In Peru, where football forms a major part of the national culture, the name Roberto Palacios is seen as synonymous with the sport. El Chorri, as he is affectionately known in his homeland, has been one of the country’s most outstanding attacking midfielders over the past two decades, and is their record scorer in FIFA World Cup™ qualifying competitions.
At the age of 38, Palacios has added another milestone to his glittering career by completing 20 years as a professional footballer. Having started out at Sporting Cristal, the midfielder had spells at Cruzeiro, Atlas and Deportivo Cali, among others, before coming full circle and rejoining his beloved Cristal.
FIFA.com caught up with the evergreen No10, who bears a tattoo that reads Te amo Peru (I love you Peru), in Lima, where his time is currently split between training and deservedly celebrating his achievement.
FIFA.com: Roberto, first of all, congratulations! How have you managed to keep going for 20 years as a professional footballer? What’s the secret?
Roberto Palacios: My love for the sport is the key. You can’t put a price on doing something that fills you with satisfaction, and in my case it’s physical sacrifice that has allowed me to do it. It’s really important to take good care of yourself and to be a good professional. But it’s not enough just to say it - you have to do it as well! You also need passion. Those are the secrets.
Are you surprised by the response that your achievement has triggered?
Honestly, yes. I really wasn’t expecting it. But friends are the best thing that football has given me. I know I’ve given a lot to both my club and national team, but it still surprises me. Here, people who set a good example are rarely given much publicity. The focus tends to be more on the problems and controversies that surround football. I’d say that this has been good news, and a pleasant surprise for me.
How does it feel to be around team-mates who were not even born when you were starting out in the Primera Division?
It’s true, some of the lads who've just come up to the first-team squad are only 16 or 17 years old. It’s very rewarding, because some of them tell me it was their dream to play alongside me and get to know me. Some of them saw me play when they were children. But I don’t deserve special treatment, and I don’t distance myself from anyone. I like to feel that I’m just another member of the group.
What has changed since you took your first steps in professional football?
A lot of things. It was a very different environment back then, which is something I try to get through to the current youngsters. If they don’t make sacrifices, it’s very difficult for them to forge a successful career. Some young players these days seem to think the world is coming to an end, and that the only important thing is to plan what they’re going to do at the weekend. They rush around thinking about how to have a good time, but I want to help them understand that there is time for everything. It’s easier to think about all of that when you’re already a star.
On a personal level, what would say are your best qualities on the pitch?
A good shot and intelligence. I’ve always been a fast thinker on the pitch and precise when it comes to creating chances. I’d also say my mentality - I’ve never enjoyed losing at anything. Every defeat gives me sleepless nights. I can’t even let myself lose against my son, who is 13 years old! I think it will help him learn how he should behave.
If you had to identify one moment that changed your career, which would it be?
That would be my first experience away from Peru, with Tecos in Mexico. It didn’t go well for me, I missed my family loads and I wasn’t able to fully become part of the group. It really affected me, but I was later lucky enough to have the opportunity to go to Brazil, which I didn’t waste. I excelled in a country full of good players, and this made me realise that I was able to compete with the best.
Is there a league that you would have liked to play in, but never had the chance?
I would have liked to play in Spain, because of the kind of football they play over there. The English and Italian leagues were too physical for me. I was close to joining Deportivo La Coruna in a swap deal, with Sebastian Abreu going to Tecos(Palacios’s club at the time). But in the end the Mexicans wanted more money and they couldn’t reach a deal.
You said a while ago that you were planning to retire at the end of 2012. Is that still your plan?
I’ll play for one more year, that’s right. It’ll be very difficult to leave this all behind. I’ve heard other players say that they really missed the game when they retired, and that they had to go back. But I’ve already started preparing myself for it.
Can we expect to see you coaching any time in the future?
Yes, I hope so. I don’t know if I’ll be any good, because it’s a totally different job. You need to have good anticipation as well as intelligence if you want to lead a group to success, but I will do my best to make it happen.
Before we finish, we’d like to throw a few quick-fire questions at you. Is that OK?
Smiles) Of course! Let’s go.
My passion, the thing I’ve always dreamed of doing.
Sporting Cristal is...?
My dearly beloved second home.
The Peruvian national team is...?
My greatest love in football.
Memorable opponents from the past 20 years?
Argentina, a massive team. I remember coming up against players like Diego Simeone and Matias Almeyda, who were two great footballers and very difficult to get past. They epitomise everything that national team is about.
A coach who made a lasting impression on you?
Juan Carlos Oblitas.
Your most memorable goal?
Against Uruguay in the preliminaries for France 1998. It was a crucial match and we were a goal down, but I scored a beauty that brought us back into the game. We ended up winning 2-1.
Never being able to play at a World Cup.
And finally, a dream for the future?
To lead my national team to a World Cup as coach. I hope it’s something I can achieve.