifts, love, in abundance, is that they are both above the ordinary, and yet they are part of it, at the same time. They’re one of us. Their successes do not show us how meagre we are. They show what we can achieve, not despite any disadvantaged life chances, but despite our vulnerabilities, despite our human weaknesses, despite our humanity. Reflecting on Maradona’s passing, Jonathan Wilson wrote, ‘Diego Maradona was revered in Argentina, a tortured genius who suffered for his greatness and whose meaning in the history of the sport is derived from considerably more than just his on-field achievements.’ As so often, Wilson delivers his words with impressive precision, as astutely accurate as a Maradona strike on goal,
It’s easy to perceive someone such as Maradona, as a boy from the barrio, a street kid who learnt who to play football on the discarded, dusty and uneven patches of ground in the Lanús district of Buenos Aires; as someone who came up through football the hard way, and shone so bright to become the greatest player of his generation – some would argue of all time – leading his various clubs to silverware and his country to the summit of world football. That seems more than worthy enough of course, to be someone who offers a legacy not only of glorious moments on the football pitch, skills to entrance and beguile, but also offering hope to similar aspiring kids the world over who, despite their disadvantages, dream of sporting success. Such a legacy surpasses the achievements all but a very select few. That however, for all its merits, would be selling the legacy of Diego Maradona so very short.
In 1928, the Argentine newspaper El Grafico published an editorial suggesting what a statue capturing the essence of the game in Argentina would need to feature. It should, the editorial asserted be, ‘An urchin with a dirty face, a mane of hair rebelling against the comb; with intelligent, roving, trickster and persuasive eyes and a sparkling gaze that seem to hint at a picaresque laugh that does not quite manage to form on his mouth, full of small teeth that might be worn down through eating yesterday’s bread. His trousers are a few roughly sewn patches; his vest with Argentinian stripes, with a very low neck and with many holes eaten out by the invisible mice of use … His knees covered with the scabs of wounds disinfected by fate; barefoot or with shoes whose holes in the toes suggest they have been made through too much shooting. His stance must be characteristic; it must seem as if he is dribbling with a rag ball.’ I refuse to believe that I am the only one reading these words who does not recognise a description of Diego Maradona, albeit that they were written a dozen years before he was born.
Simply put, Maradona’s legacy is of the “tortured genius” identified by Wilson, and also the “intelligent, roving, trickster” portrayed in that elegant El Grafico editorial. Despite being less successful on the international stage than Maradona, Leo Messi will hoover up more medals and silverware, and doubtless be regarded as a true great of the sport. It’s unlikely however that he will ever be loved, truly loved, as much as Maradona was, especially in Argentina where he is “revered” as Wilson asserts. A few examples from the turbulent life of Maradona, and how they have come to be understood, can perhaps offer a little insight as to why that would be the case.
In 1984, Maradona left Barcelona to join Napoli in Serie A following a dispute with Barça president Josep Lluís Núñez. Often seen as one of the lesser lights of Calcio, and cast into the shadow of the financial powerhouse clubs of the north, I Partenopei had never previously been crowned as champions of Italy. That would change when Maradona arrived though. Two Serie A titles and a UEFA Cup triumph brought unheralded success to the Stadio San Paolo. For those true legends however, triumph demands payment in full. Inevitably, accompanying the victories, was the dread cloud of drug abuse, other scandals and alleged links with the Camorra – the notorious Neapolitan mafia. Bans and fines followed as his time with the club deteriorated. Eventually after serving a 15-month for cocaine abuse he left Napoli in disgrace, moving to Spain and Sevilla.
