Three penalties and a goal aged 36 that decided the fate of the brilliant Martín Palermo

Three penalties and a goal aged 36 that decided the fate of the brilliant Martín Palermo

By almost any measure you choose to evaluate a player’s worth, Martín 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 Hernán 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 Martín 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.

Argentina were playing in Group C of the tournament, drawn alongside Ecuador, Colombia and Uruguay. Heading the South American team at the time was coach Marcelo Bielsa who, shorn of both Crespo and Batistuta, had opted to select Palermo – at the time starring with Boca Juniors in his home country – as his main spearhead. With the promptings of Juan Román Riquelme and Kily González to offer up opportunities for the striker, Argentina looked to have a potent strike force.

In a group with at least three of the four teams fancying their chance of going deep into the tournament, getting off to a good start was always a prime requirement. On 1 July, Argentina kicked off their campaign against Ecuador at the Estadio Feliciano Cáceres.

Inside the first few minutes, Palermo looked like he was going to prove dangerous to the Ecuador backline when a cross, played in from the right by Javier Zanetti, found the striker in space, but he fired over the bar. Just eight minutes later, the breakthrough came.

Guillermo Barros Schelotto was fouled midway into the Ecuador half. The ball was expertly flighted in by Riquelme, and with the tall Palermo drawing most of the defensive attention, Diego Simeone found space to head home and put La Albiceleste ahead. For much of the remainder of the first half, Bielsa’s side continued to press and any Ecuadorian raids were sporadic at best, but the second goal didn’t arrive and, at the break, the lead remained slender. Ten minutes after the restart, that would change, as Palermo opened his goal account in the tournament.

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A through-ball from the right saw the striker clear of marker Iván Hurtado, and he controlled before firing powerfully past José Cevallos in the Ecuador goal. It was a strike of a player confident in his own abilities and apparently relishing his chance on the big stage. And he wouldn’t have to wait long for his next chance to display his credentials.

Just past the hour mark, a free-kick near the left corner flag was whipped in by Riquelme. A weak defensive header merely diverted the ball towards the penalty spot where Palermo was lurking. A vicious right-footed volley, low into the corner of the net, brooked little argument from the goalkeeper. Late on, a superb free-kick by Iván Kaviedes reduced the arrears, but to all intents and purposes, the game was over by then. Palermo’s brace had taken Argentina well clear.

In the other match, Colombia struggled to a 1-0 victory over Uruguay, meaning that the next game, between the two winning teams, would go a long way to deciding the outcome of the group.

Three days later, the two teams squared up to each other in the same stadium. If the encounter against Ecuador had been an exuberant illustration of Palermo’s ability to unerringly find the back of the net, this one would show how coquettish the fates of football could be with their largesse. Once favoured, with their smile taken away, there’s little that mere mortals can do to sway matters. Palermo was about to bathe in that so-shallow pool of lost affection.

Early on, it looked like Argentina had the Colombians on the ropes. Early possession had let to a couple of half chances, and just five minutes into the game came the first substantial opportunity to open the scoring. A deep cross from the left was heading towards Palermo outside the far post. As the striker shaped to volley with his right foot, defender Alexander Viveros, realising that the ball was too far past him to legally intercept and heading for Palermo’s boot, flicked up a hand and diverted the ball clear. It was the clearest of penalties, and Paraguayan referee Ubaldo Aquino had no hesitation in pointing to the spot.

Palermo grabbed the ball, negating any debate as to who would take the kick. Confidence bolstered by his brace in the previous game, and the fact that the defender considered him such a danger that he felt compelled to handle the ball rather than permit the striker to take a shot on goal even from the tightest of angles, he stepped up to convert.

Between the sticks, Miguel Calero jumped up and down a little, skipping from side to side. Palermo seemed unmoved, not only sure of where he was going to put the kick, but also confident of the outcome. As the goalkeeper hurled himself to his left, Palermo struck powerfully down the middle. The goalkeeper had no chance of influencing events, but the striker’s effort had slightly too much elevation and it clipped the top of the crossbar before diverting high into the crowd. With just the slightest bow of the head, Palermo stepped back to await the restart of the game. There were still 85 minutes to play – plenty of time for redemption.

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Five minutes later, the 12-yard theme of the game would be established when Colombian midfielder Arley Betancourth drove into the box, only to have his run be checked by Nelson Vivas. Although perhaps more debatable than the decision for the first penalty, Aquino had no doubts and pointed to the spot. As lessons go, Iván Córdoba’s treatise on how to slot a penalty home was of the highest order. In goal, Germán Burgos threw himself right as the ball entered the net at the opposite side. Argentina were behind, and Palermo may well have winced as the ball hit the back of the net.

