Pablo Aimar was doomed to fail the second he burst onto the scene at River Plate and was christened the next in a long line of “New Maradonas”. To be fair, the similarities between the two are closer than most: both have immaculate technique, an incredible imagination and a deceptive burst of pace, and also bear a physical resemblance with their short stature and curly brown hair.
Breaking through the ranks at River Plate at the same time as fellow Diego-lite Javier Saviola, Aimar won every trophy on offer and drew warm praise from Maradona: “Pablo is the only current footballer I’d pay to watch,” said the die-hard Boca man. “He’s been the best player in Argentina over the last couple of years and is even more talented than Riquelme or Saviola. He’s an adorable kid, too.”
Like Maradona, Aimar’s first European port of call was in Spain. Instead of drawing an even greater comparison like Javier Saviola had suffered by moving to Barcelona, he moved to Valencia, a club with a reputation of its own for harbouring great Argentinian players like Mario Kempes, Claudio Lopez and Roberto Ayala.
Aimar became Valencia’s biggest financial outlay at €22m – a risky fee from a financially precarious club for a 21 year-old – and immediately went about repaying the faith shown in him. In an unspectacular front line, Aimar was obviously a class apart. Given the nickname of “Little Clown”, it didn’t do his considerable talent justice. Far from the comedic clumsiness you would expect from a clown, Aimar had a mesmerising effect with the ball; his faultless control coupled with his low centre of gravity allowed him to make subtle movements appear huge, twisting defenders as he pleased in tiny gaps, and possessing a frankly unnatural ability to tame the ball. He appeared to have lived in the hole all his life, showing an awareness beyond his years. The ingenuous way of computing the game, like a chess player always thinking 3 moves ahead – the amount of times he pops up in the box out of nowhere to follow up a goalkeeper’s parry is unnerving. There was a brutal simplicity to him, and a sense that he didn’t quite belong: compared to the uncompromising defence he played alongside, Aimar was small and slight. Football is full of stories of players rejected because of their size, but Pablito was a special case. His shots had a habit of bobbling in front of the goalkeeper, a difficult save, but also giving the impression he didn’t have the power to shoot properly. This weakness made him appear all the more brilliant, as if he was beating nature itself, but would prove his undoing.
While Maradona was small and quick with curly brown hair, he was stocky – he had a power about him. Aimar did not. Hector Cuper made it clear patience was necessary. “Nobody should judge Pablo by his first few games; he’s not our saviour this season but a Valencia player for years.” Despite instantly becoming a fan favourite, Cuper and his successor Rafa Benitez used Aimar sparingly. He needed easing into the Spanish game and neither were about to drop their team-based philosophies for one player. Instead, Aimar was brought on as a substitute once the opposition were tired, when he could find more space and maximise his strengths. This rationing of chances allowed him to adapt and stay fresh and, by the end of Valencia’s first title-winning season under Benitez, Aimar was at his best, arriving at games bursting with energy and scoring key goals against Tenerife and Deportivo, ensuring his starting place.
Aimar’s slight build would be his downfall; cursed by a series of niggling injuries, he would have less and less time to influence Valencia’s play. By the end of his time at Valencia, he would be hospitalised with acute viral meningitis. Having turned down the chance to go to medical school to play for River Plate, it must have been hugely irritating for Aimar to spend so much time around doctors. His injuries meant he was allowed to leave for Zaragoza, where his injury woes would continue. Upon their relegation in 2008, he fled to Benfica for just €6.5m.
After a difficult first season in Portugal, Aimar seems to be enjoying a renaissance under Jorge Jesus. It is a sign of how good Aimar was that Benfica’s Director of Football Manuel Rui Costa, himself a hugely accomplished number 10, picked him out, but also shows how disappointing his career has been: at 30, he’s playing in one of Europe’s lesser leagues. Sadly, it was completely out of his own control, but disappointing all the same.
Lionel Messi is the only player to come close to living up to the “New Maradona” title, but it is a shame that we will never know how close Pablo Aimar could have come.