This year’s Serie A season got off to a belated start due to player strikes and international football meaning the kick-off was delayed until the 9th of September. But what a start it was. AC Milan fought back a two goal deficit to draw 2-2 with Lazio at San Siro and the goal glut continued throughout the weekend, right up until Sunday night at the Stadio Renzo Barbera in Sicily as Palermo entertained Internazionale.
With 74 minutes on the clock and the score locked at 2-2 Mauricio Pinilla was summoned by caretaker head coach Devis Maniga – long story simplified by two words; Maurizio Zamperini – to replace Uruguayan Abel Hernandez. Two loose touches from the mercurial Chilean moments after coming on gave the impression that he was still trying to rid himself of rust picked up from the recent niggling injuries which have besot his career. Yet La Rosanero went ahead when Pinilla’s strike partner Fabrizio Miccoli bent a free-kick inside Julio Cesar’s near post.
As Internazionale pushed for the equaliser Palermo worked the ball to Pinilla who had drifted left dragging Inter’s three man backline with him. Turning into the space he let fly with a shot which could have been mistaken for a heat-seeking missile; Julio Cesar’s goal the target. The Brazilian ‘keeper, without the necessary time to position himself, could only stand in awe of the Chilean’s wonder strike that brought the Renzo Barbera to its feet, the camera cutting away to the ecstatic Maniga and then to Gian Piero Gasperini, Inter’s despondent manager – now departed.
That moment, swivelling inside and unleashing the venomous effort, highlighted the quality that Mauricio Pinilla possesses. The quality that prompted fans to dub him ‘Pinigol’. The quality that fans of Universidad de Chile, Internazionale, Chievo, Celta, Sporting CP, Racing Santander, Heart of Midlothian, Vasco de Gama, Apollon Limassol, Grossetto and Palermo had only seen in sporadic bursts or even not at all; earning him the moniker ‘professional journeyman’ on Wikipedia.
But it was meant to be so different for Pinilla. After all this was a player Inter Milan themselves paid over £2m for at the age of 19 when he took the Chilean Primera Division by storm. Making his debut in 2002, aged 18, for one of Chile’s famous sides, Universidad de Chile, he would go on to find the net 20 times in only 39 appearances.
Barely 19 he had announced himself on the international scene with a debut goal for the Chilean national side in a 2-0 friendly win against their Andean rivals Peru; Chile had a new star striker. One which had the all-round ability to play at the top level in European football and emulate Chile’s deadly duo: Marcelo Salas and Ivan Zamarano. Powerful, intelligent, technically adept with a deadly shot; ‘Pinigol’ was the natural successor.
He followed the path trodden by Salas and more specifically Zamarano by heading for the Italian peninsula and Internazionale. But before pulling on the Nerazzuri shirt he was sent to Chievo Verona on a five-month loan. Back at the San Siro at the beginning of 2004 but only as a passer-by, he headed to Galicia in the north-west of Spain, signing on loan at Celta Vigo. Despite appearances in the club’s Champions League clashes with Arsenal, his six-month spell proved fruitless, struggling to find his Universidad de Chile form in front of goal.
Pinilla was like so many young other players signed by Italian teams with bulging squads; punted around on loan with little hope of gaining experience in the first team of the club that signed him. A year of his career was consigned to the dustbin, and so Mauricio Pinilla embarked on his nomadic career as the ‘professional journeyman’.
A transfer to Portugal in the summer of 2004 as Sporting Lisbon purchased half of the Chilean’s contract looked to be the perfect move to kick-start Pinilla’s career in Europe. That season he’d finally be given ample playing time, amassing 20 appearances in the Portuguese Superliga and UEFA Cup. He managed to find the back of the net six times, including a ferocious strike against AZ Alkmaar in the UEFA Cup – akin to the goal against Inter. A competent return for a young striker still finding his feet in Europe.
However that same season saw the striker break-down in training at the Estadio Jose Alvalade, carried from the field after suffering a knee injury, leading to a lengthy spell on the sidelines. It was a sight that would become all too familiar.
The following season Pinilla would be back in Spain this time with Racing Santander on loan after only appearing in seven of Sporting’s games in the first half of the season – one of which saw a goal scored against Udinese in the Champions League qualifiers. In Santander he was given a sustained run in the team but as at Celta Vigo he could not find the net on a regular basis. His time in Spain and Portugal was up.
Pinilla’s next port of call was on British shores, signing for Heart of Midlothian in July 2006 on yet another loan deal. A signing that brought cautious excitement to Tynecastle. Fans realised that a player of Pinilla’s calibre wouldn’t be at the club unless he carried baggage but the unerring feeling was if he could play to his potential the club will have unearthed a gem. A goal in his first start for the club only increased the excitement amongst the fans and Pinilla himself. The Chilean announcing: “I’ve started to fall in love with football again”.
