The magic and the madness of Faustino Asprilla

The magic and the madness of Faustino Asprilla

Few images epitomised the exciting new world that the Premier League had become in the 1990s than that of Faustino Asprilla in a snowbound Newcastle wearing a fur coat having just arrived on a private plane. The eccentric Colombian striker joined Newcastle United from Parma in February 1996, and although his two-year spell on Tyneside failed to live up to expectations, it was punctuated by moments of sheer inspiration and joy.

Asprilla was born in 1969 in Tuluá, a tropical city in Colombia’s Valle de Cauca. His youth career began in Cali, 90km to the north, at the famed Carlos Sarmiento Lora football factory. Tino’s professional break came with Cúcuta Deportivo, and just a year later he was snapped up by Colombia’s most successful club, Atlético Nacional. The three-year stint in Medellín was a fruitful one, with Asprilla scoring almost 40 goals on the way to winning two major trophies.

The striker’s form for Nacional led to a 1992 move to Serie A – at the time the world’s strongest and most lucrative league – with Parma. The $11m fee proved to be money well spent as just one year later, he was named as the sixth-best player in the world by FIFA. Boasting the likes of Gianfranco Zola, Tomas Brolin and Dino Baggio, Parma won the Cup Winners’ Cup, UEFA Cup and European Super Cup under the tutelage of Nevio Scala. Despite the team’s success, and 40 goals during just under four years at the club, the striker fell out of favour with his Italian manager, paving the way for his move to England.

Asprilla earned international recognition during his spell at the Ennio Tardini, making his debut for Colombia in 1993. His first two competitive goals for Los Cafeteros came on a memorable night in Buenos Aires’ Estadio Monumental, home of River Plate. In a World Cup qualifier which has gone down as one of Argentina’s darkest footballing moments, Colombia ran out 5-0 winners and booked their passage to the United States in the process. Asprilla was imperious, scoring two goals and running rampant alongside Freddy Rincón and the iconic Carlos Valderrama.

Asprilla represented Colombia at two World Cups, including the fateful 1994 tournament where the fancied side were dumped out after finishing bottom of their group. The underwhelming campaign infamously led to the assassination of defender Andrés Escobar who scored an unfortunate own goal against the host nation. Asprilla ended his international career in 2001 with a respectable record of 20 goals in 57 appearances.

Backed by Sir John Hall’s millions, Kevin Keegan’s swashbuckling Newcastle United side were taking the 1995/96 Premier League by storm. By 20 January they had opened up a seemingly insurmountable 12-point gap over nearest rivals Manchester United, and with 15 games remaining appeared odds-on to win their first top-flight championship since 1927.

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Asprilla’s Newcastle debut came in a north-east derby away to Middlesbrough on 10 February. Despite having only arrived in the country 24 hours earlier, and having drunk a glass of wine before kick-off, the mercurial Colombian changed the game when he replaced Keith Gillespie after 67 minutes with Newcastle trailing 1-0.

Eleven minutes and two goals later the visitors were leading, and would go on to claim all three points. Wearing gloves to combat a wintery chill to which he was unaccustomed, Asprilla twisted and turned before crossing from the left for Steve Watson to head the equaliser before popping up on the opposite flank to play a role in Les Ferdinand’s winner.

It didn’t take Asprilla long to open his goalscoring account for his new club, finding the net in a 3-3 draw with Manchester City at Maine Road later that month. However, this game also showed his fiery side when Asprilla was suspended after clashing with Keith Curle.

Manchester United arrived at St James’ Park on the evening of 4 March having cut the faltering Newcastle’s lead to just four points. Peter Schmeichel was an imperious brick wall in the visitor’s goal, and at the other end of the pitch, Eric Cantona’s crucial goal gave United a narrow 1-0 victory, slashing the advantage at the top of the table to a single point. In what amounted to the smallest of consolations, Asprilla was superb in defeat, drawing a standing ovation from the St James’ faithful. In less than six weeks, Alex Ferguson’s men had clawed back an incredible 11 points on Newcastle United and the pressure was on.

