Pablo Aimar – Valencia’s Argentine hero.
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.