For all the trials and tribulations that the latter end of his time in Naples caused however, the image of Maradona, adorning frescoes on the side of buildings in the city are still treated with great reverence and his number ten shirt was later retired by the club as a sign of respect and gratitude. Following his passing, a move is now afoot to rename the Estadio San Paolo stadium after him, reborn as the Estadio Diego Armando Maradona. Thousands flooded the streets of Naples minutes after the news of his death broke. No one was dismissing the scandals or drug abuse, but this was news of one of their own passing. At such times, forgiveness, sadness, love and adoration wash away thoughts of such ills. Interviewed in The Guardian, as he plastered a poster reading “Maradona, Naples is crying” to a shop front, Manuel Pellegrini spoke for the city. “He was just a Scugnizzo Napoletano [Neapolitan for naughty rascal] like us.” He had vulnerabilities and weaknesses like Neapolitans, like Naples itself, like us all, but that was why they took him to their hearts. It’s what made him more adored, loved.
The World Cup, the greatest football show on earth, has been the scene for so much of what has come to define Maradona. He selected the tournament in 1986 for perhaps the most famous four minutes of his entire career. For many football fans around the world, those brief 240 or so seconds captured the man, the legend that was Maradona, and yet the actions, their consequences and their legacies have been interpreted in so many different ways.
Eschewing chronology, beginning with the second goal against England in the quarter-final of the tournament in Mexico, the slaloming run from halfway, swaying past defenders unhindered by their futile attempts to disrupt his progress, before slotting the ball past Peter Shilton is regarded by many as the greatest goal in World Cup history. Commentating for the BBC at the game, Barry Davies offered support to such assertions. “You have to say that is magnificent,” he remarked. And so, it was. The dribble past so many lunging challenges was like a will o’ the wisp dancing elusively, this way then that, the ball convinced that it was part of his foot, and no one else could dare to take it away. Selecting the biggest stage for your grandest moments is truly the hallmark of legends. Yet if that was football from the Gods, four minutes earlier, the first Argentine goal has been painted as an entirely different picture, when Maradona claimed assistance from a celestial hand in giving Argentina the lead.
The details of the goal are well enough known without going through them again, but it’s the consequences, and interpretation of them, that are of more important in understanding Maradona’s legacy. To so many in England, the goal was regarded as ‘cheating’ which of course, it was. Context is everything though, and the incident was no less contrary to the laws of the game than for the England players – as many others of different nationalities had done, and would continue to do in the tournament – to repeatedly foul their nemesis as the best way to prevent him from harming their cause.
Of course, two wrongs don’t make a right as the hackneyed old cliché goes but, as time has passed, many have come to regard the referee as the villain of the peace for not spotting the subterfuge, rather than Maradona for perpetrating it. After all, who amongst the England players or the many millions of fans watching, if guaranteed they would not be penalised for the offence, would not have done exactly the same thing? Again, Maradona’s deception, the temptation to be a “trickster” was surely one we would all fall prey to. Do we not envy his opportunism in the first goal as much as his majesty in scoring the second one?
In Argentina, there was never much doubt as to which goal brought the most pleasure, albeit perhaps also aided by a sizable measure of schadenfreude for the angst of a former imperial country brought low by the conjurer’s deceptive art and sleight of hand. The “intelligent, roving, trickster” deftly picking the pocket of the dim-witted, aristocratic and wealthy invader, before scampering away to celebrate with his kin. So many Argentines would have wanted to inflict the same embarrassment on the English, especially with the Falklands War so redolent in South American minds, but Maradona spoke for, acted for, them all.
Even for the English, whilst some may still harbour dark thoughts and carry a grudge many years later, many others have accepted, forgiven and even acknowledged the quicksilver thinking that scored the goal. A span of almost three dozen years offers plenty of time for reflection.
Four years later, in Italia 90, Argentina played the hosts Italy at the semi-final stage at the Estadio San Paolo. The Azzurri, one step from the final on home soil would surely have been offered the most vociferous of support. In Naples however, the adoration of Maradona as a Scugnizzo Napoletano, a favoured son who erred but brought so much joy, weighed heavier than that for the national team. Is there any greater love?
In the tournament hosted by the USA in 1994, the ever-present vulnerability rose to the surface again. A positive drugs test for exposed Maradona’s defining vulnerability. He was expelled from the World Cup in disgrace but, despite this transgression and the harm it did to Argentine chances in the tournament, there was enough forgiveness and understanding in the country to welcome him back into the fold as coach of the national team later.
