Thanks in large part to a tally of 306 goals in a professional career that spanned 19 years, 37-year-old Martin Palermo has etched his name in indelible ink in the annals of the Argentinian game.
Mere hours prior to his last ever match for his beloved Boca Juniors against Gimnasia y Esgrima La Plata on 18 June, the fifth-highest goalscorer in the history of Argentinian professional football honoured FIFA.com with his last interview as a player.
True to form, El Loco spoke fully and frankly on a wide range of issues including his finest goals, worst injuries and imminent future in the dugout.
FIFA.com: Can you put your finger on the exact moment you began thinking about hanging up your boots?
Martin Palermo: It happened in the months before the (2010) World Cup, after I’d started to get called up again by Diego [Maradona]. I felt like it was the last thing my career was missing: getting back into the national squad, captaining the side in friendlies, playing in the odd World Cup qualifier. After the World Cup, since we came back without the Trophy I thought I’d play on for another year to be able to sign off in a Boca shirt. That’s when, with the help of the club’s psychologist, I started to prepare myself for retiring.
Football as a whole hasn’t always welcomed the use of psychologists at clubs, so how did you find the experience?
I started seeing a psychologist back in 1999, when I suffered my first serious injury. It was good to be able to express how I was feeling, such as the fears I experienced before making my comeback. I stopped going in 2000 because I went to play in Spain, but when I came back to Argentina I started again and it’s been a huge help. I’m not someone who thinks there should be a psychologist on the coaching staff itself, but I do think they can really help players with their personal issues.
What about your dealings with the media? How have you coped with all the attention for so many years?
I always try to do my bit for everybody, as I understand that journalists have a job to do too and certain things they need. Talking to them is important, so you can tell the fans what you’re going through, what you’re like off the pitch. That said, you can’t let it get in the way of doing your job. It gets a bit tiring if you’re interviewed Monday through Friday and you end up getting bored of saying the same things over and over.
The media have had a vast number of different opinions on you over the course of your career. Mentally speaking, how do you handle those swings in popularity?
You’ve got to be strong. Some people might say 'I don’t let what they say get to me', but that’s impossible. You’re never short of people coming and telling you what such-and-such journalist said about you. Personally, I don’t buy any papers or magazines, unless I’ve been interviewed and want to save it in a file I have. At the start I used to follow the marks out of ten I was given and what people said, but not anymore. What matters is distinguishing between constructive criticism and stuff that’s simply spiteful.
It dogged me for a long time. You ask yourself ‘why did it have to happen like that?’ and ‘why’d I have to go through something like that?’
Do you think those who write spiteful criticism have a hidden agenda?
There’s a lot of jealousy and envy in football. Some people feel they’re somehow below others and so wait for an opportunity to strike. But that goes on everywhere: among journalists, between players and in the dressing room. I’ve always said that you have to be transparent in all your dealings. In the long term, what goes around comes around and people end up where they deserve to be.
Let us now turn to some of the standout moments of your career. First of all, how much did it mean to score twice against Real Madrid in the final of the 2000 Toyota Intercontinental Cup?
They were the two most important goals I scored in a Boca shirt. That was one of the three biggest moments of my playing career.
What about the three missed penalties against Colombia in the Copa America 1999?
That was a really tough blow which taught me how to overcome negative situations. It dogged me for a long time. It’s replayed on TV every so often and it makes me feel like, I’m not sure how to explain it. You ask yourself ‘why did it have to happen like that?’ and ‘why’d I have to go through something like that?’ But anyway, we could list ten positive instances that I still can’t quite get my head round either.
Would you have taken a fourth penalty that night, had the chance arose?
No, no, at least I don’t think so! I wouldn’t have even gone near the ball. Well, I say that now...
Tell us about the injury you suffered during your time in Spain, when a concrete section of the stand fell on your leg.