At half-time, despite growing pressure from La Albiceleste, Colombia maintained their lead. Bielsa would need rally his troops at the break if they were to get back into the game. They needed a goal from their striker, and Palermo needed redemption. Two minutes after the break, things could so easily have been worse.

Colombia were in possession and the ball was swept out towards the right flank, reaching Rubiel Quintana. The midfielder looked up to see Hámilton Ricard in the Argentina box, and crossed towards the striker then plying his trade with Middlesbrough. As he leapt to head, however, a nudge in the back by Roberto Ayala put him off balance, turning his jump into some kind of flying sit-down trampoline manoeuvre. Referee Aquino was perfectly placed to spot the infringement and award the third penalty of the match.

After coolly slotting home the first spot kick, Córdoba would surely have been the favourite to step up, but, whether due to seniority or some sort of rotation due to psychological reasoning, Ricard was given the chance to double Colombia’s lead. The effort was as poor as Córdoba’s had been efficient. Diving the same way as he had against the first spot-kick, Burgos comfortably palmed the ball away. Argentina – and perhaps Palermo – had been let off the hook. Now they needed to exploit the opportunity.

For all their efforts, and Bielsa’s use of all three substitutes, entering the final 15 minutes, the score remained at 1-0. Five minutes or so earlier, Zanetti’s frustration had boiled over, and he was dismissed from the field, leaving the Argentines not only a goal down but also a man light as well. Just as Argentine hopes were beginning to fade and Colombian belief prosper, the fates offered a potential reprieve.

A cross by Riquelme from the left found Palermo’s head and his flick towards goal struck the hand of Viveros. Aquino pointed to the spot once more. The award may have been harsh as the ball had travelled only a metre or so before striking the Colombian’s hand, but his arms were in the air, and that may well have sealed the decision. The Colombians protested but to no avail.

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If, for whatever reason, the Colombians had rotated their penalty takers, no such system was in play for the Argentines. On the sidelines, Bielsa waved his arms and yelled at his players, pointing to Palermo, indicating that the striker should take the kick. Whether feeling confident and grateful for having the chance to make up for the error on the first spot-kick and save his team, or feeling the heavy burden of pressure, the striker again took on the responsibility.

As well as pressure being ramped up on any player taking a second spot-kick after missing, there’s a similar dilemma for the goalkeeper. Having shown your hand as to which way you were going to dive and seeing the taker fire down the middle, there’s a decision to make. Do you go the same way? Perhaps not, as you’ve shown your hand there already? What about going the other way? Well, the striker’s probably going to expect that anyway, isn’t he? OK, then stay in the middle. After all, that’s where he put the shot last time. Probably not, as he’s not going to do the same thing again now, is he? Or is he?

Whatever was going through Calero’s thoughts in the dual of mind games between taker and goalkeeper is unclear, but after jumping around on the line again, the Colombian decided to dive the other way this time. Whether seeing an initial move or not, Palermo decided to try the powerful shot down the middle again.

Legend has it that it was physicist Albert Einstein who defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Whether it was the German-born genius or not, Palermo seemed ignorant of the apparent folly of repeating a failed plan. He again fired relatively straight, if slightly to the goalkeeper’s left, but again the shot was too high, striking the bar and clearing the goal. Rather than a lowering of his gaze, this time Palermo threw back his head, as if in appeal to the heavens. If he was looking for celestial assistance, none would be forthcoming.

After the first missed penalty, Colombia had struck quickly to take the lead. If repeating a failed manoeuvre had proved fallacious for Palermo and Argentina, following a good habit would prove hugely advantageous for the Colombians. Just a few minutes after Palermo had fired into the crowd for the second time, a Colombian corner from the right found its way through a forest of legs to substitute Edwin Congo, who had only entered the fray moments earlier, to fire home from close range.

Fate now seemed keen to rub Argentine noses in the dirt. Inside the last few minutes, as they poured forward in desperate search of a goal that may give them a little hope, a pass struck the legs of the referee, offering a break to Colombia. Seizing on the opportunity, another substitute, Johnnier Montaño, ploughed forwards with the ball at his feet as Argentine defenders retreated.

About 25 yards from goal, he struck a speculative effort that may have clipped a defender on its way. Whatever the trajectory, it looped over a helpless Burgos and into the far corner of the net. Three goals clear, Colombia were home and hosed, and Argentina were surely resigned to their fate. There would be one final twist of the knife, though.

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The clock was indicating the 90th minute as Palermo gathered possession and blundered his way past Córdoba and into the Colombian box. Faced by Jorge Bermúdez, he jinked right and, colliding with the recovering Córdoba, fell to the floor. To absolutely no one’s surprise, Aquino pointed to the spot once more. It was the fifth time he had awarded a penalty in the game. Some had been clear; others less so. This was probably the least convincing of all. For the third time in the same 90 minutes, Palermo would face Calero from 12 yards.

