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A Tribute to Rodrigo Palacio: The Right Player at the Wrong Time

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As old Rat-Tail looks set to leave Inter, a salute to a player who deserved better

FC Internazionale v Udinese Calcio - Serie A Photo by Emilio Andreoli/Getty Images

The first time I heard anyone mention the idea of Rodrigo Palacio coming to Inter was in summer of 2011. He was requested by our brand new manager, Gian Piero Gasperini, who had previously coached him at Genoa. I was completely against it. It seemed like a classic minor league move – a coach from a smaller side who was in over his head, looking to bring in a small-club player just because he knew him. Palacio was a good striker and all, but his stature just didn’t seem to compare to the players we had on the team. After all, he was already 29, and had never attracted much interest from any of the bigger clubs. Plus, there was that godawful rat-tail. This was Inter! A club that played in the Champions League every year without fail, the club of International Men of Mystery like Zanetti, Figo, Ibrahimovic, Maicon. Surely we had a higher standard to uphold. It didn’t help that Gasperini was in favor of selling off Wesley Sneijder – the Wesley Sneijder! – and didn’t seem particularly enamored with Giampaolo Pazzini, who had been a huge asset for us in the previous half-season. What was this guy’s problem? I mean, Palacio?

Gasperini’s master plan was to play an attacking trident with Diego Milito in the center, Samuel Eto’o on the left, and Palacio on the right. Instead, we kept Sneijder and Pazzini, and sold off Eto’o to a big-money Russian club that may or may not have been an elaborate pyramid scheme. Instead of signing Palacio, we went for both Diego Forlan and Mauro Zarate. I don’t need to tell you what happened next. I have little doubt that Gasperini would have been a flop at Inter no matter what – his three-man defense was a travesty, he was undermined every step of the way, and Inter was already beginning a steep drop-off even if no one yet knew how bad it was about to get. But a frontline of Eto’o-Milito-Palacio…yeah, that might not have been the worst idea. Especially considering Palacio went on to score 21 goals for Genoa that season. (In the same period at Inter – Forlan: 2; Zarate: 2; Pazzini: 5.)

Oops.

Next summer, Palacio arrived. At that point, my expectations for this club had declined substantially. Sneijder was already halfway through the door, having never regained his old form. Forlan, Zarate and Pazzini were all quietly shipped out. So I took a wait-and-see attitude to Rodrigo.

That season was a heartbreaker, the second of many, but Palacio endeared himself to me and everyone else almost immediately. Like his compatriot Milito, he was a quiet, no-nonsense type who let his game speak for itself. He ran himself ragged in every match he played, not only scoring goals and bagging assists, but also just working his ass off. He dropped deeper than the other strikers to get the ball, he tracked back the furthest on defense, and even when he wasn’t scoring, he made run after run after run that opened up play for his teammates. Watching him that season and the next reminded me of Quicksilver in the X-Men – you’d see a cluster of players, you’d blink, and then Palacio would have magically emerged into acres of open space. A teammate would be holding the ball in the attacking third, Palacio would suddenly appear on one edge of your TV screen, and then he’d be clear on goal on the other side before his markers even realized he was there.

Palacio has always been one of the shortest players on our squad, yet he scored header after header, which is a testament to his movement and instincts. In spite of his height, he even played emergency goalkeeper for the last 15 minutes of a Coppa match, and pulled off two pro-level saves. We all remember Milito’s horrible injury in that Europa League tie, but what we might not remember is that Palacio went on to score a brace as soon as they’d stretchered him off, and quickly took up a real leadership role. That season wasn’t officially over until Palacio got hurt, too.

He had plenty of spectacular moments here. His backheel strike against Milan will forever be a part of pre-Derby highlights reels. His goal against Juve in that 3-1 victory drove a stake through the hearts of zebras everywhere. Against Torino he pioneered the loping dolphin header long before Van Persie got all the credit for it. There was that goal in the Europa League where he took a pass near midfield, mischievously knocked the ball all the way into the box ahead of him, chased it down, then chipped it a good 30 feet skyward, landing it gently in the net. I’ve never seen him happier than in Zanetti’s farewell, where he scored twice against Lazio and celebrated with Pupi with all the enthusiasm of a man who’d just won a title, rather than a moral victory at the end of a disappointing season. But more than anything I think of his intense professionalism, and the fact that even after his goal-scoring touch had abandoned him in recent years, he’d still be out there darting around the pitch with all the speed he had left, trying to make something, anything, happen.

Football is a game full of what-ifs, and they’re usually rather pointless. But it’s hard not to throw them around with Palacio. I already posited one – what if he’d gotten to play alongside Eto’o back when Inter still had some cachet in the world game? But I think about even more than that. What if Palacio had joined Inter at the beginning of a winning cycle instead of at the end? What if Inter had signed him instead of Pandev back in 2010? What if we’d brought him in from Boca ourselves, instead of signing Quaresma or Mancini? What if he’d had the chance to ply his trade for a major club back when he was still at the top of his game?

Or hell, what if he’d been exactly the same player, but just had a louder personality? We like to think of football as essentially a meritocracy: you perform on the pitch, you become a star and get paid commensurately. But that’s really not entirely true. Image counts for a lot, and the marketing gurus have their tentacles in everything. So what if Palacio hadn’t been a soft-spoken, sincere, working-class player with a decidedly non-photogenic haircut? What if he’d been really into talking shit on Twitter, dating supermodels, endorsing any product that would pay him, and breakdancing after every goal? What if he’d been introduced to a slick celebrity stylist who made him cut the rat-tail, sit for a few tattoo sessions, and schedule an appointment with Wayne Rooney’s hair-transplant guy? Would the champagne clubs have paid more attention? Would the media at least have put a spotlight on just how good he was?

The greatest tragedy of Palacio’s career is that he never got to play in the Champions League, and thus never really had that spotlight when he most deserved it. It wasn’t until the 2014 World Cup, as his decline had already started to set in, that he finally got real worldwide exposure, and quite a few of the supposedly “expert” TV commentators had obviously never heard of him. “Here comes…Rigoberto Placido,” they’d say as he jogged onto the pitch. “My my, what a bizarre hairstyle.” Palacio made it all the way to the WC final, and his time in it will only be remembered for his miss in extra time. Bad miss, for sure. But it happens to everyone. Higuain has a whole catalogue of clutch misses for Argentina, including one earlier in that very match, and no one uses it to define his career.

It’s no mystery why Palacio is leaving us now. He’s about to turn 35, and he hasn’t been a goal-threat for some time. I don’t think anyone thinks he’s leaving too early. He might go have another spin with his old mentor Gasperini at Atalanta, but it seems more likely he’ll wind down his career back at Boca like so many of their prodigal stars. I hope he enjoys the victory lap, and scores a few golazos for old-time’s sake. He deserves it; he’s had a damn good career. Not a great career, perhaps, but a lot of that really comes down to circumstance. He scored 22 goals in his first season here, and 19 goals in the next, and he did this in an era when most of his service was coming from guys like Nagatomo, Jonathan, Guarin…god, remember Belfodil? He was a transitional figure at this club – he came too late for the glory days of Mileto’o, and was too soon to be part of whatever’s next. (Icardirardi? Gabideschi? Biabiamania?) But Palacio was one of the best things about Inter during one of the worst times for Inter. That’s nothing to sneeze at. I almost even started to like that damn rat-tail.