Cult Heroes......Tino Asprilla

Monday, 28 January 2008

The recent return of Kevin Keegan has brought back lots of memories for those of us old enough to remember his last stint with the Toon Army. For some it’s the crazy outbursts, or the loss of a big lead in the league. At a time when my own team, Arsenal, was falling to new lows at the end of the Graham era, it was all an interesting distraction. However, for me the enduring memory is of the footballing wizard that was Faustino (Tino) Asprilla (that’s Aspriya, no Asprilia!).

Now I’ll admit that I have an ulterior motive for this, and that is because I’m a Colombian, and to us Colombians, having Asprilla play in the premiership was a moment of great pride. Never before had one of our countrymen pulled on the shirt of a major English team.

Of course Tino came with a reputation already, considering he had played for Parma (where he is said to have declared he was a builder to get a visa), back when they were a decent team. He was also a member of the infamous USA 94 national team, which failed miserably after being given the ultimate jinx, being Pele’s dark horses. Amid rumours of drug cartels and betting rings disrupting the dressing room and a dismal defeat to the USA, (I sat in my parents’ bedroom at 2am watching that match and it was truly heartbreaking). It was said that Tino was one of many players who threatened to walk out before the game, and eventually did afterwards.

But to us Colombians he would remain a hero despite that because he also gave us the immense pleasure of being instrumental in a 5-0 demolishing of Argentina in their own backyard, something that we would never have dreamed of. In those days, we didn’t have much access to South American football, and still don’t really, so there were copies of the match on VHS that did the rounds amongst family so we could all see for ourselves.

I remember when the news broke that Tino was to sign for the Toon, and seeing the pictures of him in the car park, in the middle of a blizzard. Looking back, it epitomised the culture clash between English football and the wider net being cast to bring in talent from abroad. How they laughed at the foreigner bundled up and still looking frozen to the bone. But that all changed when he made his debut at Middlesborough. He came on as a sub and completely changed the game, and instantly showed himself to be one of the more skilful players in the country. He absolutely terrorised the ‘boro defence, with his seemingly rubber legs going one way and the ball another.

Unfortunately, despite his impressive start, he was part of the team that eventually failed to win the league, and was blamed in some quarters for this. It was felt that he broke up a successful partnership in Beardsley and Ferdinand, and was unnecessary tinkering by Keegan. Like many players who seem to have such amazing skill, he could never really find the consistency to be a regular threat.

Probably his defining moment was the hat-trick he scored in a seminal game that Newcastle won 3-2 against the mighty Barcelona. Tino and Ginola took Barca apart, and as Colombians we shared the Toon Army’s joy. Around that time I lost count of the number of Newcastle tops that I saw around the Colombian community and that game still resonates. Not long ago an uncle of mine used one of his calls from prison to ask me to help him settle a bet regarding the match because someone wouldn’t believe Tino had scored a hat-trick (no prison jokes please!).

Sadly, Tino never quite hit those highs again and it became clear that part of his inconsistency was due to being somewhat nuts and very moody. As an acne ridden teenager, I had the pleasure of meeting him at the Colombian restaurant my parents owned, and he was not in the slightest bit interested in giving any of his time to the bunch of Colombian kids who idolised him.

Around the same time his temper increasingly became a problem and he was sent off for Colombia after getting in a fight with the Paraguayan keeper Chilavert in the middle of a match. The first Colombian to get dismissed for such a crime.

He was eventually shipped off to Brazil and wound down his career at various South American clubs, never coming close to matching his previous highs. Although, infamously, he came very close to signing with lowly Doncaster a few years ago after dealing with their moneybags chairmen, even being paraded before a match. But Tino being Tino, he didn’t turn up for the contract signing and was never heard off again.

There were rumours back home that he spent all his time drinking and indulging in the high life of women and cocaine, and when you’re taken from the slums of Colombia and become a mega-rich footballer, respected throughout the world maybe its not a great surprise. Something of course that we see now, with youngsters making much more money than they could ever have dreamed of. Tino eventually did time for running amok in Colombia waving his gun in the air in a wild frenzy, although thankfully the nutter didn’t shoot anyone! He also raised eyebrows when he posed nude for the cover of a magazine.

Anyway, cheers for sharing my journey back in time, and to the crazy owner of Newcastle for re-hiring Keegan and prompting this. Tino, you were a great, but also clearly mad as a hatter, and we salute you for it!

Luis Hernandez

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