When the referee blew his whistle to mark the end of River Plate’s home game with Velez Sarsfield last Sunday, the Estadio Monumental responded with a mighty roar. The 1-0 victory has put Los Millonarios within touching distance of the 2014 Argentinian Torneo Final title, which would be their first trophy since suffering the trauma of relegation to the second division in 2011.
The man who scored the all-important goal was Colombian striker Teofilo Gutierrez, who has played a vital role in pushing River right into championship contention with just four games remaining.
Speaking to TV reporters after the match, with his right ankle encased in ice and 40,000 fans celebrating around him, the 28-year-old forward chose to give a very close relative the credit for his rich vein of form: “I dedicate this goal to my grandmother, who’s celebrating her birthday today. The corn pancakes she makes help me score more and more goals every day.”
Talking to FIFA.com a few days earlier, Teo offered up another reason as to why he is in the form of his life: “The skill I have for the game and the joy I play it with are gifts from God. I know I can help my team out with a goal or a pass at any time and that gives me a lot of confidence in myself and in my team-mates.”
It was those same qualities that Colombia coach Jose Pekerman saw in September 2012, when he gave Gutierrez a starting place in the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™ qualifier against Uruguay, ahead of Jackson Martinez and Dorlan Pabon.
It was not long before that international outing that Gutierrez, who always carries a Bible in his bag, showed a more problematic side to his character, during his first spell in Argentinian football, which was successful at first but ended with an unsavoury incident.
There aren’t many coaches you enjoy working with. He knows about football and nobody can say we don’t know our stuff. I’ll always be grateful to him, whether I play or not.
It came with Racing Club, where he enjoyed some memorable afternoons and some forgettable ones, being sent off four times before pulling a toy revolver on a team-mate during a dressing-room argument. That rush of blood to the head led first to a loan move to Lanus, where he scored just one goal, and then a subsequent move back to Colombia and his hometown club Atletico Junior.
Pekerman the believer
At that time in his career it was not easy to put one’s faith in Gutierrez. Carlos Valderrama made his opinion of the player abundantly clear on television and the goals refused to come for him at Junior.
Pekerman saw things differently, however, and Teo responded, scoring twice in that game against the Uruguayans and going on to become a perfect strike partner to Radamel Falcao and his country’s second-highest scorer in the Brazil 2014 preliminaries.
“When I was a boy I always asked God to give me the chance to play in a World Cup,” said the player, who is recovering from a ligament strain in his right ankle. “It’s very beautiful, a privilege. I’d love to be there, to enjoy it and go and run around on the pitch. I’m preparing as hard as I can to show that, though all I’m thinking about right now is River and the present. We want to fight for the title. We know it won’t be easy but we can do it.”
Though the chance to win the Argentinian title with the team he has supported since he was a boy is motivation enough for Gutierrez, the World Cup is firing his imagination like nothing else.
“It’s played every four years and the world’s greatest players are getting ready to give their all,” he explained. “We know it’s a very evenly balanced group, with Greece, Côte d’Ivoire and Japan, but the fans are giving us huge support, which gives us energy and helps us work hard every day. We hope to reach the level we all want and that Colombia has the ability to achieve.”
Acknowledging the peace of mind Pekerman gives him, he said: “There aren’t many coaches you enjoy working with. He knows about football and nobody can say we don’t know our stuff. I’ll always be grateful to him, whether I play or not.”
As Gutierrez went on to say, Los Cafeteros will need their biggest star, the injured Falcao, if they are to give themselves every chance of success in Brazil: “It’s a serious injury but we know he’s going to make it. We have every confidence in God.”
Explaining why he has formed such a lethal partnership with El Tigre, he then added: “We can both score, we’re technically gifted and we complement each other well. Defenders know they can’t give anything away against us.”
A happy but tough upbringing
Gutierrez learned that technique and the gift for making the most of any situation, even if it means provoking opposition players, in the streets of La Chinita, a working-class neighbourhood on the outskirts of Barranquilla.
“It was a very hard place to live in,” he said of an area that is home to humble, hard-working people but which is also ridden with gang violence and fear. “You lived on the edge there, but I still managed to enjoy myself to the limit, playing any game. That was where I learned to value life, to cherish it and to be a strong man. My parents showed me the right path: to play a football and be a good person.”
He owes his faith in God to his evangelist mother Cristina, while his father Teofilo, a former goalkeeper with Junior – the club Teo started out with – use to give him footballs for presents. In the meantime, he did early morning shifts in a fishmonger’s or ground corn for the pancakes his grandmother sold in the street. And all the while he waited for a magical event that came once every four years.
“Watching the World Cup was something else,” he explained. “Everyone in the neighbourhood would get together, we’d put a TV in the street and we’d watch the games. I remember 1998 very clearly, with Ronaldo, Rivaldo and the rest. We loved to watch good football, to see someone stroke the ball around, to hide it from the opposition and enjoy themselves on the pitch, which is the most important thing.”
The front man could have gone the way of many other boys in La Chinita, but his love for football gave him an alternative and the opportunity to now dream of winning a league title with River and starring for Colombia in a World Cup.
“My family and friends helped me a lot and taught me all about football, which stopped me from ending up in a gang,” he added, wrapping up our chat. “I wanted to be a professional and wear my country’s shirt. I had a dream and I’m not going to let it slip away, not for anyone or anything.”