That was terrible, I found the rehabilitation period really tough. At least when I injured my knee when at Boca I had my people around me and they fussed over me, kept me company. They didn’t treat me badly over in Spain, but it’s not the same. I got injured just when I was starting to settle and after that everything became twice as hard.
What about your vital last-gasp winner against Peru in South Africa 2010 qualifying?
That’s right up there with the goals against Real Madrid. There were 15 sets of legs in the box, plus the rain, the mud and wind. The ball was soaked, there was water everywhere and we were set to miss out on the World Cup. Just as you mentioned the missed penalties against Colombia before, this was another of those instances that somehow happened to me. The ball landed right at my feet! I was stood there and the ball came straight to me. If the people who say my career’s been like a movie are right, then that goal deserves to feature.
Where would you rank your goal against Greece at South Africa 2010 in that case?
It was the ultimate in every way. In national-team colours, at a World Cup, at 36 years of age and having only been on the pitch for ten minutes – I couldn’t have asked for any more.
One can’t help thinking about Diego Milito, given that he was on the pitch for 80 minutes that evening and no chances came his way.
That’s why I say that it seems like I’ve been touched by a magic wand on certain occasions. For example, I only played a few minutes that day. But then again, Diego scored the goals that won the Champions League (in 2010), something that I never experienced. I think that we all have certain things that are marked out for us to go through in our lives and, though you still have to go out looking for them, they’re destined to happen. The most important thing is not to sit there with your arms folded, waiting for them to happen to you.
You’ve been fortunate enough to play on the same side as both Diego Maradona and Lionel Messi. Is there anyone else you’d have liked to have played alongside?
Ronaldo. I came up against him in the Copa America and in a game between Villarreal and Real Madrid. I’ve got one of his shirts and I really admire him both for his quality and everything he stands for. I’d have loved to have played up front with him.
You’ve had long hair, a short, peroxide-blond crop and also dark hair with a blond quiff. Looking back, which suited you best?
The quiff but, apart from the furore it caused, it didn’t do me much good. The peroxide-blond look wasn’t bad, but I think that the highlights I’ve got nowadays suit me pretty well (laughs). At least I can keep it like this for a few more years, the dyed-blond look and the quiff would have been impossible.
We players always say we should have a football on our bedside table, so we can give thanks to it when getting up in the morning and before going to bed at night.
When you first joined Boca back in 1997, you found goals hard to come by. If you were able to go back in time and speak to that Martin Palermo, what would you tell him?
I’d tell him to keep working and putting in the effort, and not to panic. You can end up being driven mad at a club like Boca, but if you let it get to you then you’re finished. That’s happened to loads of good players who, once they pull on this shirt, haven’t been able to show what they’re capable of.
In your farewell appearance at the Bombonera you were given one of the goals. Do you know what you’re going to do with it?
I thought about donating it to the club museum, but it’s too big! With that, and the monument they’re going to put up, it’d be too much. Purely for convenience, I’ll try to put it in a sports complex I have in La Plata. Or maybe we can build a tourist attraction around Palermo’s goal! (smiles)
Were you surprised by that gift?
Totally, I didn’t have a clue. I could see the cranes and I didn’t know what they were doing there, whether they needed them to lift me up or what! I didn’t expect it, but I really like the idea: the ball and the goal were part of my life.
You’ve already stated that you intend to pursue a career in coaching. Would you only coach Boca or are you open to offers?
Of course, except for River [Plate] and Gimnasia [y Esgrima La Plata], out of respect for my principles and my relationship with Boca and Estudiantes [La Plata]. Those aside, I’d be prepared to coach other teams. Let’s see what the future holds.
Finally, what would you like to say to the world of football as a whole, as you sign off as a player?
I like to say how grateful I am for everything the game’s given me. We players always say we should have a football on our bedside table, so we can give thanks to it when getting up in the morning and before going to bed at night. And I think that’s how it should be: I’ve spent 15 or 20 years in the game. I owe it so much and I’ll always be grateful.