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Talent alone isn't always enough


In my last column, I announced that I was on my way to Lima to write a piece on the Peruvian game for World Soccer magazine, and invited comments on the matter from readers. One sweet soul sent me advice on where to eat, where to catch some good views of the Pacific, "and only," he added (his emphasis) "if you have any time left to kill should you consider going to a live Peruvian league game."

I did not heed his counsel, enjoyed myself hugely going to a number of games and, in one of them, came across an old acquaintance.

It was almost 10 years ago, on a freezing afternoon in Luque, Paraguay, that I attended the birth of a star -- or so I believed. It was a 1999 Copa América match between Colombia and Argentina. The Colombians unleashed a 16-year-old phenomenon named Jhonnier Montaño who, admittedly with the aid of a slight deflection, smashed in a magnificent long-range goal. There was magic in his left foot, he had the exuberance of youth and in the postgame news conference spoke with poise and maturity. This, I thought, is one for the notebook. To be written in block capitals. Destined for greatness, and take that to the bank.

And 10 years later, theoretically at the peak of his powers, where is Jhonnier Montaño? Slaloming his way through defenses for Barcelona in the Camp Nou? Blasting them in at Old Trafford from 30 yards for Manchester United? Playing neat one-twos with Kaká for Milan in the San Siro?

No, Montaño is playing for Alianza Lima in the relative backwater of the Peruvian championship. And that represents a step up from some of the places he's been.

Shortly after that dramatic emergence in Paraguay, Montaño was snapped up by Parma of Italy. What followed is a cautionary tale of the dangers of a premature move. Parma was a big club at the time, with a deep squad. Montaño hardly had a look. He was loaned out here, loaned out there, left kicking his heels in the stands, lost focus and motivation, gained weight and soon became a bloated caricature of the star he had promised to become.

At one point, he was even playing in the Colombian second division. Peru has given him the chance to carry out a minor rebuilding job on his career. After doing well at a smaller club, he now wears the blue-and-white stripes of Alianza, one of the country's historic Big Two.

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Montaño is a favorite with the fans. In flashes, the old talent is still there. In the match I saw, the local derby against Sporting Cristal, he superbly turned a defender and slipped the center forward clean through on goal. The chance was wasted and, as in most matches he plays, Montaño was substituted around the hour mark. The fans protested, but were celebrating at the end. A goal down, Alianza scored twice at the end to win 2-1 -- with Montaño watching from the bench.

Back on that cold day in Luque 10 years ago, there was another protagonist. While Montaño was blasting his shot into one goal, at the other end, Argentina's Martín Palermo made history for himself by managing to miss three penalties.

I well recall the moment when Palermo was preparing to take the first of them. I was sitting next to a journalist from Argentina. "I don't like it," he mumbled. "Palermo misses lots of penalties." I still rate it as the greatest piece of sports predicting I've ever heard.

There is no way that Palermo should have been allowed to take the third penalty. His teammates should have intervened. But that would have entailed finding some legal way to get the ball off him, which would have been no easy task. It was Palermo who suffered the foul in the area -- and before anyone could react, he had tucked the ball under his arm and was marching toward the spot.

Ever since, he has been ridiculed for his feat of managing to miss all three. But as far as I'm concerned, that moment encapsulates Palermo's greatness. He was prepared to look ridiculous. He accepted that risk in his eagerness to try to score and fulfill his responsibility as the team's penalty-taker.

Many players would hide at such a moment. Palermo didn't. With that approach, a lumbering center forward with limited ability has become Boca Juniors' top scorer of the professional era.

At around the same time that I saw Montaño once more, Palermo was recalled to the Argentina squad for a planned game on May 20 for which only home-based players will be considered. The game may not take place -- the opposition is as yet unconfirmed. And Palermo is unlikely to be available to play -- Boca should be involved in a Copa Libertadores quarterfinal game on that date.

But merely to be named in the squad in his mid-30s is a prize for an outstanding career -- and a message to the likes of Jhonnier Montaño that talent on its own is never enough.