OUR LOVE AFFAIR WITH LATIN MAESTROS
A sumptuous through ball to Luciano Figueroa ended up with the ball in the back of the Lions XII net.
Shortly after he sent a trademark free-kick beyond the despairing dive of Izwan Mahbud.
Those two moments of brilliance, registered into the annals of Malaysian football on January 28, 2014, did not really epitomise Pablo Aimar’s brief fling with Johor Darul Ta’zim.
Undoubtedly his sheer presence in the southern tip of the Malaysian peninsular was a coup. It was also a marketing strategy to enhance JDT’s growing reputation as a force to be reckoned with in South East Asia.
A player of Aimar’s reputation quickly raised the league profile.
Search engines on Aimar and internet hits on JDT grew by leaps and bounds.
On the pitch however, his eight months in Johor yielded only two goals in eight matches. Still his moments of brilliance, however fleeting, remain unforgettable.
That match against Lions XII at Tan Sri Hassan Yunos Stadium, widely acknowledged as having the best pitch in the country, was one of them.
Shakir Shaari set up Aimar who split the Lions XII defence open with a sublime pass using the outside of his foot, paving the way for Figueroa to slot home inside Izwan’s near post.
Three minutes before the break, another magic was produced by the former Valencia and Benfica maestro.
Defender Afiq Yunos upended JDT attacker Amri Yahyah and Aimar stepped up to send an exquisite 20-metre free-kick over the wall, again leaving Izwan clutching at thin air.
For Malaysian fans fortunate enough to catch a glimpse of Aimar’s entry into the world as he helped Argentina to the 1997 FIFA World Youth Cup title, months shy before he turned 18, it was the majestic touch that they had been waiting for.
Unfortunately it was shortlived. Aimar was axed in April 2014, less than a year into his sojourn in Malaysia.
His compatriot Figueroa, who was signed together with Aimar, however, remained.
Fondly known as Lucho, Figueroa’s goalscoring instincts and work ethics endeared him to JDT faithful. With 11 goals to his name in 2014 Super League, he was second only to Golden Boot winner Paulo Rangel’s 16 goals.
With Aimar’s replacement Jorge Pereyra Diaz firing on all cylinders, the Argentine duo helped JDT to the league title in June and eventually to the Malaysia Cup final before losing to Pahang in a heartbreaking penalty shootout.
Lucho’s cameo role also led JDT to a historic win over Istiklol in the AFC Cup final.
Another matchwinner from Argentina is Matias Conti, who nodded the ball home for Pahang to win the Malaysia Cup in 2013.
Long before Aimar, Lucho and Diaz performed the tango on our shores, Malaysia had grown accustomed to Latin flair.
In 2003, Juan Manuel Arostegui took the Malaysia Cup by storm.
In Division Two of the old format, Arostegui was in such a free scoring mood that he totalled 50 goals, including a hattrick in the Malaysia Cup final as Selangor MPPJ became the first club side to lift the Cup.
Arostegui was ably abetted by again another Argentine, Bruno Martelotto, a midfield dynamo known for his tireless running.
Blazing the trail before them were a long list of Argentines that featured Jose Iriarte, Brian Fuentes, Luis Pablo Pozzuto and Gustavo Fuentes among them.
For Kedah fans who covet Sandro da Silva’s dead-ball expertise, they appreciate the fact the Northern giants had been dancing to the samba in the 90s, with Andre Luis Nascimento pulling the strings in midfield.
The tradition was continued by attacker Marcos Tavares and his left foot before Chilean Nelson San Martin became the vital cog in Kedah’s machinery with his silky skills and curling free-kicks as the Canaries (Kedah’s previous nickname) won the Double Treble in 2007 and 2008.
Most of these Latin maestros were natural crowd-pullers with their technical and tactical abilities surpassing that of their local counterparts.
The flair for finding their team mates with pin-point passes, the final through ball piercing the opponents’ defence, the ability to keep possession with solid shielding skills, the sheer mastery of the ball in slaloming past defenders and above all the knack of scoring goals from dead-ball situations made them cult figures with their respective fans.
Rangel for example was a goal machine who found the net for Perak, Selangor and Terengganu with consummate ease, putting aside his off-the-pitch antics.
The overall standard aside, the Latin maestros could not help but fall in love with the Malaysian weather and hospitality. The fans in return showered them with affection and admiration. The feeling was clearly mutual.