Francisco Palencia is one member of a select band of players who have pulled on the shirts of three of Mexico’s four big clubs. Unlike Palencia, however, few have won three league championships with those sides and fewer still have been idolised, like him, wherever he goes.
Even at the age of 38, El Niño (The Kid) still has what it takes to win silverware, as he showed once again in the Mexican league play-off final, scoring goals in both legs to help Pumas UNAM claim their seventh championship success at the weekend, all this coming six months after he almost called time on his career.
Goals here, there and everywhere
It was back in December 2010 that Pumas held a press conference at their training ground to announce the retirement of Palencia and legendary goalkeeper Sergio Bernal. As Bernal waited to face the press, however, and with Palencia yet to take his seat, coach Guillermo Vazquez announced that if the striker was leaving, then so was he. Suitably impressed by that vote of confidence, Palencia decided to stay in the game and the rest, as they say, is history.
Palencia began his illustrious career back in 1994 with Cruz Azul. The youngest member of a star-studded side, he was promptly nicknamed El Niño, not least because of his boyish features. Three years later his goals helped steer Los Cementeros to their first title in a decade.
In the meantime he made his international debut, appearing for Mexico at the Men’s Olympic Football Tournament Atlanta 1996, where he scored a winner against Italy in the group phase. Subsequently cementing his place in the Tricolor set-up, he formed part of Mexico squads at France 1998 and Korea/Japan 2002, and narrowly missed out on selection for South Africa 2010, by which time he had made 80 appearances for his country and scored 12 goals.
On the club front he enjoyed a sensational Copa Libertadores in 2001 before leaving Cruz Azul for Spain’s Espanyol and returning home a year later, this time to join Guadalajara. A talisman during his time at Chivas, he then switched to MLS, joining Chivas USA. Having turned 32 by this time, his intention was to spend two seasons north of the border and then slip quietly into retirement.
A new beginning
Palencia surprised everyone, however, by returning to Mexican football in 2007 with Pumas UNAM, who saw him as an ideal role model for their youngsters to look up to. Yet, the ageless striker has done much more than set an example to the stars of tomorrow, taking the Los Auriazules to two league titles so far and earning the undying admiration of their demanding fans with his wholehearted commitment, no easy task for any player who has not come through the club’s fabled youth academy.
Palencia enjoyed his best season in many a year in the 2011 Clausura, hitting five goals in 15 games, and opening Pumas’ account in the second leg of the play-off final against Monarcas Morelia last Sunday, netting from the spot to set them on the way to a 2-1 win.
With tears in his eyes after the final whistle sounded on their 3-2 aggregate win, he spoke to FIFA.com: “I feel so, so happy. That was a huge dream that’s now become a reality. I’d like to dedicate this win to our wonderful fans and my family, who are always right there with me.”
Six months on from the press conference that never was, and with another league winners’ medal in his possession, the old campaigner is not about to quit the game just yet. “I want to enjoy this title first,” he said. “You have to enjoy things when they happen, and there’ll be plenty of time in the future to think about everything else. Right now what matters is this.”
Instrumental in extending Palencia’s career, coach Vazquez has deployed him in a more withdrawn, creative role, making the most of the ability and skills still at the player’s disposal. “That’s the advantage of having players like him around, with their experience and intelligence,” he told FIFA.com. “They can play at the same level in many different positions and still do a great job.”
Before heading off to the dressing room to continue the celebrations, which spread across the whole of Mexico City, the evergreen Palencia explained the secret of his enduring success: “I’m a worker and I don’t care how big the obstacles are that I find in my path. What counts is hard work, the desire to excel yourself and performing consistently in every training session.”