"Where Gallardo Goes, Expectations Follow" - Decorated Argentine at Heart of D.C.'s Bid to End Title Drought (by Steven Goff of the Washington Post)
Marcelo Gallardo, D.C. United's Argentine playmaker, recounted the conversation as if it had taken place last week, not nearly 13 years ago. "I was not feeling good about myself", Gallardo said through an interpreter recently. "The phone rang and I asked who was calling", "It's Diego" the voice declared. "Diego who?" Gallardo asked. "Diego Diego" the caller insisted. "Diego what?" Gallardo responded, growing irritated and preparing to hang up. "Diego Maradona!" "Oh, oh... Diego" Gallardo said in the tone of a private who just inadvertently insulted a general. "Then", he added, "I showed my respect." Maradona was the keg-shaped superstar of world soccer near the end of a career that had transformed him into on of the most celebrated figures in Argentina's history, sports or otherwise. Gallardo was a brash 19-year-old midfielder, the son of a handyman from Merlo on the western edge of greater Buenos Aires, who, like every boy in the country, idolized Maradona.
When he was 10, Gallardo was at his club coach's house, watching the 1986 World Cup on TV and listening to famed announcer Jose Maria Munoz's radio call when Maradona embarked on a 60-yard run to beat England. "I ran out of the house and must have run 50 meters back and forth celebrating" Gallardo said "I had tears coming down my face". So here he was nine years later, just like his hero, wearing the sacred No. 10 sky-blue jersey for the Alibceleste, the national team. The occasion was a friendly against Australia, a tuneup for the prestigious Copa America tournament. Argentina won, 2-0, but in the eyes of a soccer-nutty nation, Gallardo's decision to grab the ball, wave off seasoned teammates Gabriel Batistuta and Abel Balbo and take a penalty kick was brazen. When he missed, derisive whistles blanketed the stadium. While a nation howled, Maradona reached out to his successor. It would be like Michael Jordan calling a college freshman who had just missed a free throw in a big game. Maradona's message: “estoy contigo hasta la muerte”- I am with you forever. “Something like that”- Gallardo said, shaking his head “I will always remember.”
Gallardo, now 32, never became the next Maradona, but then again, neither did any of the other prodigies from his generation. Still, he played 44 times for Argentina, scored 14 goals and traveled the two World Cups, a sterling international portfolio by almost any standard. His pro career has taken him from one of the world's grandest rivalries, his River Plate club against Buenos Aires foe Boca Juniors, to Monaco and the French league glory, back to River Plate, to a forgettable years in Paris (if there is such a thing), then then this year to Washington, where he has been asked to inspire a new-look lineup and end a nearly four-year championship drought. Just when he was trying to step from the Maradona's shadow, Gallardo is burdened by towering expectations here. He is the most accomplished player to join United during it's 12 year history and by far the most compensated. Acquired through MLS's designated player rule, which allows clubs to sign pricey stars outside normal salary guidelines, Gallardo is guaranteed to earn almost $1.9 million this season. Around 25 percent of MLS players are on developmental contracts that pay either $12,900 or $17,700. Gallardo's deal, the third biggest in MLS bheind Los Angeles's David Beckham ($6.5 million) and Chicago's Cuauhtemoc Blanco ($2.7 million), is nearly five times more than his playmaking predecessor for United, compatriot Christian Gomez, and six times more than D.C. striker Luciano Emilion, the reigning league MVP.
So far, the reviews have been mixed. He scored an extraordinary goal against Real Salt Lake on April 26 at RFK Stadium, a crashing volley from an acute angle to cap a 4-1 victory. But during a 2-0 loss Sunday at Colorado, which dropped United's record to 2-4 and left the club at the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings, he was barely noticed and badly overshadowed by Gomez (two assists). “It is still a growing process, understanding what our league is all about” United coach Tom Soehn said “He is adjusting very well. I still expect more from him, but I expect more from everybody”. As Gallardo acclimates to a new team, new league and new country, his teammates have had to adapt to him. Though Gallardo and Gomez play the same position, their styles contrast strikingly. Gomez prefers to push further forward in the attack and take on defenders, more like a withdrawn forward than a midfielder. Gallardo is a traditional playmaker who drops deep in midfield to collect the ball and spray passes in every direction. “Marcello is a guy who will let the ball do most of the work” said defender Bryan Namoff, an eight-year veteran “His distribution beats players, where Christian was the one beating players... it looks like it might take a while to know him and he is slowly getting to understand all of us”. The goal against Real Salt Lake was Gallardo's finest moment, one that drew reaction from friends in Argentina who had seen the replay on the Internet. “El parro cazo una mosca” one playful text message said. Loosely translated: “The dog caught a fly”.