Only that ‘love’ proved to be a fling. Intermittent appearances, six to be exact, concluded with a sublime performance away to Aberdeen where he showed everything he could be. Assisting a goal and netting a fine team goal in a 3-1 win before being sent-off; a booking for celebrating and a booking for kicking the ball away. An apt final appearance in Scotland. For now.
Injuries and a failure to settle in Scotland, Pinilla returned to Chile and Universidad de Chile on loan in January 2007 after Hearts had bought out his Sporting contract. Rather than recovering from injury and focusing on playing for La U he courted controversy off the field, allegedly bedding Luis Jimenez’s wife, leading to an altercation between the pair – Pinilla was admitted to hospital with injuries and head trauma – and a period of inaction for the national side. After all Jimenez was the national team captain at the time.
La U, like most in Chile, had had enough of Pinilla’s nightlife antics and playboy lifestyle, terminating his loan. Pinilla found himself back in Scotland with Hearts, his return exciting the fans who had been crying out for a quality striker with some treating him as a cult hero because of his personality. He was greeted with a large Chilean flag ‘welcoming ‘Pinigol’ back’ on his first reappearance at Tynecastle. But the promise would end quicker than his first spell. Making two short substitute appearances he spent the season on the sidelines due to a wrist injury and knee ligament damage.
It emerged the striker had been suffering from depression. Instead of consigning him to the scrapheap Hearts owner Vladimir Romanov paid for treatment to help Pinilla, moving him to Lithuania to help his recovery. Romanov went to the bizarre lengths of giving the Chilean dancing lessons having recently won Lithuania’s version of Strictly Come Dancing. It looked as if could be the turning point in his career. He had started a family and appeared to want to settle in Scotland with Hearts. The club had bought out Inter Milan’s half of his contract and offered him a further three-year deal on generous terms only to renege and offer a contract on partial terms.
Pinilla, disheartened by the club’s stance, continued his jet-setting of world football following his release by the Edinburgh club; short spells in Brazil with Vasco da Gama and Cyprus with Apollon Limassol. At that point 25 years-old, Pinilla, with the ability at his behest, should have been starring for a club in a major European league, fulfilling the potential the Chilean nation saw in him as he thundered into action as an 18-year-old. Seven years of globetrotting should have been seven years of writing himself into Chile’s footballing folklore alongside Salas and Zamarano.
That was two-years ago. In the intertwining period that potential started to come to fruition. Back in Italy, where many Chilean footballers are now earning a living, Pinilla stepped down to Serie B and Tuscan side Grosseto on freedom of contract in 2009.
What was to follow was exactly what was expected of the striker in back in 2002. Goals. And lots of them. Not only was he scoring but he was playing more than usual. In 24 games he managed eleven 90 minutes. More 90 minutes than he had managed since leaving Univerisdad de Chile in 2003. In those 24 games he scored the Messi-like figure of 23 goals. That figure included goals in 12 consecutive games, breaking a fellow South American’s record of scoring in 11 consecutive games; an Argentinean striker by the name of Gabriel Batistuta. ‘Batigol’.
From a glance at his goals for Grosseto on YouTube you could tell Pinilla was enjoying his football; the ferocity at which he attacked headers, his quick feet, confidently dispatched penalties and joyous celebrations. He was having fun. Those goals were worth 20 points, propelling Grosseto to a respectable seventh place finish and Pinigol back to Serie A. His goal scoring exploits and all-round play saw links to Udinese and Fiorentina and even more illustrious Italian clubs but the Chilean who holds an Italian passport opted for Sicilian’s Palermo.
Back in Serie A after an absence of six years Pinigol seamlessly settled into his new surroundings and a team that included the talents of Javier Pastore, Josep Ilicic, Fabrizio Miccoli and the management of Delio Rossi. A magnificent performance playing as a lone forward away to Juventus as Palermo ran out 3-1 winners in Turin began a run in the team – starting eight consecutive matches while scoring in four. Another injury hampered his return to Serie A, restricting him to ‘just’ the 31 games and nine goals.
Off the field he had similar success, finding the right balance for him and his family and declaring a willingness to put down roots in Sicily recognising he had squandered some of his best years in football. Telling media back home:
“In the past I have been wasteful with my talent. Hopefully this season I can play at least 40 games, score goals and help the team. My family is happy and people love me. When a player has a good environment, it is difficult to escape.”
Pinilla has already managed five games, including THAT goal against Inter, and it is only a matter of time before he finally adds to his haul of 21 caps for the national side. Call-ups have come his way but injuries once again restricted his involvement to the frustration of the public back home who want to see ‘Pinigol’ succeed. But it is not too late for Pinilla to make his mark in international football. He has ‘arrived’ just in time to help fire Chile to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil and that could start in the World Cup qualification double header against rivals Peru and Argentina.
Now 27, Mauricio Pinilla’s career looks like it is finally beginning to fall into place after a belated start. With the career he has had, who is to begrudge him a period of settled football, scoring goals, free of injury and controversy. And he may go some way to emulating the heroics of Salas and Zamarano.