In a country as prolific at producing footballing talent as Argentina, the margin between success and failure for young hopefuls is incredibly fine. However talented a player is perceived to be at youth level, if after a few years they have not broken into the senior national side or at least cemented a starting berth at a big Argentinian club, they can find themselves unceremoniously branded as ‘not quite good enough’.
A gifted ball-playing midfielder and a former member of Argentina’s U-20 squad, with whom he travelled to the FIFA U-20 World Cup UAE 2003, Walter Montillo for a long time looked set to fall into this category. A product of the San Lorenzo youth system, he returned to El Ciclón with high hopes after helping La Albiceleste finish fourth in the Emirates, only to find opportunities scarce in the seasons that followed.
Eventually loaned out to Mexican side Monarcas Morelia in 2006, he returned to San Lorenzo in 2007 but was never able to convince then coach Ramon Diaz of his worth. Once again a move abroad emerged as Montillo’s chosen course of action, this time on a permanent deal.
“When I signed for Universidad de Chile (in early 2008), a lot of people said I was taking a backwards step, but I never saw it that way,” the attacking midfielder told FIFA.com. “Quite the opposite: it ended up being a decisive stage in my career. The Argentinian way of playing is respected across South America, and that’s why clubs from other countries are always interested in Argentinian players. If you find yourself in a situation where you’re not getting many games, this could turn out to be a great move. I had to start from scratch in Chile but I seized the opportunity and reaped the rewards.”
A player transformed
So huge an impact did he make, those Argentinian fans who had witnessed his travails at San Lorenzo could barely believe that the diminutive No10 was now the inspirational leader of a Universidad de Chile side that won the 2009 Apertura and reached the semi-finals of the 2010 Copa Libertadores. It was in the latter campaign that La U knocked out Brazil’s Flamengo on away goals in the quarter-finals, with Montillo’s stellar display and vital second-leg strike triggering huge interest from Brazilian clubs.
“To be perfectly honest, it really surprised me," he reflected. "Not that there was interest in trying to sign me, but because a Brazilian team was prepared to pay such a large sum (USD 3.5m) for a 26-year-old who was no longer a young prospect." Having signed on the dotted line for Cruzeiro prior to Universidad’s Libertadores semi-final tie with Mexico’s Guadalajara, Montillo joined up with his new team-mates after that last-four exit.
And having spent years in his homeland battling in vain to gain the recognition his creative talents deserved, for the second transfer in a row Montillo touched down with a new club in a new country and immediately made his mark. Despite only making his 2010 Brasileirao debut on matchday 14, the player was still able to earn a spot in the competition’s best XI. He thus became the third Argentinian schemer in recent years, following in the footsteps of Andres D’Alessandro and Dario Conca, to illuminate Brazilian football in a role whose true practitioners are growing ever scarcer: the classic, creative No10.
“Nowadays most coaches prefer to send their teams out with a more cautious approach, using two banks of four players. That means players who suit a creative midfield role end up getting pushed out wide,” is the verdict of the 27-year-old, who as a youngster modelled his game on fellow Argentinian virtuoso Pablo Aimar.
“There are some foreigners catching the eye in Brazilian football as playmakers, but I still think most creative players end up out wide. [Santos’ Paulo Henrique] Ganso is the clearest example of that. In Argentina there’s virtually only [Juan Roman] Riquelme left. Perhaps [Leandro] Romagnoli too, though he’s also being used in a wider role.”
As the genuine string-puller of an attack-minded team like Cruzeiro, Montillo has swiftly become a star of the Brazilian footballing firmament. However, the Brasileirao’s lack of visibility in other South American countries has meant the player’s remarkable upturn in fortunes has not received the recognition it arguably deserves back in Argentina.
“It’s very hard to catch the eye in Argentina because, in general, you only get to watch the goals from the Brazilian championship," Montillo explained. "So, if you’re not the one actually scoring then not many people get to know what you’ve done. Take for example the time I went with Cruzeiro to take on Estudiantes in La Plata in this year’s Libertadores (Editor’s note: Cruzeiro won the group clash 3-0, having already beaten El Pincha 5-0 at home). There, (Argentinian) people had the chance to see me play, and I know that a lot of them were really taken aback.”
One of the consequences of Montillo’s relative obscurity in his homeland is the lack of clamour for his inclusion in Sergio Batista’s Albiceleste squad. And though Batista did work with the player first-hand at San Lorenzo back in 2004 and 2005, when the current Argentina boss was working as assistant coach to Oscar Ruggeri, Montillo is fully aware of the difficulty of breaking into the senior side.
“I know things have been going really well for me, but I also understand that I’ve got no pedigree at senior national-team level and that the competition is fierce,” said the playmaker, clearly trying to curb his enthusiasm when the subject of La Albiceleste is broached. “So, I’m just trying to focus on continuing to play well for Cruzeiro. If anything happens (with the national team) it’ll be because of that.”