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Martin Palermo: The Last of the (Tall) Mohicans

Mauricio Suchowlansky is an Argentine historian with a passion for football, and food that can be eaten with one hand. Here he tells us about one of the game’s most unorthodox but magical South American strikers.


There was a time – somewhere between the late 1990s and the early 2000s – that saw the rise (and fall) of (really) tall centre forwards, a species of warrior that would feel rather alien in the world of Guardiola’s total football.

These players were particularly known not just for their stature – most of them measuring about or over 2 metres – but also because of their goal-scoring despite limited ability with their feet. Players such as Czech Republic’s Jan Koller, Norwegian John Carew, Serbian Nikola Zigic, and even those like German Carsten Jancker, Italian Christian Vieri, or Spanish Julio Salinas can be named among the never-ending list of tall and not-so-gifted footballers [N.B.: Peter Crouch made his professional debut in 2005, so I am not sure whether he can be added to the list]. Yet one player, I truly believe, dwarfs them all: Argentina’s own Martin “El Loco” Palermo. Because of his unorthodox style, his goal-scoring spree with Boca Juniors, as well as a series of so-called “extra-curricular” stories, Palermo is by far, I dare say, the most admirable tall forward from the 2000s.

Palermo’s concise bio

Martin Palermo developed his football with Estudiantes de la Plata, club for which he made his debut in July 1992. After his successful Estudiantes spell, Palermo joined Boca Juniors in 1997, where he would play for most of his club career, earn an admirable amount of silverware, and score a massive amount of goals. Between 2001 and 2004, however, Palermo played in Spain, first with Villarreal before being farmed out to Real Betis and finally to Deportivo Alavés. Palermo returned to Boca in 2004 and played for the Argentinean giants until 2011, time at which he retired from professional football to begin his coaching career. Currently, he coaches Chile’s Club Unión Española.

What Makes Him Outstanding?

Titles

During his two Boca Juniors sojourns, Palermo amassed an incredible number of trophies. Indeed, he obtained seven local titles – six Primera Division cups with Boca Juniors, to which we should add the 1994-1995 B Nacional (Argentina’s second division) title with Estudiantes de La Plata. Most impressively, Martin “El Loco” Palermo obtained seven international cups, including two Copa Libertadores, two Copa Sudamericana, two Recopa Sudamericana, and one Intercontinental Cup (the old version of the FIFA World Club Cup) against almighty Real Madrid,  a game in which he was elected Man of the Match. To his silverware should be added his individual trophies, which include two Argentina’s top scorer, one South American Footballer of the Year, and one American Golden Foot.

Doing his Job

Scored twice at the 2000 Intercontinental Cup in Tokyo, Japan. Palermo scored two goals for Boca against Real Madrid, goals which allowed the Argentine side to take the international title home, and won the striker the Man of the Match award. I should also add that this was the last time Real Madrid lost an international final.

Broke the World Guinness Record for missing not one, not two, but three (!) penalties. During an Argentina-Colombia match at the 1999 Copa America, Palermo (under the tutelage of another “Loco,” Marcelo Bielsa), turned his career into a constant battle against laughter. This match would cost Palermo his international career, as some of the most powerful European teams, such as Atletico Madrid, Milan and Lazio, had been keeping an eye on him.

Scored a penalty kicked with both feet/shins. Yep. Months before the Copa America debacle, Palermo ran towards the ball and slipped before hitting it during a Boca-Platense game. As author Ben Lyttleton describes it, “His right foot somehow connected with the ball, which then cannoned into the goal off his left shin. Referee Fabian Madorran was happy to allow it, and after the game the Argentine FA sent the video of the incident to FIFA asking if it should have been allowed. FIFA said yes, because Palermo had not intended to strike the ball with both feet” (Twelve Yards: The Art and Psychology of the Perfect Penalty Kick 2014)

Scored a header from 38.9 metres. That was during Boca Juniors v. Velez Sarsfield at Boca’s mythical Bombonera, in 2009.

Scored at a world cup qualifier against Peru that allowed Argentina to advance to the FIFA World Cup of 2010. Such was the importance of that goal that Diego Maradona, Argentina’s coach at the time, spoke of “San Palermo [Saint Palermo].”

Boca Juniors’ top scorer with 236 goals. Palermo broke a decades old record by becoming Boca’s top scorer in the professional era. Also, Palermo is Boca’s top scorer in continental games with 43 goals.

He is the oldest player to have scored for Argentina. That happened at the 2010 World Cup against Greece when Palermo was 36 years old. Also, despite his goal tally, that happens to be his one and only World Cup goal ever.

Injuries

Palermo suffered a series of unfortunate injuries that certainly had an impact on his career – for better or for worse.

Broke his knee and scored a goal nonetheless. In 1999, during a match against Colon, Palermo suffered a serious knee injury, which did not stop him from scoring his 100th goal. He would spend the next six months out of the game, though his comeback was extraordinary: he would score against Boca’s arch-rivals River Plate to kick them out of the 1999 Copa Libertadores.

Fractured his leg while celebrating a goal with the fans. During his spell at Spain’s Villarreal, Palermo broke his leg after scoring a late goal against Levante by jumping on a small brick wall that collapsed on his leg.

Palermo may not have been the most gifted or orthodox player, but, man, he has stories to tell his grandchildren. But above all, Palermo was capable of molding his (in)abilities, his height, and his personality into an ethos of professionalism and success. Because of his titles earned, goal tally and all of the football oddities he has been part of, Martin Palermo deserves to the labelled the best of that lost type of football fighter, the last of the (tall) Mohicans.


More from Mauricio

Pep and José – brothers from different footballing mothers

Understanding Marcelo Bielsa: A Mad Mentor

Cry me a River Plate & tales from South America

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