Relating Maradona’s legacy to Naples or Argentina, albeit easy to illustrate and illuminating artificially restricts his legacy, where in reality it spreads across the global football community and beyond. In New Zealand, ahead of a rugby match against Argentina, the All Blacks delayed the Haka to offer their opponents a New Zealand shirt bearing the number ten and Maradona’s name. It may seem like a peripheral event, a sideshow, something happening on the fringes of the tributes to a lost genius, but maybe it shouldn’t be seen that way.
Maradona was born in Argentina and starred for La Albiceleste as well as coaching the national team. In club football, as well as starring for Barcelona, Napoli and Sevilla, he played for Argentinos Juniors, Boca Juniors and Newell’s Old Boys, and coached clubs in Argentina, the United Arab Emirates and Mexico. All would claim a part of Maradona’s legacy as their own. That legacy however is far bigger and spreads far wider than that.
That legacy belongs to all football, across the world, and may even spread to other sports too. It’s a legacy that speaks not only of a God-given talent, not only of a career blessed by towering heights and benighted by despairing lows, but of both at the same time. It’s a legacy that speaks of all of our strengths, all of our vulnerabilities and what makes us who we are. We applaud, we acclaim and we loved Maradona for who he was, not some wholly virtuous person devoid of inner demons, but because he was like us, because he inspired us. He was a “tortured genius”. He was that “urchin with a dirty face, a mane of hair rebelling against the comb; with intelligent, roving, trickster and persuasive eyes” and he was that “Scugnizzo Napoletano”. He was all of those things and so much more. What he wasn’t however was perfect. Like us all, he had vulnerability and that’s what linked him to everyone else. It’s why we loved Maradona and why his legacy should be exalted as belonging to a very human legend.
(This article was originally produced for the ‘These Football Times ‘Maradona’ magazine).
It was the opening game of the 1990 World Cup, with holders Argentina, including the mercurial Diego Maradona who had just almost single-handedly taken his Napoli team to the Scudetto, pitched against an African team representing Cameroon populated by players that hardly anyone had heard of drawn largely from the ranks of the lower tiers of French club football and similar less celebrated leagues. It was a chance for a rousing South American performance to set the wheels of the tournament spinning as they hit the ground. What happened however was of far greater significance. Continue reading →
By almost any measure you choose to evaluate a player’s worth, Martin Palermo was an exceptional striker. The Argentine played in both Spain and Argentina netting 249 goals in 592 games across a career spanning almost 19 years. Slightly worse than a goal every other game, it’s a strike rate to be proud of for someone who, for most of his career, played at the highest level. Even in his international career for La Albiceleste, at a time when his opportunities were stymied by the presence of such luminaries as Gabriel Batistuta and Hernan Crespo, he delivered a highly-creditable nine goals in 15 appearances.
For all that success though, and even taking into account the occasion when he suffered a double fracture of his left leg after a wall collapsed on him whilst celebrating a winning goal for Villareal, the thing that most football aficionados will remember about Martin Palermo is when he had a spot – or perhaps more accurately three spots – of bother in a 1999 Copa América game against Colombia. There’s more to this story than that though. Continue reading →
Antonio de Oliveira Filho was born in the city of Araquara, in the São Paulo state of Brazil on 5th October 1960. His nickname, Careca, which roughly translates as ‘bald’ came to him during his childhood due to his like of the famous Brazilian clown Carequinha who, very much the same as the young boy, had a fulsome mop of black hair.
His early career was spent with local club, Guarani, whom he joined in 1978. The young striker’s pace, natural ability to score goals and uncanny knack of knowing how to be in the right place, at the right time, to finish off attacks, quickly blossomed and his first season brought him 13 goals in just 28 games. For a newcomer to the league, it was an impressive opening statement, but there was more to come. In his five years with the club, he scored more than a century of goals, and his continuing development brought him to the attention of São Paulo FC. In1983 he moved to the state capital and joined the Tricolor. Continue reading →