The storied career of Juan Pablo Ángel

The storied career of Juan Pablo Ángel

AS HE SAT DOWN TO WATCH HIS NEW EMPLOYERS register a sodden display at Villa Park in 2001, little could Juan Pablo Ángel have known about what lay ahead. For the Colombian, one of South American football’s most revered goal machines, was about to write his name into Aston Villa folklore and etch his name into wider Premier League history.

It only took two months before the Villa faithful in the Holte End would be singing, “Juan Pablo Ángel, there’s only Juan Pablo Ángel”. The immediate love affair between the loyal and passionate fans of the Birmingham-based club and the Colombian was unsurprising. Not only was he their record signing at £9.5 million but their highest earner, and the man who signalled what many believed was a new era in the Midlands. Sadly, his time was to bring far more personal joy than team glory.

Born in Colombia’s second-largest city, Medellín, at a time of civil unrest, high unemployment and the collapse of the public transport system, Ángel was to struggle in his early years. His father believed in education, despite his love for football and all things Los Cafeteros.

For ‘JP’, the choice was clear from an early age. Joining Atlético Nacional’s youth system at the age of 11, he quickly broke the goalscoring records at under-12, 14 and 16 levels, with a combined total of over 116 goals. It was to prove the catalyst for a breakout season in 1993 with his boyhood club and the wildly adored powerhouse of Colombian football. Indeed, they were the first Colombian side to win the Copa Libertadores just four years earlier. Ángel was following in the footsteps of Faustino Asprilla, René Higuita, Víctor Aristizábal, Andrés Escobar and current national team boss Leonel Álvarez. At the time, they formed the greatest Colombian national side to date.

It was an era of little flux in the national game. Pablo Escobar, drug lord and self-professed man of the people, was still battling for complete control of Medellín’s slums. By the time Ángel made his debut for El Verde, Escobar had been assassinated and the domestic game was in turmoil, despite the hype surrounding the national side in the build-up to USA 94.

His debut for Nacional in 1993 would be a pivotal moment in his career. Colombian fans – and Medellín’s in particular – still hurting from the loss of the city’s favourite son, were looking for inspiration. Local boy Ángel would provide it.

By scoring the winning goal against bitter rivals Independiente Medellín and helping Nacional clinch the 1994 league title, JP assured himself of a place in the club’s turbulent history. Two decades after his debut in a Colombia rife with political tension and street war, few could’ve imagined that he would return for one last swansong in a country experiencing economic growth and social stability.

Back to January 1994 and his breakthrough season was on the lips of fans across the nation. National team boss and ex-Nacional favourite, Francisco Maturana, toyed with the idea of taking the consistent, goalscoring threat of Ángel to the United States. In the end, buoyed by a dominant display in qualifying and Pelé’s words that Colombia were his favourites for the tournament, the former defender opted against his preferred wildcard choice.

It was to prove a spur for the young striker. Three more years at a Nacional side in decline and reeling from the assassination of Andrés Escobar after the World Cup yielded 45 goals in 147 appearances. As the 22-year-old moved to Argentine giants River Plate as Hernán Crespo’s replacement, he declared: “I hope to return. It has been a tough period for the club and I wish I could’ve done more for the people. They are my people and one day I will return.”

River Plate granted him the global stage his talent both craved and deserved. Filling Crespo’s boots was no mean feat; the Argentina striker was a fan favourite and the national hope for La Albiceleste’s number 9 role. In Colombia, Ángel was pampered and loved. It was time for the striker to step out from the dark side of the continent and demonstrate his considerable ability to the watching world. Few were left disappointed.

Sixty-two goals in 132 appearances was ample return for a striker who thrived on predatory instincts in the box off either foot and most notably with his head. In so many ways, he was the perfect replacement for Crespo – their games were almost an identical mirror. Perhaps most tellingly, his return of 16 goals in 25 Copa Libertadores games demonstrated his knack of stepping up when the time called.

Linked with just about every side in Europe, Ángel was close to joining Porto before Villa took a firm interest. The sight of his fluffy eyebrows and greasy hair in the stands of Villa Park meant only one thing: he was coming to the Premier League.

As the River fans lamented his sale, Villa fans rejoiced in their record signing. It wasn’t all flowers and cupcakes in the early days, however. Ángel and his family struggled to adapt to life in England and subsequent marriage problems curtailed the first six months of his English journey.

The new season was to provide a fresh start for the striker and his early form repaid the faith that Doug Ellis had shown when opening a chequebook that was fast running out of cheques. Ángel was the perfect striker for English football. With him he brought the flair and technique of South America and coupled it with the industry and appetite that football in England so desperately craves. His traits were typically suited to the Premier League; adept at holding the ball up, he leapt without fear and possessed as strong a header as any striker to have graced the domestic game.