Nineteen days later, Newcastle travelled down to Highbury to face Arsenal, and after a 2-0 defeat, Asprilla clashed with his infuriated manager. Instead of obediently soaking in Keegan’s post-match tirade, the Colombian chose to quickly shower and change before leaving the stadium on the back of a motorbike to avoid the traffic. Asprilla claimed it was pointless listening because he couldn’t understand Keegan’s words anyway, yet it was the type of behaviour that would do little to engender team spirit and togetherness in the face of a mounting crisis.

On 3 April, Newcastle travelled to Anfield for a game which has gone down in Premier League folklore and solidified Kevin Keegan’s side as the entertainers. Asprilla made it 3-2 for Newcastle after a clever run outside the full-back was followed by a deft clip with the outside of his right foot past the onrushing goalkeeper. A Stan Collymore double, including an injury time winner, snatched victory from Newcastle at the death. In what was a fantastic advert for Liverpool’s sponsors, Keegan slumped over the advertising hoardings at the front of the away dugout, his dejection palpable.

Later that month, the emotionally fragile Keegan provided yet another golden Premier League moment with his famous “I would love it” tirade following a narrow 1-0 victory over Leeds at Elland Road. Alex Ferguson’s mind games, and the relentless form of his Manchester United machine, had broken Keegan who took exception to the Scot’s accusation that teams were trying harder against his team than they were against Newcastle.

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The Toon Army ultimately lost out on the 1995/96 title despite having one hand firmly gripping it in January, but exactly what went wrong differs depending on whose account is considered. Did the winter signings of Asprilla and David Batty upset what was clearly a well-oiled machine, rather than strengthen and reinvigorate the squad as had been hoped? Keith Gillespie certainly thinks so, yet reserves his ire for the Colombian as opposed to fellow Brit Batty.

The Northern Irishman claimed that he became the “fall guy” to accommodate Asprilla and that “the players became a bit miffed by the changes because they upset the whole way the team played”. “Who knows what would have happened if we had stuck to the system that had worked so well for us?” added the winger.

The Magpies lost four of Batty’s first six games and lifelong fan Ian Cusack insists that, if anything, it was the Yorkshireman’s introduction that unsettled the squad. “David Batty was the wrong player for us and his negativity stifled our midfield,” reflects Cusack.

Peter Beardsley and Les Ferdinand were two players to dispute the prevailing narrative of Asprilla’s negative influence, with the latter attributing the demise in form to a lack of tactics. “Everybody has got this idea that it was he who cost us the title but that wasn’t the case,” concurred central defender Steve Howey. “There were another 10 players out there and we all take responsibility for that.”

It is also often underappreciated just how important singular moments are to a football season. If it hadn’t been for superb performances by Cantona and Schmeichel, in particular the goalkeeper, who was at his unbreakable best the night Manchester United visited for the archetypal six-pointer, the momentum may have swung back in Newcastle’s favour. Football matches, and seasons, are defined by razor-thin margins.

Mark Lawrenson was brought in to help defensively as it was deemed that Newcastle didn’t have a solid enough base on which to build their scintillating attacks. But Newcastle only conceded two more than United and five more than Arsenal, who boasted the league’s meanest defence.

Aside from pure conjecture, the facts are that Newcastle ended the season trophyless with Asprilla managing three goals in 14 appearances. It was hoped, however, that his bedding in period would stand him in good stead heading into the following campaign.

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Newcastle dusted themselves off following the crushing disappointment of the 1995/96 campaign, purchasing boyhood fan Alan Shearer for a world-record fee of £15m from Blackburn Rovers following his Euro 96 heroics with England.

Revenge of sorts was gained over Manchester United in October, with an emphatic 5-0 thrashing at St James’ Park, although Asprilla watched the game from the substitute’s bench. Those three points made it eight wins out of 10 and it appeared that the Toon Army were back to their best, although a poor run of form – including a sequence of seven games without a win – led to the resignation of Keegan in the first week of 1997.

