The Optimist of the Goal

Eduardo Galeano wrote that he was beggar for good football; growing up in rural America before the internet age, I was beggar for any football. Through a coincidence of geography and television rights, I spent a disproportionate amount of time watching the Argentine Primera in the late 90’s. There were a lot of talented footballers operating during this period, but there was one be-mulleted colossus who stood out above all others: Martin Palermo, El Titan. The heights of his achievements and the depths of his lows led to a running joke in Argentina that God was directing his own movie with Martin Palermo in the lead role. Whether it was towering over his marker to head past a despairing keeper or sweeping home a loose ball with his left foot in a goalmouth scramble, he was always amongst the goals. Palermo stood out to me not just for his achievements but also for his post-goal celebrations; I loved how he invited his teammates and the crowd to share the joy of the goal with him.

Palermo was born in La Plata, the administrative capital of the province of Buenos Aires. His father worked in the shipyards and instilled in him a fighting spirit that took him through the youth ranks of his hometown club, Estudiantes. It was here that Palermo’s aggressive style of play and passionate displays earned him the nickname of El Loco, “the Crazy One.” He made his debut with the first team in 1992 but did not score his first goal until almost a year later following a handful of appearances. Estudiantes attempted to loan him out, but a new manager in the 1995 Apertura gave him a chance to make an impact. Palermo never looked back, scoring six goals in eight games and led the league in goals for the 1996 Clausura. Estudiantes, however, was in deep financial trouble, and Palermo’s manager suggested that the striker bleach his hair in order to attract more attention, and, thus, a more lucrative transfer. It is more likely Palermo’s fine performances against Boca Juniors led to his transfer there in 1997 rather than his trip to the hairdressers, but stranger things have happened in Argentine football.

After his move to Boca, Palermo set the league alight with his goals. During the 1998 Apertura, he scored 20 times in 19 games and his goals fired Boca to victory in the Copa Libertadores. He won 1998’s title of “King of Football of America” for his exploits that year, and Palermo was at the peak of his powers. Everything was in place for him to break into Europe and become a household name. It was during the 1999 Copa America, however, that Palermo showed that being touched by the gods also means one is subject to their whims and caprices. And, as Shakespeare writes, “As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods; they kill us for their sport”. In a group round match against Colombia, Palermo missed three penalties, a world record. His stock plummeted; one of the hottest strikers in the world was instantly reduced to the answer of a pub quiz. What possesses a man to take a penalty after missing the first, or even a second? The elation of the goal outweighed the fear of failure for Palermo. Some talk of the bravery or mental fortitude to step up a second and third time to the penalty spot that day. I can understand that, but, more than anything, I see an addict in search of a high. One manager described Palermo as the “optimist of the goal.” His compulsion to score goals meant he attempted shots from even the most impossible situations, like when he headed a sliced clearance from the keeper 42 yards into the net; it was an instinctual, reflexive effort that could only flow from an optimist and addict of the goal. Such was his addiction, he even scored his 100th top flight goal in a match where he had already torn his cruciate ligament but remained on the field.

Palermo overcame injuries and the humiliation of the missed penalties and got back to the business of scoring goals. After his eye-catching performance in Boca’s 2000 Intercontinental Cup victory over Real Madrid where he scored two goals, Palermo’s big European move finally materialized, but it raised eyebrows. His new club, Villarreal, did not have the big-name status fans felt he deserved. If the move was underwhelming, so too was Palermo’s impact in Spain, which further ensured his legacy as a footnote in the minds of most football fans outside of Argentina. His time in Spain produced one moment of significance though. In November 2001, Palermo managed to put the ball in the net against Levante after a barren run. As he always did, he ran to the supporters to celebrate with them. This time however, as the fans rushed toward him, the dividing wall collapsed and crushed his right leg, resulting in a broken leg and an end to his season. A moment of beauty was transformed by fate in to pain, and it showed once again that Palermo was no average footballer; he was a footballer both blessed and cursed by the gods in equal and extraordinary measure.

The rest of his time in Spain was unremarkable, and he returned to Buenos Aires and Boca Juniors in 2004. It would have been unsurprising if the story of Martin Palermo fizzled out here, but instead it crescendoed thunderously. Back in La Bombanera, Palermo could not stop scoring. Nothing could keep stop him – not injuries, rifts within the squad, or Father Time – nothing could separate him from the goal. In 2006 Palermo’s wife experienced difficulties with her pregnancy and their child, Stefano, was born three months prematurely and passed away shortly after delivery. How does one come back from one the most painful experiences a human being can suffer? How does one manage that kind of grief? For Palermo, he found solace in football. He spoke to his manager and told him he wanted to make the season opener against Banfield later that week. His manager assented, and Palermo scored twice in 3-0 victory. The goals themselves were unremarkable, but the celebrations are some of the finest moments in football as Palermo looked heavenward and then, after the second, collapsed on to the turf and began sobbing. His manager subbed him off and embraced him while the Boca faithful did the same with their tears and songs. Later, Palermo would tattoo “Stefano” on his forearm, and he would kiss it and look up to the sky after every goal. A Palermo goal was no longer just relevant to the match at hand, but became so much bigger. His goals became a symbol of a father’s love for his child and a message to all those who had experienced a deep loss that they were not alone.

And he scored more and more goals. He became Boca’s all-time leading scorer with 236 goals for Los Xeneizes, and even earned himself a recall to the national team after 10 years in the wilderness following his hat trick of missed penalties in the Copa America. It could not have been scripted any better when, on a rainy night in Buenos Aires, he scored the most important goal in Argentina’s qualifying campaign for the 2010 World Cup. There is a glorious image from that night of Palermo shirtless, head back, and arms outstretched, letting rain and redemption wash over him.

What made Palermo a legend was not just his goal scoring record. It was that he shared the euphoria of scoring a goal with us along with his very being. He invited the stadium and the viewers on television into his joy, into his sorrow, and into his confidence. Every goal was an act of love that Palermo extended to his teammates, to his club, and to the crazy ones like him who find joy in the beautiful game.

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