Who can forget his thundering header against Leicester City in 2003? It was a game in which he also demonstrated his wonderful technique with a beautifully primed side-footed volley against the Foxes. Don’t just take it from me either – ask John Terry and William Gallas what they think of the Colombian and the memory of his wonderful goal against Chelsea will inevitably come flooding back for the Blues’ central defenders of the time.

You could always ask Jussi Jääskeläinen. The Finn watched Ángel deftly back-heel the ball through a defender’s legs before rifling a perfectly placed shot past the stopper from an impossible angle. It was these moments that Villa fans will never forget.

His high of 23 goals in the 2003/04 season made him the first Villa player to surpass the magic 20 mark in the Premier League era. It was a record that stood for almost a decade before former striking hero Christian Benteke bettered the tally in his maiden season.

Sixty-five goals in 205 games across all competitions can be construed in many ways. Some suggest it wasn’t bad for a Colombian making his maiden voyage to Europe in the most physically demanding league. Others point out that his ability warranted more goals. Villa fans, however, don’t care. They saw the best and worst of Ángel but loved him for what he was: honest, talented and in love with the club.

For me, his record would’ve been better in a different era for the Villans. Often he was devoid of service in a team that leaked more goals than it scored. A stronger back line and perhaps a partner as good as Dwight Yorke may have seen the greasy-haired finisher register a few more strikes in English football.

His fairy tale in England ultimately ended in April 2007 as he moved back to the Americas. This time, he headed north to Major League Soccer with the New York Red Bulls. The running-theme of his career continued as fans yet again took to the striker’s brilliance in front of goal. As the club’s leading Designated Player – a role filled by big names that are exempt from the restrictions of the MLS salary cap – he would’ve been forgiven for taking it easy and filling his pockets. Not Ángel. It’s simply not within his nature.

After visa complications were overcome, the South American was immediately handed the captain’s armband. Records at the New York franchise tumbled as the Colombian became the first player in the team’s history to score in six straight games. He went on to beat Clint Mathis’ club record of 45 goals in 2009 as he helped carry a Red Bull team in notable decline.

His 62 goals for the Big Apple side is a record that is unlikely to be broken anytime soon. He remains a fan favourite as demonstrated by the ovation he received at Red Bull Arena in May 2013 when he revisited a club that had since added Thierry Henry and Tim Cahill to its ranks.

The potential partnership of Ángel and Henry failed to materialise and it remains one of the great what-ifs of American football. Stints at LA Galaxy and Chivas USA followed as he began winding down his career and opted to be closer to Colombia. Again, he was adored in the stands at the Los Angeles clubs; particularly at Chivas where the majority Latin following exulted in his signing.

As many predicted the end of Ángel’s career, he opted to swing full circle in January 2013 as he signed for Nacional again. He returned a hero. Scenes at the Atanasio Girardot Sports Complex were akin to a war veteran returning after duty, with fans bustling to touch the astounded Ángel and security doing their best to maintain order in a range of yellow and orange hi-vis jackets.

Linking up with former Red Bull boss Juan Carlos Osorio, his commitment to the Nacional cause and desire to simply play football was evident as he signed on a deal worth £3,000 per week. It was in stark contrast to his Chivas contract, worth precisely 10 times more.

Seventeen goals in 47 appearances demonstrated his quality, even at 38. Gone was the long, greasy hair. Gone was the five-yard burst to get away from defenders. Gone was the chance of ever playing for Colombia again. And gone was the foreign journey that took him from Buenos Aires to Birmingham, New York to LA. But the quality remained until the very end, as did the consistency with his goalscoring.

In perhaps his finest achievement to date, he helped Nacional win the league title as top scorer with a number of inspired performances that roused the Medellín crowd. Not since the days of Pablo Escobar, his namesake Andrés, and the golden generation of 1994, had the city been so inspired by its football.

Over 20 years have passed since his debut for his hometown club, and much has changed. Football is a different world and Colombia has found a new identity among a fresh outlook in South American society, politics and economics. As the striker continues a new life off the pitch, another Ángel love-affair with football and Nacional begins. Juan Pablo’s son, Tomy, is enrolled in the Nacional academy having previously played in the Red Bull youth system. In his father’s own words: “He’s definitely better than I was at his age.”

While his record of 33 caps and nine goals for Colombia doesn’t do his considerable ability justice, few fans from the clubs he played for will ever care. For them, Juan Pablo Ángel symbolised everything that’s good about the sport we love. Most importantly, he brought renewed hope wherever he went with his honesty, commitment and talent. Rare traits, indeed.

By Omar Saleem  @omar_saleem