Having twice failed to trouble the goalkeeper to make a save, it was a pretty safe bet that the striker wouldn’t risk missing the target for the third time, and with that knowledge to hand, it was probably a 50-50 decision for the goalkeeper as to which way to dive. He chose left and, although powerfully struck, Palermo placed the ball in the ideal place for the goalkeeper to parry away. Martín Palermo had missed his third penalty of the game. This time rather than exasperation, his demeanour merely reflected a sad resignation and acceptance of his fate.

A few minutes later with the Colombians in the crowd giving it the chorus of Olés as their team played out time, the referee brought an end to Palermo’s agony by blowing the final whistle. Instead of heading quickly for the relative sanctity of the dressing-room, the striker was generous enough to swap shirts with one of his opponent’s before heading for the anonymity of the tunnel.

The following day, Palermo stepped up to the plate and gave interviews about his performance, the defeat, and Argentine aspirations for the remainder of the tournament. If a test of character, he came through it with estimable credit, promising to give his best efforts for the team in the future.

In the following game, he would deliver, scoring the second goal in his country’s 2-0 victory over Uruguay that saw Argentina qualify from the group in second place. In the quarter-finals, despite going ahead with an early goal from Juan Pablo Sorín, they would be eliminated by Brazil.

To many it seemed as though Palermo’s international career was over, and he would forever be remembered as the man whose time with La Albiceleste was brought to an end by three missed penalties in a single game. In 2008, however, manager Alfio Basile let it be known that he was seriously looking at bringing the player back into the international reckoning after a nine-year break.

As Palermo’s fate would have it, he was injured at the time, and the surprise reprieve passed him by. If kicking out against his fate was exemplified by the goal against Uruguay three days after his blackest day in the colours his country, Palermo still had an ability to rage against the dying of the light.

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In 2009, Diego Maradona was coach of La Albiceleste and returned Palermo to the international fold when he came on as a substitute in a World Cup qualifying game against Paraguay. He was 35 years old. A couple of weeks later he played in a friendly against Ghana and scored both goals in a 2-0 victory. A further strike against Peru, just a month ahead of his 36th birthday sealed a 2-1 victory for Argentina and led Maradona to describe it as “one more miracle of Saint Palermo”.

Whether convinced of a moment of faith or just by the sheer effectiveness of his play, Maradona selected Palermo for the Argentina squad that would travel to South Africa for the 2010 World Cup. It would be the first time the striker had played in the planet’s biggest football tournament. Blessed with the abundant talents of Lionel Messi, Carlos Tevez and Gonzalo Higuaín, it was no surprise that for the first couple of matches, Palermo sat on the bench as La Albiceleste cantered to comfortable wins over South Korea and Nigeria.

In the final group game, with qualification assured, Maradona rested both Tevez and Higuaín, bringing in Sergio Agüero and Diego Milito. A goal by Martín Demichelis following a goalmouth scramble after a corner with 13 minutes remaining persuaded the coach to consider the job done, and with 10 minutes left, Milito was withdrawn and, just a few months ahead of his 37th birthday, Palermo made his World Cup debut.

With time ticking away, the fates that had so cruelly frowned on Palermo 11 long years earlier lifted their veil and offered him a brief but bountiful kiss. Messi danced across the front of the Greece penalty area, feigning once, then again, to shoot before firing off on goal. Greek stopper, Alexandros Tzorvas, valiantly blocked the effort, but the ball ran out invitingly to a striker who knew his chance had arrived.

Without a moment’s hesitation, he drove the ball home. On the sidelines, Maradona beamed with delight – another miracle from Saint Palermo. The goalscorer wheeled away, lost in unexpected ecstasy, arms spread wide and with a smile that could light up a town on its own. The game, and the goal, would be Argentina’s last memories of Palermo as an international player. La Albiceleste would go on to defeat Mexico 3-1 in the first knockout round before succumbing to Germany 4-0 in the last eight. Palermo would not be involved in either of those games.

For many years, Martín Palermo had been the player fated to be remembered in Argentine footballing history as the man whose international career had ended on the back of a three-time failure to convert from 12 yards in the same match. Now, however, he had become the oldest Argentine ever to score in a World Cup, eclipsing the record of Maradona himself.

He wouldn’t pull on the striped jersey of Argentina again, but he had at least partially redeemed himself. If you’re going to go out on a moment, surely this was the one he’d choose.

By Gary Thacker  @All_Blue_Daze

While you’re here, Gary’s new book, Cheers, Tears and Jeers: A History of England and the World Cup, chronicling the story of England’s national team and the planet’s biggest football tournament from the early days of the game right up to the present day is out now. Order a copy and look beyond the same-old media post-mortems every few years into what has truly gone on with the Three Lions over the history of the World Cup.

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