“In Argentina” Gallardo explained “even people who don't know how to play soccer, play soccer. Most kids begin from the moment they start to walk”. Gallardo, though, did not start playing until he was 8 or 9. He played in the streets, in neighborhood parks and indoors, where the tight dimensions teach players to quicken their footwork and decision-making. He was small – these days, he is listed as 5 feet 7 – and acquired the nickname “El Muneco” (the Doll). Gallardo joined River Plate's youth program at age 12 and made his debut with the senior club after he turned 16, the beginning of a seven-year run with Los Millonarios. Every match is vital to the club and it's supporters, but nothing compares to the Boca showdown, known as the superclasico. “Ten days before the match everyone is already talking about it and 10 days after the match, everyone is talking about it” he said “The people make you feel the magnitude of it. The essence of soccer, the folklore tha comes with the game, you live it for weeks”.
As his pro career began to take off, Gallardo earned his way on to the national team. The Australia miss did not endear him to the fans, but Argentina Coach Daniel Passarella envisioned him as a future star. The first big test came at the 1995 Copa America in Uruguay, but instead of solidifying his role, Gallardo was blamed in part for the team's failures, which included a shocking 3-0 loss to the United States in group play and a quarterfinal defeat to nemesis Brazil. At the 1996 Olympics, Gallardo was the second-youngest player on the under-23 squad and helped Argentina claim the silver medal. After a two-year absence from the national team, he earned a spot on the 1998 Wold Cup squad. With Ariel Ortega wearing the No. 10 jersey, Gallardo made one start and entered as a reserve in two matches as Argentina reached the quarterfinals. Four years later in Japan, he sat on the bench for three matches as the team failed to advance past the first round. Between 1999 and 2003, Gallardo starred for Monaco, which competes in the French league. In his second season, he was named the player of the year. Life in Monaco was “nice, nice” he said in rare use of English. Gallardo returned to River Plate and, in 2005-06, scored a career high 11 goals in 23 appearances. A year later, he returned to France, this time with Paris Saint-Germain. However, just two weeks after recruiting Gallardo, Guy Lacombe was fired as coach. Gallardo's style did not fit into replacement Paul LeGuen's plans and his playing time diminished. “The last five or six months I was there were probably the most difficult of my career” Gallardo said.
Then along came D.C. United, which had failed in it's attempt to sign Argentine star Juan Sebastian Veron en was looking for an influential Latin American player. Impressed with United's salary offer and long-term plans, Gallardo negotiated a deal with PSG to release him from his contract. “I wanted a new challenge” said Gallardo, who also weighed offers from clubs in Germany, Argentina and Greece. “People around the world don't understand how well the game is played here. They underestimate it. It is very demanding physically. MLS will continue to evolve”. His transition off the field was a challenge as well. “I am now feeling more comfortable now, but it was very difficult” said Gallardo, who after living in a hotel for two months, rented a house in McLean with his wife and three sons. His eldest, Nahuel, is 9 and plays for a local under-12 team. One problem has followed the family everywhere it has gone: Gallardo's wife, Alejandra, grew up as a Boca supporter. “It is her only defect” he said. Gallardo now must help solve United's defects. “The team is still growing” he said, “it is not only my adjustment, but when you have many new players, it is going to take time. The team will come together, I am sure of it”.
It's good that players such as Gallardo, who in already established leagues have difficulties finding their place, are getting opportunities in emerging leagues such as the MLS. And judging by the report, they were specifically looking for players from the Argentine school of football, and with so many other talented players available that could potentially make the move to the MLS there is quite an opportunity for growth. Certainly an exciting prospect for Argentine football fans in the U.S. who -- if more clubs follow D.C.'s example -- could soon see the players that attracted them to the sport in the first place, now make their trade right around the corner from them.