Within a week the hot seat was filled by Liverpool legend Kenny Dalglish, and two months later he’d take his charges to Anfield where the two teams shared seven goals in another pulsating thriller. After arriving back in England late after international duty, Asprilla initially feared he that he wouldn’t be involved and was therefore surprised to start the game.

Remarkably, the goal that reduced the deficit to 3-2 was his first of the season, and when Warren Barton equalised, Newcastle thought the point had been rescued. However, Robbie Fowler had other ideas, scoring a late winner to make it 4-3 to Liverpool in what was almost a carbon copy of the corresponding fixture a season before.

Newcastle finished second once again in 1996/97, although this time it was enough to qualify for the preliminary round of the Champions League. Asprilla had managed nine goals in 25 games in a campaign which saw the Magpies reach the quarter-finals of the UEFA Cup. The summer of 1997 wasn’t kind to Newcastle who, after selling David Ginola and Ferdinand, watched as Shearer sustained bad ankle ligament damage in a pre-season friendly tournament at Goodison Park. The scene was set for Asprilla to spearhead the attack and take centre stage for Newcastle.

Asprilla’s undoubted yet lamentably fleeting, genius was displayed on one of football’s biggest stages in September as Newcastle welcomed the almighty Barcelona to St James’ Park in the Champions League group stage. Newcastle had dispensed with Dinamo Zagreb in the qualifying round and. after Asprilla had scored four goals under the St James’ Park floodlights in the previous season’s UEFA Cup campaign, there was hope that once again he’d save his best for the big occasion.

Although the Barcelona that Newcastle faced that evening weren’t as strong as the later teams of Frank Rijkaard and Pep Guardiola, they were still a force to be reckoned with, fielding talents such as Luís Figo, Luis Enrique, Sonny Anderson and Rivaldo.

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It was immediately apparent that Asprilla was in the mood, and a purposeful run into the 18-yard area drew a foul from the goalkeeper, although the contact was questionable. Asprilla took responsibility and claimed the ball, dispatching an accurate penalty to Ruud Hesp’s right, with the Dutchman unable to keep the shot out despite getting a hand to the ball. The already electric atmosphere went up several decibels and Asprilla, arms outstretched, gladly accepted the adulation of the adoring Geordie crowd.

Gillespie was the architect of the second and third, destroying left-back Sergi and whipping in crosses that were met by the head of Asprilla for both goals. Barcelona pulled back two goals but they proved to be merely consolations. Asprilla was incredible on the night, an invincible force who mixed his typical flair with power, showing that he could compete with the very best in the world.

Rather than building on the success of that magical night, Newcastle lost four successive matches in Europe and a victory in the final group game wasn’t enough to save them. Asprilla only scored three more goals in the black and white stripes before being sold back to Parma in February 1998, while Newcastle eventually finished 13th in the league. The Asprilla hex struck once again and, just like Scala following his Parma departure, Dalglish was sacked in the summer following his disposal of the Colombian.

Although Asprilla only spent two years on Tyneside, scoring a modest 18 goals, he epitomised the adventurous yet ultimately flawed Kevin Keegan era. “Recognising Asprilla’s time at Newcastle is a very complex case,” remarks Cusack. “His departure was unmourned although he is still a tremendously popular player on Tyneside.”

Asprilla never really settled at another club after leaving Newcastle, building a sprawling ranch back in Colombia which he still calls home to this day. Perhaps that’s where the family man wanted to be after six years in Europe; after his English adventure, he never registered more than a dozen games for any one team. Eight clubs were represented in the ensuing four years, including brief spells with former clubs Parma and Atlético Nacional as well as stints in Brazil, Mexico, Chile and Argentina.

He was never particularly prolific at the highest level and, compared to his doubtless talent, he didn’t win as many honours as he should have. Perhaps the off-the-cuff, languid style that made him so compelling to watch, as well as his questionable temperament, also prevented him from being truly world-class and consistent over a prolonged period of time.

However, he always entertained, sparkling in some major moments and searing himself onto the memories of all football fans whose hearts he touched. For Newcastle fans, the player and the era in which he starred will surely never be forgotten.

By Dan Williamson

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